I, spy: In praise of Callan, the dirty, self-hating British TV detective

'Callan' started the genre, and 'Edge of Darkness' was its high point. But just try telling the Yanks that we Brits invented the brilliant, self-hating TV detective...


The setting: A bare basement room furnished with only a plain table and a chair on either side

Present: Hard-boiled interrogator Michael "The Yank" Amante and Bill "The Brit" Barker, blindfolded but unbowed

The charge: Cultural imperialism

The case: "Missing" tapes of "Callan" are finally coming out on DVD – which this guy Barker is hailing as a more important show than "NCIS". Who do these Brits think they are with their snobby attitudes? We'll teach them a thing or two...

Bill Barker: No need to make threats. I'll tell you everything.

Michael Amante: Good.

I'll speak slowly; I'll even enunciate. I know how you Yanks panic at anything besides Received Pronunciation...

Whatever. Let's start with the missing tapes.

Well, for a start, they're not missing any more. Not all of them, anyway. Turns out, of the 21 episodes of Callan that ABC Weekend Television transmitted between July 1967 and April 1969, only 10 have been wiped – a fairly modest desecration by early television standards. Which leaves 11 black-and-white episodes still very much extant. And after being unseen for almost 30 years, they're being released to the public – "declassified", if you must – on DVD later in February.

I see. And this is significant why?

Good lord, do you really have to ask? Callan is only one of the touchstones in British television drama. It gripped viewers and thrilled critics – and defined much of the landscape that we know today.

All those unhappy, self-loathing TV detectives? The sense of a rudderless world, where the lines dividing good and evil are so muddied as to be unrecognisable? The idea of espionage as a job rather than a vocation – and a lousy job, at that? They mostly originated with James Mitchell's creation and Edward Woodward's performance. Before Callan, British telly was all Dr Finlay's Casebook and Dixon of Dock Green and It's Tarbuck; after it, the world seemed so much more ambiguous, dangerous and... well, exciting, I suppose.

I mean, for Callan fans – and, indeed, for devotees of British television drama in general – this is like the lifting of the Official Secrets Act.

All right, all right. Keep your voice down. Or we'll break another one of your fingers.

Sorry. I'm just rather excited. When you spend time in the archives as I have, you're constantly struck by the sense of lost history. So many shows have been destroyed, so many tapes wiped. So many great performances consigned to oblivion ...

These first two seasons might show their age – the early black-and-white video technology is hardly what you'd call luxurious – but it doesn't matter. In fact, it rather suits the gloomy, degrading tone of the whole thing.

Plus, you get to see Woodward's already note-perfect early work on the character, and enjoy some of the toughest, finest scriptwriting of the entire spy genre. There's even the original Armchair Theatre teleplay, "A Magnum For Schneider", which kicked the whole thing off

So it's still relevant, then? Not just another of your British museum-pieces?

Actually, it's both: a snapshot of a particular period in British drama – when a few series began to aspire to the writerly virtues of the televised Plays For Today – and a classic that transcends its time, and retains a certain relevance for modern-day viewers.

The show's final episode – where a captured Russian agent asks Callan to kill him before he can be turned over to Her Majesty's interrogators – where it's implied (quite correctly, of course) that he'll be tortured... well, does that not have a certain piquancy, shall we say, for viewers today?

I'll be asking the questions, thanks very much. I hardly think we need you to tell us about spying.

Oh yes, you Americans invented that, didn't you? How careless of me to forget. And the spy novel, of course. John Buchan and John Le Carré and Graham Greene – all just naïve missteps. Nothing compared to the stylistic élan of a Tom Clancy.

It's funny. People talk about the so-called Special Relationship between our two countries... but in fictional terms, it mostly amounts to us inventing and you debasing. Or "dumbing it down", as you'd say. I mean, look at Edge of Darkness. You know it?

No.

BBC series, made in 1985. One of the jewels in the crown of British television drama. A man – Ron Craven, a Yorkshire cop – sees his activist daughter gunned down in front of him. But what he believes at first to be an underworld hit, a common revenge killing, turns out to be something much, much darker and more complex. Something keyed to specific Cold War terrors – the arms race, the threat of nuclear annihilation, the desecration of the planet's ecosystem. This was one of the first TV series to take the threat to the environment seriously. Its maker, Troy Kennedy Martin, was an early convert to James Lovelock's Gaia Hypothesis, you see: the belief that the Earth is a single, self-sustaining organism.

It was elegantly written, superbly acted and directed, and imbued with this incredible mood, this sense of malign forces operating just off stage, interests too vast and powerful to overcome. That's what you remember most about it: this ominous, beautifully sustained tone.

So what do you Yanks do? Make it a Hollywood movie, of course. Bring in Mel Gibson – effectively his first role post-meltdown – and turn it into a contemporary thriller. Oh, it's still Edge of Darkness – more or less. But all the subtlety is lost along with the feeling of ripped-from-the-headlines urgency. And with them goes the whole point.

Variety magazine put it best – the outlines are intact, they said, but the edge is gone. Which is especially sad, considering it's by the same director as the original series: Martin Campbell. Now there's a chap who's gone over to the other side ...

You're not in a position to pass judgement on anybody, pal.

I suppose not. See, the original series happened when it did for a reason. It was very much a product of its time: the dismal mid-1980s, the era of Reagan and Thatcher – and the very real threat of a nuclear conflict. Whereas today, a quarter-century on from all that, it's just another glossy thriller, jostling for space alongside films such as Syriana and Breach.

Fine. But back to this Callan guy...

There's a Callan on American television right now – did you know that? On NCIS: Los Angeles; he's played by Chris O'Donnell. But is he a hard-bitten loner, eaten away inside by the knowledge of what he has to do every day? Of course not. He's a buff, handsome young man in "distressed denim" – and yes, that's a quote – who runs around with his team "uplinking data" and blowing things up. He spells it "Callen", but I dare you to tell me that that name is a coincidence.

The show's glossy nonsense, all high-tech and fire-fights... quintessentially American. And his sidekick! Edward Woodward had Russell Hunter as the morbid, desperate Lonely. Who does our American Callen have? LL Cool J, yes, the man whose name stands for Ladies Love Cool James. I mean, really, you can't make this stuff up.

Spoken like a typical Brit. You're such fucking snobs.

Well, indeed. And that's precisely what you chaps never understand. Espionage has always been about class for us. The whole field's positively riddled with it.

Look at those early Le Carré novels: a bunch of Oxbridge toffs running their operatives with lordly dispassion. Like the whole thing's an extension of fagging. There's nothing remotely egalitarian about it. Nor do you ever have the sense that the world they're trying to preserve is one that any besides a few Evelyn Waugh-type old duffers might care to live in. And the foot-soldiers know it. They're totally disenfranchised, utterly expendable.

You Americans prefer to think in broad terms. "Freedom", "democracy"... they're all absolute values, I suspect because your secret services are, at heart, as aspirational as every other aspect of your society. Whereas British spy stories tend to see things as inherently compromised from the outset. And so our best yarns are about individuals: haunted men in a deeply unpleasant milieu, struggling for victories that are pyrrhic at best. Men like Callan, or Ron Craven.

They're also self-critical stories, dedicated to uncovering the worst of our own government's dealings. Whereas most of yours seem fixated on outside enemies – back in the day, Mexican druglords, Soviet sleepers; latterly, the all-purpose figure of the "terrorist".

The problem is, lately we've begun to adopt your values. A show like Spooks is engaging enough, but it's also distinctly American in aesthetic: slickly packaged, team-oriented. Its most identifiably British quality is a willingness to kill off leading characters at unpredictable moments, the kind of authorial ruthlessness that's served us well from Blake's 7 on through to Torchwood.

Oh, and by the way: that profanity before? It doesn't make you more real, you know. You can drone on all you like about the "gritty" texture of shows such as The Wire. But if Callan proves anything, it's that we were doing gritty and downbeat when you were still hung up on Matt Helm and Maxwell Smart.

The fact is, without HBO, you'd still be thinking that Law and Order was the height of sophisticated TV drama instead of the hackneyed formula it is.

Anyway, that's enough. I'm bored. I'm not saying any more.

Don't make me get rough with you...

"Get rough"? My dear fellow, look at me. I'm a Cambridge-educated white male with a First in Classics. I'm bound and blindfolded. I'm no longer even sure what country I'm in. Frankly, it's only the hope that you – or some other, equally brutal chap – might "get rough" with me, that made me do this in the first place.

'Callan: The Monochrome Years' will be released on Network DVD on 22 February. 'Edge of Darkness' (15) is on general release

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