Callan: Volume One – Starring Ben Miles, Frank Skinner, Nicholas Briggs, Jane Slavin,, Nicholas Asbury, David Rintoul, Justin Avoth, Glen McReady, Louis Tamone, Tam Williams, Mark Elstob, Robert Portal, Annabelle Dowler, Gyuri Sarossy, Beth Goddard, Teddy Kempner & Leighton Pugh. Written by James Mitchell, Adapted by Peter Mitchell & Directed by Ken Bentley – 4xCD / Download (Big Finish)
A year or two back I’d have been a bit nervous about this. Big Finish taking on one of my favourite old television properties, a series with a very distinct look and feel and a very distinctive lead actor. Hmm, colour me concerned. But that was before I listened to their superb adaptations of the first series of The Avengers which proved, if proof be needed, that there is more to the BF bow than just Doctor Who.
Callan might not be quite as familiar to genre fans as The Avengers, though, so perhaps a bit of background would be in order. The series was shown on the ITV network from 1967 to 1972, a spin-off from a successful edition of the play strand, Armchair Theatre Aa Magnum for Schneider’. It involved the activities of David Callan (played perfectly by Edward Woodward), a strangely sympathetic killer for a secretive branch of the British government called ‘the Section’, and his various associates (most memorably Russel Hunter as scruffy, smelly criminal Lonely).
Whatever reservations I might once have harboured, however, turn out to be completely groundless, as this is as good an adaptation as anyone Callan could have hoped for. Peter Mitchell has adapted his father’s Sunday Express short stories with care and obvious love, Ben Miles is excellent as Callan, and Frank Skinner is, frankly, superb as Lonely, turning in a performance which manages to be both a tribute to Hunter’s original and a fabulous piece of characterisation in its own right. The other recurring cast members – Nick Briggs as Callan’s boss, Hunter, and Jane Slavin as secretary Liz – are more than decent too, I should add. And, of course, the direction and sound design is top notch, as one would expect from Big Finish.
But what about the stories themselves? Each episode is, by the nature of its source in a newspaper, perhaps a little less layered and involved than a typical Callan TV script, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and the slightly more straight-forward plotting is an advantage in the audio format. That said, the final story File on a Harassed Hunter has as many twists and turns as anything on TV, and is a definite highlight!
It’s also good to see Liz foregrounded far more than the character ever was on television – I’d be interested to know if that is a straight copy from the short stories, or whether Peter Mitchell and script editor John Dorney made a conscious effort to increase the role. Either way, it works very well and definitely adds something to the scripts.
All in all, an absolute triumph from beginning to end – I can’t wait for season 2! Stuart Douglas