Callan – Wet Job


The television series Callan seemed to have come to a pretty permanent end with A Man Like Me in 1972, but that wouldn’t be the last we’d hear of David Callan.  First came the 1974 movie, adapted by James Mitchell from his 1969 novel Red File for Callan, which in turn had been based on his 1967 Armchair Theatre pilot A Magnum for Schneider.  Despite the rehashed plot, the film probably works better as a coda to the television series than it did as an introduction (since it features a retired Callan brought back, unwillingly, for one final mission).

Mitchell would continue to pen a number of novels featuring Callan (Russian Roulette, Death and Bright Water and Smear Job) during the 1970’s, which suggested that he felt there were still stories to tell.  So it wasn’t too much of a surprise when David Callan returned to television in 1981, in a one-off eighty minute ATV play entitled Wet Job.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t the conclusion that anybody – not James Mitchell, Edward Woodward, Russell Hunter or indeed the audience – deserved.

Before we look at what didn’t work, let’s consider the positives.  Nearly a decade has passed since the events of A Man Like Me and Callan is a changed man.  Physically he looks older (he has grey hair and glasses) and he’s also somewhat better dressed than he used to be.  It would have been easy enough for Woodward to dye his hair, put in contact lenses and pretend that no time at all had passed, but there’s something pleasing in the way that Mitchell acknowledges that he’s not the man he was.

Callan, now lodging in a plush house owned by Margaret Channing (Angela Browne), also moves in more rarefied circles than before and jokes with one of Margaret’s party guests that he hasn’t killed anybody for years.  This throwaway moment is touched upon later, when he has a rare spasm of self doubt – after being dragged back into Section business against his will he has to face that fact that he may be forced to kill again, but can he do so?  This is an interesting point, but alas it’s never really developed – which given the lengthy running time is a disappointment.  We do get flashes of an older, wearier Callan, but it shouldn’t come as any surprise that when the firing starts he’s still as deadly as ever.

The main joy of Wet Job is the reunion of Callan and Lonely.  The obvious respect shared by Woodward and Hunter is plain to see and this means that their scenes together are wonderfully entertaining.  Again, Mitchell is keen to show how time has moved on – Lonely is now a man of means with a successful business and an impending marriage.  We never see his fiancé, but Callan’s reaction to her photograph indicates that Lonely’s a lucky man.

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My favourite moment of the story comes during Callan and Lonely’s first meeting.  Lonely admits that Margaret is quite a looker, although he goes on to say that she’s rather old (after all, she won’t see forty again).  Callan, who sometimes shares her bed, is rather affronted by this, asking Lonely how old his fiancé is.  When he’s told she’s twenty seven it’s yet another indication that Lonely’s far removed from the man we knew.

He makes that point himself – it’s not the old days anymore and he has no wish to get dragged back into Callan’s illegal activities.  There’s something a little tragic in the way that Callan admits there’s no-one else he could ask (the power dynamic in that relationship has certainly shifted).  In plot terms, Lonely does nothing of significance but the story would have been much poorer had he not been there.

Hugh Walters as the latest Hunter is also a plus.  Walters had a habit of playing effete characters and his Hunter is no different (it’s a little jarring to hear Hunter refer to Callan as “dear heart”).  Much may have changed, but the Section is still a cheerless and impersonal place and the lengthy early scene between Callan and Hunter is another highlight (even if, as we’ll come to soon, the incidental music does its best to destroy the mood).

Wet Job has two main plot-threads.  The first concerns Daniel Haggerty (George Sewell), an ex-MP who blames Callan for the death of his daughter and is writing his memoirs which threaten to expose Callan as a government assassin.  Margaret’s niece, Lucy Robson Smith (Helen Bourne), is helping Haggerty with the book and she’s also attempting to ensure that a dissident Russian philosopher, Dobrovsky (Milos Kerek), gains safe passage to the UK.

It’ll come as no surprise to learn that Hunter (who called Callan in to warn him about Haggerty’s book) hasn’t told him everything, but because both plot-lines are so drawn out it’s probable that eventually the audience will cease to care.  Sewell’s solid enough as Haggerty, but apart from one scene early on, he’s kept apart from Callan until the very end.  Kerek makes little impression as Dobrovsky, so it’s hard to feel invested in his fate.

There are a few nods to the past – Hunter tells Callan that Meres is dead (this may be a joke though) and Callan has a brief reunion with Liz.  But since Liz is now played by Felicity Harrison rather than Lisa Langdon, it rather falls flat.

Wet Job was shot entirely on videotape.  This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem (quite a few of the Thames Callan episodes were as well) but everything looks dull and lifeless – when the early 1970’s VT Callan‘s look sharper and more vibrant than this 1981 effort you know you’re in trouble.

The worst thing about Wet Job is, of course, the music.  Firstly, it’s a shame that Jack Trombey’s iconic library track – used as the series’ theme – wasn’t pressed into service again, but that’s a minor irritation compared to the horrors of Cyril Ornadel’s incidental score.  If the music could be removed then there’s no doubt that my appreciation of the story would increase considerably.  Any time that Ornadel can spoil the mood he does so – tinkling piano, electronica, it’s a masterclass in awfulness.

There are so many examples, but I’ll restrict myself to three. The first meeting between Callan and Hunter is a cracking scene, but what it didn’t need was a heavy piano underscore.  Watch from 17:20 as the camera focuses on Callan, musing how he’ll never be free of the Section (without the music this moment would play so much better).  The end of part one (from 26:00) as Haggerty confronts Callan is another time when the intrusive music is simply breathtaking.  And the moment where Haggerty discusses Callan with Lucy (55:50) is just a cacophony of noise – electric piano, twanging guitar – that builds to a crescendo until (at 56:22) it suddenly and unexpectedly stops and the relief felt is palpable ….

There was a decent fifty minute episode here, but unfortunately it was expanded to eighty.  Edward Woodward and Russell Hunter are their usual immaculate selves, but it’s sad to say that this is a very average story.  There was plenty of scope to really dig into Callan’s character – showing that whilst he may now have a veneer of respectability, underneath the darkness still lurks – but sadly Mitchell didn’t go down that route.  And any goodwill that the audience has towards the project is surely slowly sapped as Cyril Ornadel’s music drones on and on (he certainly should have gone into a Red File).