The Shadow of Callan
It’s hard to recollect much about it now, and I was more or less unaware of it then, but for half of my life the future of the world lay under a nuclear shadow.
From the Allies development of the atomic bomb in 1945, and its subsequent acquisition by the Soviet Union soon afterwards, the entire planet was threatened by the prospect of being suddenly engulfed in a destruction so vast and so lasting that it made every previous conflict in history look totally insignificant. This wasn’t a ‘tin pot dictator’ posturing about the defence of his own nation in the face of giant enemies, this was a finely-poised balance between two super-powers, each capable of destroying not only the other but the whole of life on Earth.
Whether it was this historical situation, or whether there were other forces at work, the result was that the latter part of the Twentieth Century was a dark period. This was reflected in literature, in drama and on television. In the late 1969s and early 1970s especially, after the more optimistic early 60s bubble had burst, a whole range of programmes appeared which were tainted by the general gloom of the culture as a whole. One such programme, the British spy drama Callan (1967 - 1972) attempted to address the Cold War problem directly with its stories of what went on behind the scenes in British intelligence. But the culture had provided a setting capable of an even greater power: author James Mitchell, knowingly or not, had stumbled upon a metaphor of the human condition at large in his portrayal of the doomed, solitary figure of David Callan, a working class criminal who, because of his expert marksmanship and ruthless demeanour, had become part of an intelligence service run and mainly manned by the Oxbridge classes.
Edward Woodward, who played Callan, gained the 1970 British Academy Television Award for Best Actor. His brooding portrayal of an assassin with a conscience appealed to me even though I was only in my early teens. The melancholic theme music of the programme enhanced the sense of gloom. The portrait above was drawn from a photograph of a scene in Callan’s opening credits in which Woodward stares at a swinging light bulb before shooting it - only to end up with a shattered image of himself.
Woodward also starred as Police Sergeant Neil Howie in the 1973 cult British horror film The Wicker Man, and in the title role of the 1980 Australian film Breaker Morant.
But by the late 1980s, the initial terror of the Cold War was beginning to wear off simply through familiarity. Historical developments, as well, had begun to undermine the polarity of the two superpowers, and it was becoming clear that the USA and its allies had the upper hand as the Soviet Union began to break down and then break up. The sense of gloom metamorphosed into a different, harsher, more commercially-orientated materialism as capitalism won over communism. The Cold War came to an end, the Berlin Wall fell, Germany was reunited, and the old imagery of division and darkness melted away. Woodward’s Callan faded into the past, and, from 1985 to 1989, as though mirroring this progressioon, Woodward starred as British ex-secret agent and vigilante Robert McCall in the American television series The Equalizer, for which he was awarded the 1986 Golden Globe Award for Best Television Drama Actor.
In my mind, though, McCall was an alter-ego of David Callan. Perhaps surprisingly, Woodward also made a career as a singer. He died in 2009.