November 30, 2017


The 50th anniversary of the classic spy/assassin series Callan was celebrated recently at the BFI, and co-presenter Robert Fairclough, co-author of The Callan File, stopped by the Spy Vibe lair this week to tell us about the event. Welcome back, Robert! I'm so glad to hear the Callan at 50 event at the BFI was a success. For those who couldn't make it, can you tell us about who was there?

Myself and Mike presented the Callan at 50 event in the NFT2 cinema at the BFI Southbank. It was part of the BFI's Who Do You Trust? season of film and TV thrillers, running between October and December. Our presentation and Q&A tied in with the overall theme of the season with a screening of the Callan episode 'Suddenly - At Home'. It's very striking that the only two people in it that trust each other are Callan and Lonely - Hunter has Callan's girlfriend Lady Lewis watched by Cross, unknown to Hunter Callan gets Lonely to watch Cross, then, later, both Hunter and Callan suspect that Cross has shot Lady Lewis dead.

What were some of the presentations and Q&A sessions about? Did you hear some interesting new insights?

On-stage, we interviewed Callan creator James Mitchell's son Peter and Piers Haggard, who directed 'Suddenly - At Home'. Peter is now the keeper of the Callan flame, and revealed that, sometime next year, new audio plays based on the series will be released, which is very exciting. Piers delighted the audience with his reminiscences about working for Callan's TV networks ABC and Thames. He also made the - perhaps slightly depressing - point that Callan would easily slot into the current political climate in the UK and America, ending the interview with the (slightly ironic) plea: "Callan - where art thou?"

New audio dramas- very exciting! Sounds like you were busy signing books. How is the book doing? What's next for you? 

We did good business at the book signing - in which both Piers and Peter were happy to participate - and I'm happy to report that The Callan File's first printing is nearly sold out. Speaking for myself, I'm continuing to write for Doctor Who Magazine and its offshoots, SFX, Infinity and the We Are Cult website. Your readers might like to know that I've got an article on Man in a Suitcase coming up in issue 7 of Infinity, out in December; the current one has my review of Fall In - The Prisoner at 50, which took place in Portmeirion back in September. I've also got a couple of book ideas cooking, but I can't say too much about those. As somebody once said - stay tuned!

Awesome! For readers who didn't catch our 2016 post- Interview: The Callan File. Authors Robert Fairclough and Mike Kenwood stopped by the Spy Vibe lair this week to chat about their new book, The Callan File: The Definitive Guide. Release by Quoit Media, the project promises to take readers into the wider world of the classic television series by looking at episodes, production, ancillary publications and film, as well as the cultural context of the 1960s and early 1970s. Spy Vibers may recognize Robert from his various Prisoner books, as well as from his work as a fellow contributor to our Avengerworld project with Alan Hayes. Welcome Rob and Mike!

Welcome and congratulations on your new Callan book! 

RF & MK: Thank you! 

For readers who haven't seen Callan, can you describe the subject and tone of the show?

RF: In a word – grim. After John LeCarre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold in the cinema, it was the first British spy series to admit that what the West did to defend democracy with ‘dirty tricks’ might be just as bad as what the Eastern Bloc did to defend Communism. Looking at that idea from the point of a man – David Callan, played by Edward Woodward (The Equalizer)– who’s brilliant at what he does but hates his job and himself for doing it, made for exemplary and now classic TV drama.

MK : If there's a communist agitator stirring up strikes, the Section would probably blackmail them. If someone slept with a prominent MP they might discredit them. It's the dark underside of the British establishment. Callan himself was a brilliant, if insubordinate soldier, who drifted into criminality before the organisation recruited him. He gets sacked for developing a conscience, and later he’s reinstated but that moral conflict is always there, as his boss, Hunter, is very manipulative.

When was the series originally broadcast?

RF: Between 1967 and 1972. A feature film version aired in 1974 and a ‘ten years later’ special Wet Job was produced by ATV in 1981. As recently as 2012, Radio 4Extra transmitted an adaptation of the first Callan novel, A Magnum for Schneider(retitled Red File for Callan).

That was such an interesting period when accountability and consequences became more open concerns. What are your earliest memories of Callan?

RF: Good question! In the early 1970s when I was at primary school, the regional ITV stations would repeat things like The Avengers, A Family at War and Love Story in the afternoons, round about the time I got home. In 1974, just before the film came out, ITV showed the fourth series of Callan. I’m sure that’s where I first saw the iconic title sequence with the swinging light bulb and heard the ominous theme music. I distinctly remember watching one scene in which Callan was tied up by his thumbs. Years later I found out that was from the episode ‘The Contract’ (1972).

MK : Being born in 1966 I was too young to watch the show on first transmission, although I dimly recall seeing the 1974 film on ITV.  My first really clear recollection of it is from one Saturday night in 1984. I’d not long finished my A-levels, and wanted to go out even though I only had about four quid on me. In the end, I stayed in, and my Dad was settling down to watch something he wanted to see on the fledgling Channel Four. The something turned out to be a repeat of ‘Summoned to Appear’, and within five minutes I was just as gripped by the story as he was. It turned out a school friend and fellow TV fan, George Williams, was taping the show. So we subsequently had a few all-night Callan viewings around his house. Funnily enough George also first introduced me to Rob, so he has a lot to answer for! 

How did your book project develop?

RF: Speaking personally, I think the idea had always been at the back of my mind. I love spy fiction and had already written books on The Prisoner, and there’s a direct link because the script/story editor on both was George Markstein; Terence Feely, Callan’s first producer, also wrote two scripts for The Prisoner. As far as I remember, Mike and I were chatting at a Doctor Who convention in September 2012 and that’s when we decided to do it.

MK : Rob and I were only in touch sporadically until I moved to London in the 1990s. We were both fans though, and I think the idea was churning away independently at the back of both our heads even in those days. Once we’d ended up collaborating on two books, Callan was the very next idea we pitched. That was back in 2002 and for various reasons it didn’t happen! It was an on/off project for another decade. As Rob said, we finally started full-on work in 2012, thinking it would only take about a year and a half to complete... which shows how easy it is to underestimate projects like this as yet more and more unexpected information kept turning up.

How is the book structured and what kind of information does it cover?

RF: The book follows the structure of our books on The Prisoner and the classic 1970s police series The Sweeney: biographies of the main players, chapters outlining the show’s context and production style, followed by a series-by-series, episode-by-episode, film-by-film, novel-by-novel analysis. The material in those comes from primary source interviews with the cast and crew and archive research. We finish up with Appendices covering merchandise, repeats, etc. Callanis different to the other series we’ve looked at because there’s as much printed fiction about the man as there are TV episodes: five novels, 41 short stories and one monologue, and it’s all covered in depth and in detail.

Please tell us a bit about your process of research and collaboration.

RF: I can’t speak for Mike, but I started by watching the series, the film and Wet Job and read the novels again. From that, you obviously get an idea of the people you have to interview. From there, as well as conducting the interviews, it was many enjoyable days in the Reuben Library at the British Film Institute going through draft and camera scripts and press coverage. It’s a pleasure working with Mike. We’d email each other stuff and edit each other’s work, then every few months we’d sit down and do the corrections and amendments on the text together. There’s no rivalry whatsoever – if he came up with a better way of saying something it would go in, and vice versa.

MK : As Rob said, the collaboration went well. The research process reads very much like a detective story in that one clue or witness kept leading to another. Several friends helped us get going, then people we interviewed started saying, ‘Oh, I’ve still got an email address for so-and-so, I’m sure they’ll want to talk to you too.’

There were two great guys, Matthew and Anthony, who had interviewed many of the cast and crew in the 1980s, and we must pay tribute to them, and to Alan Hayes for putting us all in touch. We were given a treasure trove of production documents and a pile of cassette-taped interviews, which were a goldmine of good quotes. 

However, we also did many other interviews of our own, which is another rule – talk to as many people as possible ! One of the difficulties we had there was the series was over 40 years old, and some people’s memories had faded, but we were generally able to jog them with recordings, at which point the thoughts usually came flooding back. Everyone we talked to was tremendously helpful and supportive. 

The production documentation was remarkable too, full of period charm. One line in it that made me laugh was ‘Stuntman - no dinner’. I remember reading that more or less a week after Jeremy Clarkson's debacle at the BBC! 

The process could be maddening at times. The BFI (British Film Institute) were very helpful. There was a script in the BFI for ‘Death of a Hunter’ – the episode where Callan is possibly killed off. It was a crucial script to track down, and then I found the last page was missing! That led to looking at a second, cut-down copy, used for scheduling advert breaks, and that contained an absolute bombshell about how the series might have ended.

Television historian Andrew Pixley recently published his own book about the series. What sets these books apart from each other?

RF: We have the greatest respect for Andrew’s work – you know if you read anything he’s done everything in it will have been quadruple checked for accuracy, and as a Doctor Who fan I’ve long admired his work for Doctor Who Magazine and the classic Doctor Who DVD range. His book Callan: Under the Red File primarily concentrates on the TV series, as it was originally commissioned to be part of a Network box set that would have included all the episodes, and his book is designed to be referred to as viewing notes when you watch the stories. Ours looks at the overall context of the 1960s and 1970s spy genre and Callan’s place within it, as well as critically reviewing the whole Callan phenomenon. For instance, the book opens with a history of spy fiction and fact from the beginning of the 20th century, while a closing chapter assesses Callan’s legacy in the spy series and films that came afterwards. We interviewed Michael Ferguson from The Sandbaggers and Bharat Nalluri from Spooks about Callan, and in turn asked people who worked on Callan about modern shows that were influenced by it. I like to think the two books together give the complete story.

MK : For some time we operated on a ‘Need to Know’ basis. Andrew’s book came out when ours was well under way, and we deliberately didn’t look at it, simply to avoid being subconsciously influenced. It’s a bit like sitting an exam – looking at his book any until we’d completed our first draft would have felt like cheating! 

One of our read-through crew also read both books and advised us on taking out passages inadvertently reproducing Andrew’s work or blundering into his territory. Obviously there are key beats in the Callan story that have to be in both books, but we’d like to think they’re still very distinct entities that complement each other. Andrew is a friend and a mentor; he’s always been very supportive of our efforts, right back to our first Sweeney book in the 1990s. So we don’t see this as a competition!

Andrew is such a lovely guys and so supportive of research projects and of fandom in general. It's great that Callan enthusiasts can now use both of these great books to discover unique info about the series. Callan seems like an unusual show in the spy genre in that it explored darker, psychological consequences, perhaps akin to LeCarre's The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. How do you think this was received? Can you think of other TV/film precedents that had a similar tone?

RF: It was just the right time for a series like Callan. After ‘Swinging Spies’ like The Avengers and The Man from UNCLE at the beginning of the 1960s, things were going darker with, as you said, Martin Ritt’s vividly bleak film version of LeCarre’s novel, the movie of Len Deighton’s The IPCRESS File and, on TV, Man in A Suitcaseand The Prisoner

The series really took off with the second series in 1969 when the writers developed the relationship between Callan and Lonely, his arms supplier and informer, into a double act. Russell Hunter was quite brilliant as this shabby ferret of man with appalling body odour. It was a double act in the tradition of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza and King Lear and his Fool: one of mutual dependency and, from Callan’s point of view, sometimes loathing; having said that, their relationship was often very funny, and that combination made the series tremendously appealing to audiences. One reviewer commented that the pairing was similar to Steptoe and Son, the famous sitcom about two seedy rag and bone men (adapted in the States as Sanford and Son), and I think that’s absolutely spot on.

That's really interesting! Can you describe a few of your favourite episodes of Callan?

RF: Oh, tough question. The thing about Callan is that the story editors John Kershaw and George Markstein were so strict on the quality that in four years there is really only one episode that’s below par. There are obvious high points like the first Armchair Theatre play and ‘Death of a Hunter’ but, for me, the opening five episodes of Series Four, when Callan is promoted to the head of his department, are astonishingly good. ‘Call Me Sir!’ and ‘First Refusal’ by Bill Craig and, particularly, ‘If He Can, So Could I’ by Ray Jenkins are the absolute peak of quality TV drama, then or now.  

MK: As Rob says, all the episodes have something going for them. ‘Summoned to Appear’ will always have a place in my heart, as mentioned above. The climax is really tense, as Callan is in court while a Czech hitman is about to carry out an assassination. Callan explodes with rage at his boss’s insensitivity at several points. That story’s immediate successor ‘The Same Trick Twice’ has a great, shocking plot twist near the end, where the villain of the piece is unmasked. 

Also if I can list a ‘missing, believed wiped’ episode, on the sheer strength of the script it would be ‘Goodness Burns Too Bright’ by James Mitchell. Callan is on the run and hides out in a Berlin surgery with a pacifist German Doctor, played by Dame Alice Cooper, and the episode becomes a two-handed play. It's tragic that ten of these early stories were lost.

Were you a spy genre fan as a kid? Who were your heroes?

RF: The original and best – James Bond, 007! I don’t know why she thought I’d like it, but my Mum took me and my best mate at the time to see Diamonds Are Forever in 1971. I was 6! It’s still one of my favourite Bond films – a hilarious black comedy. I became fascinated by the graphic style of the 007 film posters and at one time, I had, I think, The Man with the Golden Gun and The Spy Who Loved Me on my bedroom wall. I guess that was the beginning of my interest in graphics, as I went on to become a professional graphic designer. I vaguely remember The Avengers but remember more watching The Saint (not strictly speaking a spy show, I know) and I recall the title sequence and theme music from Man in A Suitcase from a very early age. I can also remember being glued to The Man from UNCLE films when they the BBC showed them. UNCLE is a great show, especially the first series – up there with the black and white Diana Rigg Avengers.

MK : My parents were fairly liberal, and let me stay up and watch all sorts of good dramas when I was young. Between the ages of about eight and thirteen I saw Quiller and The Sandbaggers plus other series like Colditz, Secret Army, Warship, Thriller, and The Sweeney, all of which sometimes had espionage elements too. A lot of the stories went over my head at that age, and maybe that’s why I still look back fondly at them now. 

My favourite was The New Avengers - although I had no idea it was a sequel to a series from the 1960s. So Steed, Purdey and Gambit were my spy-heroes, really. I also saw Live and Let Die in the cinema in 1973, which really confused my seven year old self as I thought Roger Moore’s Bond was the same character he’d played in The Persuaders! and kept wondering when Tony Curtis was going to turn up. Dr. No was shown on TV in 1974, and I remember the spider in the bed scene freaking me out. So I’d count Bond as a hero too, even though I don’t think I grasped that Sean Connery and Roger Moore were playing the same character until a year or two later when the Geoff Love Orchestra’s Big Bond Movie Themes album came out, at which point the penny dropped. I soon started playing that album to death- I’m surprised I wasn’t banned from using the record player

Did you collect spy books or memorabilia as a kid? What were/are some of your favourites?

RF: I did. Inspired by the Bond films, I collected all the Ian Fleming novels – the 1960s editions with the chunky ‘James Bond’ type and a single image representing the content of the book. Again, the stylish design was a huge part of the appeal. I’ve still got them.

MK: I didn’t collect much memorabilia as a kid, but my friend from two doors down had the Bond Lotus Esprit. We’d make up big chases between it and his UFOInterceptor - probably before breaking out into his back garden and shooting at each other with cap guns. As you did in the ‘70s.
My Dad had a pile of Fleming Bond books, which I got stuck into, thinking they would be novelisations of the films. (Once I was aware of them.) The world’s moved on, but I still think Ian Fleming’s books stand the test of time, in particular Moonraker – I would still love to see that adapted faithfully, as a 1950s period piece.

I also dream of seeing a period adaptation of Moonraker (my favorite 007 novel)! What are some of your other books? I know Spy Vibers will be interested!

RF: Our first book was Fags, Slags, Blags and Jags: The Sweeney, which we self-published in 1998. I wasn’t really involved on the writing side. Mike wrote it with our friend George Williams. I did some of the editing but was primarily brought in to do the book design and production. 

MK : That was a maddening book to write, but great fun at times too, and Rob’s design really helped recapture the feel of watching the show. Through a friend at the Cult TV convention, Henry Holland, we were able to meet that great writer Troy Kennedy Martin, and through him, his brother Ian, and another excellent writer, Trevor Preston. They all loved the book, gave us a lot of encouragement, and that’s when it really all started for both of us, I think.

RF : Inspired by that, and with the 35th anniversary of The Prisoner coming up in 2002, I rather arrogantly, I suppose, thought I could do better than the books that had been published up to that point on the series. To my mind, none of them had nailed why The Prisoner was so significant as a genre buster or a melting pot of the social and political climate of the mid-1960s. It was my first book pitch and it was accepted by Carlton. To employ a well-worn cliché, the rest is history. With George’s blessing, Mike and I rebooted Fags, Slags… as Sweeney! The Official Companion, while solo I went on to edit and annotate two volumes of The Prisoner: The Complete Scripts in 2005 and 2006.

In 2010, to prove I could research and write anything, I persuaded Aurum to let me do a biography of the comic actor Ian Carmichael. I knew hardly anything about him, apart from what I’d seen in old black and white films on the telly on wet Sunday afternoons in the ‘70s, and from very vague memories of Lord Peter Wimsey. That turned out well because the resulting book, This Charming Man: The Life of Ian Carmichael, was nominated as one of The Independent newspaper’s Top 10 Film Books of 2011. I love all those 1950s and ‘60s British film comedies now… More recently, I’ve been writing for SFX and the Doctor Who Magazine spin-off The Essential Doctor Who, which is something of a dream come true. I’m about to start a Black Archive for Obverse Books on the Doctor Who story ‘The Enemy of the World’, which is another ambition about to be realised.

Cool!  Love "Enemy of the World and plan to cover the story in my upcoming Spy Vibe book. Where can readers find The Callan File: The Definitive Guide and your other publications?

RF: I have my own website, which will also connect you to my blog. The Callan Filecan be purchased through the Quoit Media Ltd. website, and the book has a regularly updated page at

MK : Our other publications will also, hopefully be more widely available again at some point. We’ll keep you posted! 

Lastly, if you could have your own secret lair, what would it be?

RF: Ha! It would be in the Bahamas – naturally – just off the main street in Nassau. The lair would be furnished in the Jules Verne style of the TARDIS control in Season 14 of Doctor Who and the main screen would show ‘The Power of the Daleks’, ‘Fury from the Deep’ and the missing black and white episodes of Callanon a loop. Sean Connery would pop in for tea as he lives just up the road. My family would never have to worry again and our six cats would be in charge. Our chinchilla would be the henchman; I’ve always thought chinchillas would make good henchmen.
MK: I’d probably have a ridiculously over-automated pad in Central London overlooking the river - a cross between Simon Templar’s mews cottage and Matt Helm’s apartment. Cats are an essential, and I would have my own menagerie of them too!

Thank you, my friends! It's been fun chatting with you. I encourage Spy Vibers to pick up The Callan File and learn more about this unique series. Enjoy! Book cover images sourced from the Callan posts at Existential Ennui (check it out!). 

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