Four years ago this month, the world lost a remarkable talent when Edward Woodward died. Many Americans know him only as The Equalizer from television, but his career started long before that. Woodward was an extraordinarily gifted actor who was equally comfortable with classic Shakespeare plays, light comedies and grim dramas. Unlike some stage-trained actors, his dramatic skills didn’t wane when he made the move first to television and then to the movies. Beyond all that, he was even an outstanding singer! (Check him out on this Morecambe & Wise clip, he starts crooning about two minutes in and he’s bloody marvelous).
In recognition of the delight he brought to countless television and movie viewers over the years, I begin this week at RBC a multi-week panegyric on Edward Woodward. The tribute starts with the classic British television show that made him famous in the late 1960s, then moves next week to one of his first big screen triumphs (The Wicker Man) and then last but not least to a superb later film he anchored at the height of the Australian New Wave (Breaker Morant).
This week’s recommendation is The Richmond Files, the three-part conclusion to the Callan television series. Woodward became a star playing David Callan, a tough, moody and smart British espionage agent from a working class background who tussled with his plummy superiors as often as he did his Soviet counterparts (Terrain later explored so successfully in another RBC recommendation, Charlie Muffin). The mood of the series was set by what became an iconic set of images and guitar notes:
The glum tone and stark themes of Callan put it squarely in the cynical Le Carre camp of British spy stories, which funnily enough co-existed easily in the 1960s with James Bond-mania. The writing was consistently strong (more so than on the Callan-inspired TV series The Equalizer, which was made in America decades later) and the acting and direction were effulgent. The budget was clearly not large but this was well-used to convey the show’s point of view: Callan and his colleagues were doing dirty, unglamourous work. It made sense that the entire suite of offices of “The Section” looked like they cost less than M’s desk.
The other highly satisfying feature of the show is something it shares with the well-remembered The Fugitive: The multi-season story line ends with everything resolved rather than the show just being cancelled at some point mid-narrative (as were so many other TV series over the years, to the frustration of their fans).
To wrap up the series, the creators of the show had the inspired idea to bring in T.P. McKenna to play an apparent Soviet defector. He had briefly appeared early in the series as a captured spy being exchanged by the British for Callan, who had been imprisoned and tortured by the Soviets. Now this Soviet agent was back in Britain under the name of Richmond, and had turned himself over to Callan’s agency with an offer to defect. Suspicious, the Section sends in Callan to “debrief” Richmond at a safe house.
The first episode of the three is delicious television, almost a two-man play as Woodward and McKenna square off. Their acting is subtle and the dialogue is priceless as they fence verbally, each trying to find out the other’s true purpose. It also gives a chance for the writers to reveal more of Callan’s background and psychology, which makes clear how much he and Richmond are alike.
The second episode deals with Richmond’s inevitable escape from custody and his pursuit of his true purpose, before the terrific third episode gives us the final confrontation of the two spies. The complexity of emotion between them grows along the way, making the climax multi-layered and memorable. There are also fine resolutions to the relationship Callan has with his long-time low-life associate “Lonely” (Russell Hunter, in his career-defining role) and his boss, “Control” (a perfectly proper-yet-menacing William Squire).
The Richmond Files brought one of the best television shows of its era to a knockout conclusion. Callan ended with Edward Woodward very deservedly being a star in Britain and in other countries where the show was a hit (e.g., Australia). With that fame came offers to star in movies, two of which I will discuss in the coming weeks.
p.s. The surviving episodes of Callan are available on DVD so you can catch them that way. There were also several Callan movies made after the series ended. One was titled Wet Job and another was simply called Callan. I have never seen them but if you have please post your reaction.