Weekend Film Recommendation: A Tribute to Edward Woodward Begins with Callan: The Richmond Files

The British TV Show “Callan” was one of many triumphs in Edward Woodward’s career

416-Edward-WoodwardFour 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.

calln4e 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.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

14 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: A Tribute to Edward Woodward Begins with Callan: The Richmond Files”

    1. His son was in Babylon 5, and brought out a similar reaction from female viewers, as I recall.

      The last season of B5 was very dark and at times, almost, a 25th century spy tale. Alfred Bester (Walter Koenig ie Chekhov of Star Trek) as an agent of the mysterious Psi Corps, in particular.

  1. It’s funny, I’ve only ever encountered Edward Woodward as a punchline, based solely on his funny name (especially when slurred as Edwa woowa). I’ll have to check out his actual work.

  2. Can’t speak to the others mentioned, but Breaker Morant is one of the finest movies I or anyone could ever hope to see, beautifully nuanced, economically told, deftly acted, very powerful.

    1. I was going to say the same, but you put it better than I could!

      Incidentally, an example of a great movie based on a true historical incident.

  3. I was fortunate to see Woodward onstage in London with Judi Dench and Leo McKern in a play called The Wolf (1973). He’s been a favorite actor of mine ever since. I, too, am a Breaker Morant fan.

  4. Can I throw in here a recommendation for another Brit spy series ‘Sandbaggers’.

    Roy Marsden plays Neil Burnside, the head of a special ops unit inside MI6, ‘the Sandbaggers’. Which does the dirty work no one else wants done. His bureaucratic struggles with his bosses are sometimes more deadly than his struggles with the Russians. Ray Lonnen plays his trusty subordinate and only real friend (Lonnen also did sterling service in ‘Harry’s Game’ based on the Gerald Seymour novel, the classic novel of the intelligence war inside Northern Ireland, and with a smashing theme song by Clannad).

    Ian Macintosh, the writer, died in a light plane crash over the Baltic before the series was finished- adding to the mystery.


    (might be a cheaper copy somewhere)

    The ‘class struggle’ between grammar school boy, ex field operative Marsden, and his public school educated superiors, is mostly subliminal, but it’s there.

    Other than ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ I don’t think there has been a better British spy series (‘Edge of Darkness’ with Joe Don Baker, perhaps, if you can call that a ‘spy’ series).

    1. I love those class skirmish themes in British movies, though as an American, a lot of it goes right over my head. Can’t tell an Aussie from a Cockney from possibly the Queen, unfortunately.

      When I watched that Jason Isaacs series, where he was a detective in Glasgow(?), I had to rewind a bunch of times and I could only get the dialogue if the camera was showing his lips. Still, I love a Scottish accent. I think I love all accents, actually.

      1. A posh Brit sounds like a Masterpiece Theatre Brit (Upstairs, Downstairs or I, Claudius - inside joke in I Claudius is that the Julio-Claudian emperors are all posh, and the servants are not, the centurion is a Yorkshireman etc.). John Cleese in Monty Python is fairly posh. Patrick Stewart in Star Trek comes across as moderately posh. Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock or the latest Star Trek movie is dead posh (Harrow School ie a Harrovian).

        A cockney sounds like a wise guy, think Brooklyn. Drops his ‘h’s. Free instead of Three. Loses consonants. Says ‘is it’ instead of ‘isn’t it’. Michael Caine does a good cockney wideboy (‘Get Carter’). Or Bob Hoskins ‘The Long Good Friday’ and ‘Mona Lisa’.

        Sam Gamgee in Lord of the Rings is your classic west country man- rolls his R’s.

        Australian is totally different (although a bit of Londoner in it). G’Day. It’s a long drawl sound, like a Brit imitating an American southerner. Listen to Julia Gillard give one of her speeches (on Youtube. Although in fact she was born in Wales).

        These things stand out as much to us as someone from Alabama and from New Hampshire do to you.

        A northerner comes in many forms but the accent is broader and the tone generally lower. Think All Creatures Great and Small (Yorkshire). Liverpool think John Lennon or any of the Beatles (a ‘scouser’). Newcastle think Jimmy Nail in ‘Spender’.

        Even among Scots, Glaswegian is difficult. I find it almost impenetrable if it is a strong one. The late Mark McManus in Taggart.

        The movie Trainspotting, set in Leith (a drug laden port of Edinburgh) had to be subtitled for an American audience (even a British one struggled). The original Road Warrior with Mel Gibson was dubbed in the US into American because people thought his Australian accent would be unacceptable.

        Mind you, when I watch ‘The Wire’ half the time I have no idea what they are saying ;-).

      2. If you ever catch the brilliant comedy series ‘Dad’s Army’ about a local militia unit during WW2 (the early ones are better than the later ones) then you get the british class structure in full:

        - Captain Mainwaring (‘mannering’) the bank manager is a grammar school boy (ie class aspirant)
        - Sergeant Wilson (deputy manager) is a public school boy (ie posh public means private)
        - Private Walker (James Beck) is the classic cockney spiv (black marketeer) and wideboy
        - Fraser the undertaker is your stereotypical Scot

        Jon Pertwee in Dr. Who was quite posh sounding. In a much more recent doctor Who we have Rose (Billie Piper) to the doctor ‘if you are from outer space, why do you have a northern (english) accent?’ Doctor: ‘they have a north on other planets too, you know’.

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