COPPERS & SPIES REVISITED - A Man Alone: Callan and Public Eye

Coppers & Spies Revisited
Continuing with the re-written versions of the original Coppers and Spies blog posts published on the MovieMail site in 2014. Each part contains additional research material and information on the various crime and spy adventure series the original blog series covered, timed to celebrate Network's highly-anticipated release of The Professionals in high-definition last March.

4: A Man Alone - Callan and Public Eye

In February 1967 ABC transmitted an Armchair Theatre play entitled ‘A Magnum For Schneider’ and introduced viewers to writer James Mitchell’s volatile, ill-natured and cynical spy David Callan. Disgraced from the Section, an anonymous branch of the British security services run by a boss code-named Hunter, he was recruited again to eliminate Schneider, a gunrunner posing as a German businessman.

Mitchell embarked late on a successful career as a novelist in 1957. Previously a teacher, actor, civil servant, shipyard worker, barman, officer cadet and travel courier, he claimed, “Even the idea of writing fiction didn’t occur to me till I was over 30.” In 1960 Sydney Newman, Head of Drama at ABC, asked him to adapt his novel A Way Back, about a former Communist blackmailed to steal the blueprints of a new bomb, into a play ‘A Flight From Treason’ for Armchair Mystery Theatre.

Birth of an existential hero

Mitchell, a full-time writer in 1965, sold the script for Callan’s debut, ‘A Magnum For Schneider’, to BBC’s Detective but it languished unproduced. He bought the play back and offered it to Armchair Theatre story editor Terence Feely. Feely saw its potential and, with producer Leonard White and casting director Dodo Watts, considered actors for the key roles of reluctant spy Callan, his antagonistic boss Hunter and the informant with the personal hygiene problem, Lonely.

White’s casting suggestion for Callan was Edward Woodward. Woodward was impressed with the script, personally delivered to him by Watts, and cancelled his family holiday to play the role. He drove his wife and children to Devon but then immediately returned to London by train to attend his first rehearsal in the part.

Watts also admired actor, former shipyard worker and stand up comedian Russell Hunter for his Shakespearian talents and recommended him for Lonely. Played by a series of actors, like the ever-changing Number 2 in The Prisoner, the character of Hunter was first realised by White’s choice Ronald Radd and joining him in the play was Peter Bowles as his bright but sadistic young acolyte Toby Meres.

Sensing ABC was looking for a replacement for Redcap, the series about military police starring John Thaw, Feely worked with Mitchell and paid him £150 to develop a series pitch for Brian Tesler, Director of Programmes, and Lloyd Shirley, Controller of Drama, at ABC. In December 1966, on the strength of ‘Schneider’ and the pitch, they commissioned six episodes of what would become Callan before the play’s transmission.

In Callan’s world, the pitch offered, ‘the reality doesn’t come from atomic fountain pens or poisoned wall-paper: it comes from people. And some of them are very ordinary people, caught up in extraordinary situations.’ This was the antithesis of the onscreen escapades of James Bond and John Steed. Callan was a killer vulnerable to mixing the personal with the professional in a series that embraced the gritty, unglamorous twilight world of Len Deighton and John le Carre’s spy fiction.

Speaking to the TV Times in 1972, Mitchell indicated Callan possibly originated in a Spaniard, Paco, he encountered while teaching English in Spain during the 1950s: "He spied, I learned later, against the regime in Spain. There was no doubt in his mind that the revolution would come, and when it did, everyone had to be ready, with weapons, training, information. And information meant spies like Paco. He had contacts everywhere, even in the police."

Hunter and the hunted

Woodward, Radd and Hunter returned for the series but the part of Toby Meres was re-cast. Jeremy Lloyd was chosen to replace Bowles as Meres but was dropped in favour of Anthony Valentine. Jack Trombey’s lugubrious theme music also established the tone of the series and it augmented a memorable title sequence featuring a swinging light bulb extinguished by a gunshot.

Over four series of Callan, made by ABC and its ITV franchise replacement Thames, Hunter was played variously by Radd, Michael Goodliffe, Derek Bond and William Squire and his agents used any means necessary to maintain the balance of Cold War power, tangling with war crimes, germ warfare, rogue diplomats and politicians, assassins and defectors.

Callan’s hobby, tabletop war re-enactments, became a recurring symbol of his internal conflicts and his relationship with Lonely reflected the self-loathing and remorse when his assignments for Hunter corrupted innocent lives. Raymond Williams, writing in The Listener, described this as ‘an overwhelming, inescapable but unaccepted alienation’ in which the conflicted, contemptuous Callan is trapped.

After ‘Death Of A Hunter’ was shown in 1969, Thames’ switchboard was jammed with calls from viewers concerned about Callan’s demise. Brainwashed by the KGB, Callan killed Hunter but was then shot down by Meres. Planned as the final episode, producer-director Reg Collin taped two different endings, one open-ended and one where Callan was killed. Thames opted for the former and a year later brought the series back in colour.

Callan gained a new partner in the arrogant Cross, played by Patrick Mower. Hunter’s boss, the enigmatic but powerful Bishop, became a regular character and one episode explored the background of Hunter’s secretary Liz. Later, Callan briefly became the new Hunter, placed under different pressures and making decisions to kill people from behind a desk rather than out in the field.

After Callan ended in May 1972, a 1974 cinema adaptation of ‘A Magnum For Schneider’ followed and Mitchell developed the character in a series of novels and short stories. For ATV’s somewhat lacklustre single play, 1981’s ‘Wet Job’, Callan was brought out of retirement by the Section’s latest Hunter to target a man writing a tell-all book about the Department, naming Callan as a killer.

The series influenced later espionage dramas The XYY Man and The Sandbaggers. Woodward established an accomplished film career with The Wicker Man and Breaker Morant. In 1977, as journalist Jim Kyle, he also battled against a totalitarian state in the BBC’s dystopian drama 1990. He returned to the crime adventure TV genre in 1985 for his award-winning role of anti-hero Robert McCall, a part first offered to Martin Shaw of The Professionals, in the popular The Equalizer.

Marvin to Marker

Callan also matched the psychological realism of its fellow ABC series, Public Eye. Commencing in 1965, it featured an equally conflicted hero in private inquiry agent Frank Marker. Six guineas a day plus expenses saw Frank locate missing persons, gather evidence for divorce cases, clash with blackmailers and pimps and save the gullible from the seedier realms of the criminal underworld.

Created by Roger Marshall and Anthony Marriott, Public Eye embraced hardboiled realism and eschewed the increasing fantasy of The Avengers. In 1962, Marshall’s initial idea for a drama about an inquiry agent, possibly played by Donald Pleasance, was elaborated on when Marriott told him about Chalky White, an inquiry agent he had just interviewed for the BBC.

White, his approach and his cases informed their series pitch to George Kerr, ABC’s Head of Drama. A sceptical Kerr was persuaded by White’s anecdotes and, in the wake of restructuring The Avengers as an all-film series, he considered it a suitable project for former Avengers alumni John Bryce and Richard Bates to produce. Bates became story-editor on the series developed from Marshall and Marriott’s pitch and named it The Public Eye.

Don Leaver, an established director on Police Surgeon, The Avengers and Out of This World, worked with Bates on Marshall’s pilot episode ‘Dig You Later’ and produced nine of the first series’ episodes. An untransmitted version of the pilot, with Marker looking for a police inspector’s missing daughter, was recorded at ABC’s Manchester studios in June 1964. A series was swiftly commissioned and the pilot was re-recorded when full production began in September.

Alfred Burke was cast as Frank Marvin, the down-at-heel inquiry agent whose name was inspired by legendary actor Lee Marvin, star of the US police series M Squad then being shown on ITV. Chosen by Leaver and casting director Dodo Watts, Burke was a successful stage and television actor and had recently appeared in No Hiding Place, The Saint, Armchair Theatre, The Human Jungle and Z Cars.

Marshall explained, “The reason Alfie was chosen for the part is that he doesn’t look like a private detective. If you saw him in a pub or a supermarket, you wouldn’t single him out for attention. He’s just another face in the crowd.” Burke immediately empathised with the pilot script but ironically, thinking the name Marvin was too American, changed it to Marker.

He understood the character perfectly and told TV Times: “Marker doesn't want anything, except to be left alone.” A loner often exploited and manipulated by his clients, his ‘cynical incorruptibility’ in dealing with debt recovery, con men, failed marriages, missing girls, blackmail and theft was first established in the retitled Public Eye on 23 January 1965.

The second series of Public Eye, commissioned by Drama Supervisor Lloyd Shirley on Bates’ recommendation, took advantage of mobile Outside Broadcast facilities to extend studio bound drama with more location recording. Marker’s trawl through organised and disorganised crime took him, the series’ mournful Robert Earley theme music, filing cabinet, instant coffee, mug and typewriter from London to Birmingham.

ABC’s Manchester based OB facilities shot location inserts for Public Eye around Birmingham city centre while the interiors were taped in ABC’s Teddington studios. Producer Richard Bates handed over to Michael Chapman for the third series and during its production the Independent Television Authority’s franchise renewal of 1967 merged ABC and Associated Rediffusion to create Thames Television.

Many series were inherited by Thames, including Callan, Public Eye, variety show Opportunity Knocks and drama anthology Armchair Theatre. However, when Thames started broadcasting in July 1968, it was uncertain they would continue with Public Eye when the third series came to a close.

On parole in Brighton

Marker’s sympathies with the underdog eventually saw him fall foul of the law in the third series’ final episode. He was arrested for receiving stolen goods and sent to Winston Green Prison. The public reaction was immediate and in letters and phone calls they demanded to know Marker’s fate. At Thames, Lloyd Shirley prompted Roger Marshall to devise Public Eye’s return. He pitched a series of seven, self-penned episodes that formed a chronicle of Marker’s post-prison rehabilitation in Brighton.

Prolific director Kim Mills, who had helmed episodes of Public Eye, Armchair Theatre, The Avengers and produced The Mind of Mr J.G. Reeder, oversaw series four’s complex psychological examination of Marker as an ex-con, on probation, putting his life back together and holding down a regular job. Marshall also developed Marker’s relationship with his sympathetic Brighton landlady, the widowed Mrs Mortimer played by Pauline Delany, to support this new dynamic.

The fourth episode ‘My Life's My Own’ was also provided with a prequel, a year later, in the 1970 Armchair Theatre play ‘Wednesday's Child’, and was a rare and early depiction of a lesbian relationship on television. Mills also oversaw the transition from monochrome to colour and ‘A Fixed Address’, the concluding episode of series four made in 1969, was test recorded in colour.

The next three series, produced by Robert Love and Michael Chapman and with Marker’s inquiry agency now based in Windsor and Chertsey, introduced supporting characters like authority figure DI Percy Firbank of the local CID and fellow private agent Ron Gash. Both revealed new facets to Marker that enhanced Burke’s sublime performance as the ordinary man trying to “put things right when it’s all gone wrong.”

Dodgy housekeepers, thieves, inept builders, a horse-doping racket and blackmailers all kept Marker occupied until the series ended after 87 episodes in April 1975. Marker was still charging the same fee in his shabby Chertsey office, one the Daily Mirror described as ‘cheap pegboard painted bilious green’. The series won the ratings challenge from the BBC’s Churchill’s People and coped with Kojak’s move into opposition when the former lost viewers in droves.

Public Eye was also a contemporary to Special Branch and, similarly, Thames wanted it to continue in 1976 by transforming it into an all-film series made by their subsidiary Euston Films. This was dropped in favour of remounting Van der Valk but Roger Marshall was offered an option to revive Public Eye again in 1978 when The Sweeney had concluded. However, Marshall’s enthusiasm was cooled by Alfred Burke’s low opinion of Euston’s energetic style, one he felt was inappropriate for the introspective Public Eye. Marker was left walking the streets in his crumpled white raincoat.

  • Chapman, James, Saints & Avengers: British Adventure Series of the 1960s (I.B.Tauris, 2002).
  • Cornell, Paul, Day, Martin and Topping, Keith, The Guinness Book of Classic British TV (2nd Edition, Guinness Publishing, 1996).
  • Goodman, Anthony and Perry, Julian, ‘Callan – The Series’, ‘The Idea’, ‘The Characters’, ‘The Stories’, Callan (1999) available at, accessed between February and July 2014.
  • Mitchell, James, ‘The contented saint with a killer’s grace’, in TV Times (IPC, 25 March 1972)
  • Pixley, Andrew, Public Eye: Six Guineas A Day, Plus Expenses (Network, 2012).
  • Williams, Raymond, Raymond Williams on Television: Selected Writings (Routledge, 2013)
Next time: Special Branch to The Sweeney
Last time: ITC and The Prisoner
Previously: The Avengers and Z Cars
Originally: Fabian of the Yard and Dixon of Dock Green

One Response to “COPPERS & SPIES REVISITED - A Man Alone: Callan and Public Eye ”
  1. Linda says:

    I love Edward Woodward he was my hero I loved callan it is such a shame he is no longer with us I would of married him any day

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