The story of David Callan, a British government spy and assassin for a secret department called Section, is a thoughtful, intelligent and dreary series that works because of any shortcomings it might have. As an antidote to the happy, bright spy shows and movies, James Bonds and the Avengers, this is a believable and grey world of what it would be like to work with a bunch of cold-blooded killers, blackmailers and thugs. Callan is different from his colleagues because he dislikes the killing and the nasty, dirty work they perform - but he does it because he can't get away. And in his heart he probably knows he doesn't want to. And yet he is not a nice man with a heart of gold.
He bullies his only 'friend', Lonely, and rarely has any relationships with anyone. Not even friendships with workmates. He's a loner who has a cold nerve for the work he loathes, and it destroys him to do it - and yet he does it all the same, complaining all the while and fighting against the authority of the Hunter that commands him. The other characters have distinct personalities and seem more at home in the cool Section, and you can see how Callan can fit in when he has to, but he is the man we identify with and feel sorry for - and fear. Constantly aware of his lower class status, Callan reacts badly against upper classes and authority figures such as the Section head, Hunter, and his smug, arrogant rival Toby Meres. Even his young rival, Cross, isa bother - until Cross becomes more like Callan and starts to care about one of his victims, and dies for it.
Through the series, Callan builds his reputation and rises in the ranks, resentfully, from standard operative to the best killer in Section, then to the heights of Hunter, before being demoted back to killer. We also watch a procession of Hunters in the top job with various agendas, a number of fellow killers on both the British and the enemy's sides, and the dirty dealings of a Section which has no rules and answers to almost no-one.
Through it all we follow the anti-hero Callan, hating and loving him at the same time. The lack of budget meant the shooting had to be done in confined, claustrophobic sets which add to the feeling of being trapped and swamped by the dreary world. When the follow-up movie had a larger budget and was shot outdoors, the atmosphere was gone. The scripts and the ideas were always top notch and clever, twisted and nasty. It's sad that only a few of the first and second series of monochrome episodes survived, and the lack of scripts for the lost ones means we may not get to enjoy the craftiness of those original episodes - a shame. Especially when we are teased by blurbs that sound so intriguing. But the ones that remain, and the colour episodes from series three and four almost make up for it. The acting is always superb from the main characters and even now I cannot imagine a remake of the show. There can never be another ensemble group of icy nastiness like the ones in this series. There couldn't be a rival to Edward Woodward's, Callan, and Russell Hunter's, Lonely.