Wet Job

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Wet Job is a 1981 TV movie and the last outing for Edward Woodward’s Callan, the touchiest secret operative British TV ever produced.

Callan is a version of Harry Palmer of Ipcress File fame, a working class lad forced out of the army for insubordination and then picked up by the secret service because of his special set of skills. If Palmer was designed as the anti-007, Callan is another rung down on the ladder – there’s no glamour to the man, and he has absolutely no pride in his work, which is killing people. Callan is on TV rather than the big screen too.

Palmer reported to a dowdy office front; Callan’s controls use a scrap metal business as their cover. Low though the status-conscious Callan is, there is an even lower rung, and that’s occupied by Lonely, his sometime gopher and ace safebreaker, so-called because of his tendency to fart when frightened, and Callan frightens him.

The show ran from 1967 to 1972 and was originated and written by James Mitchell (who’d later create When the Boat Comes In, which couldn’t be more different). It became a movie in 1974, in that period when any British TV show with any sort of profile got a movie spinoff – US money had moved out and the empty film studios were desperate.

And then in 1981, with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People having proved there was life in the old spy dog yet, this farewell. And what a mixed bag it is. Lacking the distinctive “swinging lightbulb” of the opening credits (you can see it here on YouTube), it’s all shot on video tape and so as sharp as cotton wool. But it wastes little time in re-introducing us to Callan, now lodging with man-hungry Margaret Channing (Angela Browne), at a drinks party where we’re reminded of the USP of the series – the extraordinarily chippy David Callan.

Character re-established, the retired Callan is hauled out of his militaria shop by another of the superior officer-class controls – all called Hunter, this one played by Hugh Walters – and put on a job to assassinate a writer about to name names (Callan’s included) in a tell-all book he’s writing to get back at the establishment. Explaining Callan to an underling, Hunter opines, ”He really is frightfully good… The most efficient killer that we ever had.”

Callan fires a gun
Callan: the reluctant but ruthlessly efficient killer

In a Tinker Tailor-ish subplot, the niece of Callan’s landlady is trying to get her lover, a Czech professor, out from behind the Iron Curtain. Quite how she and the writer of the book (played by George Sewell) fall into each other’s orbits slightly evaded me (and I watched this only last night) but they do, and nor do I entirely buy the idea of all parties finding themselves suitably positioned for a big-finale shootout at a half-demolished stately home, but they do.

It barely matters, because nothing in this film really matters apart from Edward Woodward. In quite markedly delineated circles of excellence we have Woodward at the centre, every line reading a joy to watch and listen to. He has something of Michael Caine’s magnetic quality. Moving out from there we have Lonely (the excellent Russell Hunter). Angela Browne and George Sewell are superbly efficient, but here on out things go bad, with side characters (the activist associates of the niece etc) played by actors who seem under-rehearsed, all trying to compress more dialogue into scenes than there is time for. And SHOUTING.

Again, it barely matters. Watch it for the zeitgeisty scene in which a woman apologises to a man for not having had an orgasm (now he would more likely be apologising to her). Watch it for the interplay between Callan and Lonely. But most of all watch it for Woodward, who’d resurface four years later in The Equalizer (more recently inhabited by Denzel Washington), a US show with money to burn, but which lacked Callan’s sour piss tang.

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

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