Callan – The Death of Robert E Lee

The Death of Robert E Lee

The Death of Robert E Lee is Callan’s second missing episode and provides further insight into the early dynamics in the series. Callan remains ‘free’ of the Section but he can’t escape the world of espionage, even when it isn’t Hunter blackmailing him.

The CIA request Hunter’s help to get hold of Li Pa Chao (Burt Kwouk), who is responsible for the deaths of many US soldiers in Vietnam. In exchange, they will provide photos taken by a U2 spy plane of a Chinese H-bomb test. Chao is now going by the name Robert E Lee and the Section use Jenny (Francisca Tu) (a widow after A Magnum for Schneider) to lure him to England – and to Callan, who knows where Lee’s father is. But the U2 photos are valuable, so the CIA men (George Roubicek and Thick Wilson) approach Callan too, with an offer he can’t refuse. Callan persuades Jenny to help him ensure Lee avoids the Section, only to discover Lee has other reasons for coming to England.

Like the previous episode, The Death of Robert E Lee is another with someone from Callan’s past – this time it’s someone the Section previously sent him to find. It isn’t clear whether Callan was supposed to kill Lee in Hong Kong, but we can probably presume so. We also learn that Callan killed someone in Puerto Rico, which the Americans use as a means of blackmailing him. However covertly it may have happened, they now hold an extradition for murder over him. References to the Section and Callan at work abroad are limited – originally, until Series 2’s Heir Apparent I’d assumed the Section only operated in the UK. It’s good having more of Callan’s background built up in these early episodes: in each of the episodes so far we’ve learned, respectively, how his parents died, what sort of army experience he had, and now a little about his previous life in the Section.

I found this episode more challenging to follow in script form than Goodbye Nobby Clarke. With the previous episode, I had draft, rehearsal and camera scripts, but I only had a camera script for The Death of Robert E Lee. It means there are several scenes in which we have to infer action from the dialogue, though Andrew Pixley’s Callan: Under the Red File book is also helpful. Sometimes we can only guess and there are a few moments in particular I’d be keen to see.

The dummy in the bathroom

There’s a man from the Section watching Callan’s flat, so he’s setting up a dummy to fake his presence before he sneaks out. We get snatches of Callan’s humour as he talks to the dummy while propping it up in his bathroom: “You don’t look as worried as I do. Not nearly so worried.” But while the cameras follow Callan around the bathroom – to the loo, the bath, the window – we can only roughly guess what he’s doing. Is the dummy propped up on a chair, on the loo, in the bath? I’m also curious how Edward Woodward delivered his lines when chatting to the dummy. The way words like “folks” and “kid” are used in the dialogue come across as slightly American to me, so I wonder if he might have used an accent for them.

Callan: You don't look as worried as I do. Not nearly so worried. You want to eat more, son. You should force yourself. Give the guy a hand folks. Give him two hands. You look great kid. Great. Only God help you if Hunter finds out.

Action by ?

Early in the episode, Callan comes home at night to find the two CIA men, Dale (George Roubicek) and Johnson (Thick Wilson), in his flat. He and Dale have a scuffle and there are a few ways we can work out what was supposed to be going on.

 

The camera movements tell us they end up on the floor. The camera is then directed to ‘TILT UP AS THEY RISE’ so at some point Joe must reveal a gun to Callan and indicate for him to get up as he says, “This thing works, Mr Callan.” The following dialogue exchanges apparently show that Dale did not come off that well, or at least that Callan was giving him a decent hiding until Joe stepped in!

Joe: This thing works, Mr Callan (to Dale) You all right? Dale: I'm okay. This guy knows his stuff (PUTS LIGHT ON) Put that thing away. Somebody taught you, brother. Callan: I don't like being burgled

But it’s hard to know exactly what this all looked like. Dale may have been waiting to jump Callan or both men may have been searching the flat and Callan simply attacked the nearest one. I’m inclined towards the latter; Callan had assumed he was being burgled and that’s probably not an assumption a man with his background would make if the two men had simply been standing or sitting waiting. Yet I’d be curious how Edward Woodward played the “burgled” line. Is Callan simply playing dumb now the Americans have opened their mouths and presumably revealed that they’re not local? He does when they first throw him a question about the Section.

Dale: Why did you quit working for Hunter? Callan: I beg your pardon Joe: I like that. I really do. nobody can say I beg your pardon like the British.

Surely his mind would be whirring already – how many Americans are breaking into bedsits in Bayswater?

Escaping Waterloo

As with Goodbye Nobby Clarke I’ve come across no photos of the cast or sets from The Death of Robert E Lee, and I’d be pleased with any from the location filming at Waterloo Station. This is where Lee arrives, with some help to sneak him past officials. The camera script omits any detail about this filmed sequence from Part Two and the dialogue only makes it clear that Lee was among the nuns, priest and Chinese children seen by Meres at the station.

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However, an interview with director Robert Tronson (quoted in Callan: Under the Red File) offers more: “Burt Kwouk and Ted Woodward looked impressive, disguised as Catholic priests; the beautiful Francisca Tu made a ravishing nun in one of those big wimples.” Robert’s memory doesn’t seem to be entirely accurate though as Meres’ dialogue describes the scene as, “A couple of nuns with refugee children. A priest met them.” So there was only one priest. If the nuns were supposed to have been travelling with the children, it makes sense for them both to appear Chinese too, so we can conclude that if Jenny was one nun, Lee must have been the other. I would rather like to see Burt Kwouk as a nun and Edward Woodward as a priest.

Just how blatant is this ruse for the audience? Do we see the three of them up close or only in wide shots? Do the viewers only realise it in the subsequent scene? Does that actually start with habits being whipped off? I was left pondering all this, but it also bugged me that it isn’t apparent whether Meres is shown at Waterloo. We know from his dialogue afterwards that he’s there, but he could have been off-camera, with the Waterloo action being at least partly point of view shots.

I needed more. The production documents show that The Death of Robert E Lee’s filmed sequences were all completed on the same day and that Anthony Valentine was involved in filming that day[1]. There are no other location scenes he would have been in, so he must have been present at Waterloo.

Additionally, Russell Hunter was also filming that day and this is also the only sequence he could have been in[2]. In later dialogue, we learn Lonely paid off the Chinese kids with some tinned fruit, telling them they were rehearsing an advert for it (I thought that was rather good for Lonely). But the fact that Lonely had to explain this to Lee – and therefore us the audience – made me think this took place off-camera. Maybe it did or maybe the scene at Waterloo simply shows Lonely speaking to the kids but without the conversation’s details being clear to the audience – there was no sound recorded on location.

A nice addendum about this filming is Robert Tronson’s further memory of Francisca as a nun: “With a wonderfully straight face, she went up to a crowded book stall and demanded in a penetrating voice a copy of Playboy.” They were filming inside the station then, depicting the characters on the concourse, rather than meeting outside. This sequence was shot on 25th April 1967 and that year Terence Cuneo painted a magnificent landscape of Waterloo Station, giving us a decent idea of what the location would have looked like.

Cuneo’s painting includes a branch of WH Smith and photos from just a few years later show the same Smith’s with a large display of books.

Uncle Arthur’s fruit

Callan takes Jenny and Lee to a place owned by Lonely’s uncle, who is using it to store tinned fruit. The script designates two locations there as ROOM and HALL. I’d initially imagined some sort of small warehouse storage, but it sounds like Lonely’s Uncle Arthur is a bit of a Del Boy, so this could be any sort of house or flat really.

Callan has managed to get a message to Dale via Lonely. When Dale comes knocking at the fruit palace, it almost reads like we suddenly cut and Lee is lying on the floor. Something has happened, but it actually takes several more pages in the script to be able to infer that Callan chucked a tin of fruit to distract Lee so Dale could barge in with his gun. I’m still unsure if Callan is supposed to have thrown the tin at Lee or just somewhere. Again, it’s a fight sequence of sorts that I’m missing out on and the camera script just doesn’t tell us enough.

Guest parts

I’ve encountered enough 1960s’ television with Chinese or other Asian characters played by white blokes in (bad) make-up, making it somewhat refreshing to find a programme with two reasonably large parts portrayed by actors who are actually of Chinese descent. It probably helps that the cast is kept relatively small and Robert Tronson hasn’t had to try to find a dozen Chinese stuntmen.

Burt Kwouk already had a lot of credits by this point, cropping up in the James Bond films (see Bonus!), The Avengers (1961’s ‘Kill the King’, 1964’s ‘Lobster Quadrille’ and 1965’s ‘The Cybernauts’), Compact (1963’s ‘Chicken and Champagne’), a recurring role in The Sentimental Agent (1963), Out of the Unknown (1965’s ‘Sucker Bait’) and Danger Man (1965’s ‘You’re Not in Any Trouble, Are You?’ and ‘A Very Dangerous Game’, plus 1967’s ‘Koroshi’) to name a few. He will return to Callan in Series 2’s The Running Dog, which is sadly also missing.

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Francesca Tu had a recurring role in the Fu Manchu films (with Burt part of The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966) too), had also appeared in Danger Man‘s ‘A Very Dangerous Game’  and earlier in 1967 had starred in the German-language Lotosblüten für Miss Quon.

I like having some in-universe continuity, with Jenny’s presence providing a connection to the Armchair Theatre pilot. Her role in A Magnum for Schneider was minor, yet she has far more to do here, including some good scenes with a sinister Meres. She’s understandably hateful towards the man who helped kill her husband and he does nothing to redeem himself.

Meres

It’s interesting to see how Meres is written this early on. He takes Jenny for a pub lunch to convince her to help the Section. When Hunter arrives at the end of the meal, Jenny informs him that Meres has had three large whiskies. Meres seems about to try to defend himself but Hunter interrupts: “Shut up.” It seems irresponsibly excessive while he’s on a job and he clearly knows it. It’s also worth noting that Hunter is out of his office – something that will be unacceptable in later series.

Earlier in this scene Jenny tries to leave so Meres grabs her wrist and twists it. I’m coming to this story having recently rewatched Callan’s final series and it’s quite a contrast to see Toby behaving so unpleasantly. He’s always fairly fast to jump to violence, but he’s particularly nasty in this story. Jenny might be bias in describing him as a “dangerous man” but even the script describes his tone as such.

Callan goes to see Jenny later, sneaking into her room through the window while Meres is downstairs. He asks what happened to her wrists, so Meres must have left a mark. As Callan starts to probe her to find out her role in what’s going on, she says, “If you touch me, I’ll scream.” Callan answers, “For Meres? He’d come up and help me.” He definitely has a reputation.

When Meres does come in (with Callan hiding) he’s unnecessarily intimidating, with a dash of racism thrown in. The camera script tells us that Meres moves in close to Jenny, so it’s easy to imagine him leaning in over her as she lies on her bed.

In an interview, Anthony Valentine says that the production team decided early on that Meres’ behaviour needed toning down: they felt it was unrealistic for someone so outwardly sadistic to be successful in a role like his in an organisation like the Section. That definitely doesn’t appear to have happened yet. There are hints in later episodes that Meres’ inclinations have a certain advantage for the Section, but it does seem more controlled later on, while he’s fairly animalistic at this point.

A free agent

I’ve known Callan wasn’t properly employed by the Section in this first series, yet I think I expected he would be blackmailed into it each episode. It’s good to switch things up in this one. Interestingly, while the CIA have blackmail material on him, they do also offer payment at the “usual” rate. I wonder what that is for an assassin living in a bedsit? Callan’s abode always looks pretty lowly, but Dale actually scoffs at the idea that he might be burgling it, “Hell – you got nothing to steal. You’re poor.” I doubt they’re offering up much.

While a pessimistic undertone and downbeat endings often seem to define the series, I nonetheless found it satisfying to see Callan get one up on Hunter and the Section for a change. He manages to get hold of the U2 photos on a microdot and offers them up for sale, which must be one of the most positive outcomes we ever see him achieve. It feels like a reward of sorts as HOVER FOR SPOILER.

Callan doesn’t even have to kill anyone in this story. From the surviving episodes, it often seems like he goes through with killing someone every week (although there are exceptions), so it’s interesting to chalk up another murder-free story early on.

Bonus!

Callan may have been the antithesis to the fantastical espionage in the James Bond films, but this episode has several cast connections to the latest one. You Only Live Twice was released just a month before The Death of Robert E Lee was broadcast, featuring Burt Kwouk as Spectre #3 (having previously appeared as Mr Ling in Goldfinger), George Roubicek as an astronaut (2nd spacecraft) and Francesca Tu as Osata’s secretary.

Burt Kwouk as Spectre #3
Burt Kwouk (far right) as Spectre #3

[1]Thanks to Andrew Pixley for checking this.

[2] And again.

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Comments

  1. Nick Lawton

    Brilliant fascinating and well researched article. I love the black and white series of Callan, but knew little of the missing episodes. You’ve brought them alive, thank you

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