A Magnum For Schneider aired as part of ITV’s Armchair Theatre series and marks the first appearance of Edward Woodward as David Callan, a burnt-out assassin forcibly retired and now working as a clerk in a bookkeepers office. James Mitchell’s script undercuts the 60s’ trend for glamorous spies by presenting a drab, conflicted, lonely man. Callan is recalled by his former handler Hunter (Ronald Radd) to carry out a hit on a German arms dealer but it’s a rush job, with no back-up, and the police are watching the target.
Hunter runs SIS, an intelligence unit specialising in removing potential threats using a variety of underhand methods. Schneider (Joseph Furst) is a red file case, meaning he’s marked for death. Hunter’s right-hand man Toby Meres, played by Peter Bowles, an actor who specialises in cads and bounders and whom I once saw give a director a bollocking during an LFF Q&A, wants to carry out the hit himself. However Hunter wants to find out if Callan has really gone “soft.” The worst thing a man can be in this game. If Callan can kill Schneider then he can invited back into the fold. If he fails then he’s no longer a problem. Either outcome is acceptable.
Hunter chose Callan for the hit because he works in the same building as Schneider. In fact Hunter implies he got Callan the job at the bookkeepers so he would already be in place when the time came to eliminate Schneider. Callan contrives to stumble into Schneider on the stairs knocking the box he’s carrying and sending its contents to the floor. Callan picks up a model soldier and correctly identifies its regiment. Schneider’s annoyance quickly gives way to delight at meeting somebody who may share his hobby and he allows Callan into his office to show off his toys. They bond over their military backgrounds and shared love of history. Though Schneider emphasises he only plays at war these days. “I do not care for blood Mr Callan. Not any more.”
Though these two old soldiers have much in common they are also complete opposites. Callan is taciturn and sad. Schneider outgoing and friendly. He even has a younger girlfriend, Jenny (Francesca Tu), who cares a great deal for him and knows all about his criminal activities. Callan’s only companion is a small-time criminal nicknamed Lonely (Russell Hunter) who helps him acquire a firearm. Though their relationship seems to develop over the course of the first season, here Callan bullies Lonely, making fun of his personal hygiene and threatening him.
You can feel the violence simmering under the surface with Callan. Woodward gives him a slightly hunched demeanour, and in his interactions with Hunter he speaks hesitantly, like he hasn’t spoken to anybody in months. When he breaks into Schneider’s flat and moves through it trying to evaluate the man’s life we hear his thoughts in voice-over, a drab Hamlet in an overcoat reflecting on whether or not he should make the kill. Schneider keeps a record of killings he’s been involved in hidden in a safe and Callan knows Schneider has to go.
Had A Magnum for Schneider remained a standalone play its bleak final scene would be the perfect ending. They have to walk that back in the season 1 opener The Good Ones Are All Dead which tells a variation on the same story, but this time with a less sympathetic antagonist, an unrepentant Nazi war criminal hiding in plain sight in London. Mitchell also gives Callan a tragic backstory, no doubt to make this embittered loner palatable to audiences more used to likeable heroes. I’m halfway through the surviving episodes from season 2 now. It’s filmed in monochrome with film inserts for location scenes and I cannot imagine how this downbeat show maintains the same feeling of despair when it switches to colour for its later seasons.