So the who man who played Callan and Breaker Morant is dead.

I think I first saw Edward Woodward in some simulation of chainmail, speaking Shakespearean blank verse, in some BBC version of one of the Bard’s histories. He could do the lot — the crumpled spy, the Shakespearean hero, Bruce Beresford’s court martialled tough guy. He toured this country in Noel Coward’s Private Lives — on the back of Callan. I have a DVD of him, directed by Zeffirelli in Eduardo De Filippo’s Saturday, Sunday and Monday with Olivier and Joan Plowright. Only a month ago you could see him on the ABC playing Penelope Wilton’s old bastard of a father in Hunter. There is a recording of the him reading Kipling’s ballads which showed Banjo Paterson how to do it, and Woodward brings out everything which is wry and world-weary, everything fierce and democratic, everything that salutes the common person, in those late, great poems of Empire.

It stands to reason that he should be honoured in Australia for playing a wronged anti-hero of the Boer war. As an actor Edward Woodward always represented a best of British that even the land of larrikins and bushrangers had to respect.

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Think of the revelation that Callan represented. It was as if Edward Woodward’s Callan had been put on earth as an antidote to James Bond. The series gave the finger to everything that was shaken, not stirred, everything that glided glamorously in an Aston Martin.

Callan was hectored, he was put upon, he was constantly betrayed and patronised by his oily establishment boss (played by William Squire) and he took it hard just as he played it hard. He was the popularisation of all that anger and wryness and pain that had risen up like the revolt of the masses in kitchen-sink drama, in the films of Lindsay Anderson, in the plays of Pinter and Osbourne.

And here in Australia we cheered Callan on as if his cut-price existentialism, his Len Deighton greyness and abiding sense of doom, were parts of the British heritage that we claimed as our own. It was like Freddie Truman’s sense of style or the comedy of Pete and Dud: we secretly thought it was wasted on the land that produced it.

Of course the British television of the 1960s produced every variety of grit and ghastliness: Z Cars was not populated by glamour cops, Steptoe and Son could make you weep at the meanness of it all, and Ricky Gervais had nothing on the wobegone comic grandeurs of Tony Hancock. Maybe it took the death throes of the class system to produce such a simmering drama of social unease. Of course it also produced Diana Rigg in The Avengers, that bombshell of aristocracy for which generations of fantasists and feminists are grateful.

But we are right to claim Edward Woodward’s Callan as an Australian under the skin. He represented the side of Britain which Barry Humphries remarked, with regret, was getting more Australian by the day.

And we have always had the deepest kind of affinity for one strand of the British genius. We were settled, by and large, by the humbly born and down and out and we get a shock of recognition when we hear the voices of Dickens’ Londoners like memories of our ancestral souls. (Mr Micawber even settled here and became a magistrate.)

Callan belonged to that company and the kind of identification Edward Woodward’s incarnation of him provoked made perfect sense whether you felt persecuted at school or patronised at the office. What Australians recognized in Callan was their most ancient mythology: the belief, as Russell Ward says in The Australian Legend , that Jack is not only as good as his master but likely to be a damn sight better.

Blessed be the poor in spirit and the downtrodden spies of the world. And may the earth lie light on Edward Woodward, a superb actor, who brought Breaker Morant and Callan and The Wicker Man to life.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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