McCallum treks `Behind Enemy Lines'


WARTIME LONDON. host of images: A night sky lighted by burning buildings and searchlights probing for Nazi bombers. A nightingale singing in Berkeley Square. Ack-ack and Glenn Miller music. Edward R. Murrow broadcasting  with explosions in the background. Cryptic radio messages on the BBC for secret agents working behind enemy lines in occupied France. Those images are vivid because they have been in scores of successful films and a few television series. Who has not looked over the shoulders of tense RAF officers in that underground control room, where women soldiers pushed counters - each one representing a flight of German bombers - menacingly across that huge table map of the Channel? Who has not strolled across Waterloo Bridge as the Spitfires roared overhead? Tonight from 9-11, NBC will try to tap that well of nostalgia with "Behind Enemy Lines," a two-hour pilot for a possible series about adventures of the Office of Strategic Services, the World War II predecessor of the CIA. The show, set in 1943 and to big-band music, stars Hal Holbrook as Col. Calvin Turner, a Harvard history professor turned spy chief, and David McCallum as Lt. Col. Shelly Flynn, a career officer chafing under the command of citizen-soldier Turner. McCallum is stranger to neither wartime London nor spy drama. His familiarity with the latter came from his work in the "Man from U.N.C.L.E." television series in the 1960s and with the former when he was a 10-year-old returned to London in 1943 after three years as an evacuee in the north of England. Although he plays an American officer, McCallum said he will make no effort to disguise his British accent. "According to the script, I was educated in England," he said. The Blitz was over by the time McCallum returned home to London, but the waves of bombers had been replaced by buzz-bombs and V-2 rockets launched from German bases across the Channel. Buzz bombs, which the British called "doodle- bugs" with stiff-upper-lip disdain, were small drone aircraft powered by pulse rocket engines and packed with explosives. They flew until they ran out of fuel, then glided down to destroy whatever they struck. "You would be sitting in a restaurant at dinner, and you would hear this rup-rup-rup," McCallum recalled, imitating the pulse of the doodlebug engine. "Conversation would quiet just a bit. When the noise stopped, conversation stopped. There was silence. Conversation resumed after the explosion."

Heady times, to be sure. But V-E Day was more than 40 years ago; the youngest veterans of that war are entering the Nielsen ratings' "55 and over" demographic group. For a very substantial segment of the American audience, V-E Day is not a memory at all, but simply something in the history textbook. Can wartime London draw a big audience at a time when nostalgia itself is focused on the mid-1950s, a full decade after D-Day? McCallum is confident that the glamour of those days of danger and romance is fresh enough to make "Behind Enemy Lines" a successful series. NBC, on the other hand, is not quite convinced. "I believe that Mr. Tartikoff has some reservations about whether this will work as a series," said McCallum, referring to Brandon Tartikoff, president of NBC Entertainment and the architect of the network's stunningly successful prime-time schedule. The last attempt to set a series in World War II was NBC's "Baa Baa Black Sheep," which featured Robert Conrad and airplanes. It was hardly a blockbuster; it lasted two years from its maiden flight in Sept. 1976. But McCallum thinks that the proposed format of "Behind Enemy Lines,"  with home-front action in London and overseas thrills in the heart of Nazi-held Europe, offers the possibility of developing a complex web of multiple story lines. "Like `Hill Street Blues,'" he said. "We would be filming in Ireland, which offers locations that could be anywhere in Europe. And Dublin still looks like wartime London." The pilot will introduce a group of characters who would form the ensemble if the show goes to series. The pilot added location work in Norway as well; the story concerns an OSS operation directed at a Norwegian scientist who is cooperating with the Germans to develop an atomic bomb. The subplot concerns the romance of a junior officer and a British woman. McCallum said the production company has taken an option on Irish studio facilities in the expectation that "Behind Enemy Lines" will be picked up by NBC as a regular series. "We're very serious about this," he said. "We're confident it will work."

Copyright 1985, Newsday Inc.

DREW FEATHERSTON, McCallum treks `Behind Enemy Lines'., 12-29-1985, pp 15.