There’s much debate in connoisseurs’ circles about which of the various contenders is the best British spy show. It’s relatively easy to dismiss glossy and shallow shows like Spooks and older fare like The Cold Warrior. Serials such as Smiley’s People and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy put in considerable competition, although may be too lacking in action for some. Most arguments eventually narrow down to two shows: Callan and The Sandbaggers.
While Callan has the slight edge in terms of dialogue, characters and generally downbeat atmosphere, The Sandbaggers has both greater realism and more intricate plotting that probably give it the eventual crown.
The Sandbaggers, which was broadcast in the late 70s and early 80s, was largely the work of one man Ian Mackintosh. Well known for his work on navy drama Warship, Mackintosh crafted a show that tried to depict the true world of spies and the decisions that lead up to their use.
‘The Sandbaggers’ of the show’s title are members of a special operations directorate of MI6. General purpose agents, they can be called in to help out with miscellaneous problems, whether that be bodyguard duty, helping a defector to escape from his home country in a ‘bust out’ or even assassination. The Sandbaggers may not be James Bonds, but they wind up in as many dangerous situations and frequently end up the worse for them.
Throughout the three series of The Sandbaggers, the directorate is headed by former Sandbagger Neil Burnside (Roy Marsden), director of operations. Burnside is a hawkish, ruthless man, moulded by the sharp end of espionage, whose one care in all the world is the proper performance of his job and the safety of his Sandbaggers. There is literally nothing Burnside wouldn’t do if the job demanded it of him or if he thought it was the right thing to do to win the day or support his Sandbaggers.
Unlike more action-packed shows, most of The Sandbaggers’ scripts revolve around Burnside attempts to cajole the mandarins of Whitehall, his superiors in MI6 – including the services’ heads, C and his deputy – and his opposite numbers in allied countries into doing his bidding. More often that not, each story revolves around Burnside being stymied by political lack of will, the timidity of others or, equally commonly, the far greater humanity and common sense of those he needs to persuade. Equally commonly, Burnside’s circumventing of the rules or some quick thinking by the lead Sandbagger, Willy Caine (Ray Lonnen), save the day, although usually not without some cost – either to Burnside’s career prospects or in human life.
Season two opens a year after the end of the first season. That saw Burnside commit one of the most supremely ruthless and jaw-droppingly calculated and self-sacrificing acts ever seen on British television. The repercussions from it are still being felt a year on, with Caine no longer trusting Burnside and Burnside even more destructive – and self-destructive – than before.
In “At All Costs”, Burnside breaks Foreign Office rules and travels to East Germany to rescue his most junior Sandbagger, who has been injured during a bust out. Desperate to avoid another loss, Burnside finds himself forced to make a difficult choice. As usual, the outcome isn’t good, but is the best that could be hoped for.
Caine is tired of being a Sandbagger and wants to resign in “Enough of Ghosts”. But Burnside gives him one last mission, after the permanent secretary to the Foreign Office – his former father-in-law, confidante and occasional enemy – is abducted by suspected terrorists. All is not as it seems however and Caine finds he may be too good to leave the directorate, no matter how much he thinks he wants to.
Caine finds his skills called upon unexpectedly during “Decision by Committee”, when the plane home from his latest mission is hijacked. The real intrigue, however, comes from Burnside’s attempts to get government approval for the SAS to storm the plane, even though it’s on foreign soil.
“A Question of Loyalty” sees Sandbagger 2 Mike try to ‘bust out’ a defector, only for the operation to go wrong. Did Mike make a fatal mistake like the station chief reports or was the station chief at fault? And will the inept Deputy C believe the Sandbagger or the fellow diplomat? Nothing works out quite as expected and Deputy C ends up with more layers than his previous antics would suggest.
“It Couldn’t Happen Here” raises the spectre of conspiracies in the JFK Assassination, years before it had become de rigeur. More importantly, it asks the question “Could MI6 follow the CIA or FBI and assassinate a member of the government – even if they knew him to be a spy?” It’s an eye-opening episode with neither Burnside, who favours the disposal of the spy, nor C, who strictly forbids such an act of treason, ever shown to be in the right – both can see the disadvantages to their beliefs as well as the advantages. The eventual conclusion is typical Sandbaggers and typically unsettling.
The last episode “Operation Kingmaker” follows Burnside’s attempts to thwart the rise to the position of C of a personal enemy. To do that, he has to do the unthinkable – try to get the deputy C promoted, despite his obvious inadequacy for the role. While in no way as explosive as the season one’s conclusion, “Operation Kingmaker” sees something unbelievable happen, with Burnside being outfoxed by others even more adept in the ways of intrigue than himself.
Acting quality is somewhat varied in the episodes, with Marsden and his fellow civil servants giving fine performances; Lonnen is likeable enough but lacks the gravitas to be totally convincing as an ex-paratrooper turned spy. The other Sandbaggers, including a young Michael Cashman, are moderately uninspiring, as are most of the guest cast, although there are particularly fine turns by the likes of Wolf Kahler among others. However, there are no performances that actually drag the show down.
Compared to modern shows like 24, The Sandbaggers is slow-moving and visually unchallenging. It has no incidental music whatsoever. Much of the screen-time is taken up with statically shot arguments between talking heads in brightly lit 70s offices. The rest of the time is spent with silent, meandering walks by Marsden through London and film work in whatever part of the YTV area is being used as the country of the week.
Yet for all that, The Sandbaggers remains as enthralling and disturbing as it was 25 years ago. There’s little daring-do, few bullets fired and people die brutally and with disturbing regularity, often because of decisions taken hundreds of miles away from them. It’s not the escapist fare most people are used to, but it’s essential viewing for anyone who wants to see a spy show whose only problem was a lack of budget.
PICTURE AND SOUND QUALITY
Picture quality is poor, with no attempts having been made to remaster the show. Sound quality is fair to good.
Unlike the equivalent Region 1 release, there are no extras on this two-DVD set.