Review: The Sandbaggers – Series 3

The Sandbaggers – Series 3

This will be popping up on the Action TV web site at some point soon, but you lucky people get to see it first.

On paper, The Sandbaggers could have been one of many lesser shows. Detailing life for the “Special Operations section” of MI6/SIS, it could have been a James Bond-esque tale of daring-do. It could have been a slightly more sedate, John Le Carré-style affair, all intrigue, politics and back-biting. Instead, it proved to be a combination of both worlds, marrying the excitement of a Fleming book with the authenticity of Le Carré.

Throughout the show’s three series, the agents of the piece – the eponymous Sandbaggers – and their boss, former Sandbagger Neil Burnside (Roy Marsden) were faced with as many murky plots from the depths of Whitehall and from the UK’s supposed allies as they were by Soviet espionage. They failed or died in their missions on any number of occasions because of office politics back home, all while being paid a civil service salary.

The success of the show was as much due to the authenticity of the scripts as it was the mesmerising central performance of Marsden. Much of that was a result of the (possible) inside knowledge of the show’s creator, former naval officer Ian Mackintosh, who wrote all the scripts for the show’s first two series. At the very least, it was because of his talent as a scriptwriter.

Tragically, Mackintosh died in an aircraft crash before the start of the third series of the show. He’d managed to write a number of scripts, including the final episode’s, but without his continued input, the show failed to hit the creative heights of the previous two series.

It started on a high, however, with All in a Good Cause, possibly the show’s finest hour. A magnificent example of how to orchestrate complex plot threads, it gives Mackintosh a chance to show the full gamut of Sandbaggers techniques he’d developed over the previous two series: double-dealing; misdirection; inter-departmental rivalry; political machinations and more. The DVDs are worth buying for this episode alone.

To Hell with Justice, the first of the series’ occasional excursions to Malta, sees an old friend under suspicion and a typically tragic conclusion. For all the cold, hawkishness of the show, it’s a hard person who doesn’t have tissues to hand while watching it.

Unusual Approach is an uncharacteristically flawed script from Mackintosh, with Burnside forced to go on holiday to Rhodes, leaving chief Sandbagger Willy Caine (played by Ray Lonnen) in charge. Caine, more used to the problems of the field than office politics, finds himself adrift as he’s played by the various sides gathering around the department in Burnside’s absence. This essentially gives Lonnen and Marsden a chance to swap their plot roles as well, Marsden now providing comic relief and Lonnen the serious elements of the show. It’s an experiment that unfortunately doesn’t work.

The first Sandbaggers episode written by someone other than Mackintosh, My Name is Anna Wiseman, shows what The Sandbaggers would have been without Mackintosh at its helm from the beginning. Mostly a tiresome polemic that fits badly with the Real Politik of the rest of the series, it involves Burnside’s attempt to plant a long-term double agent behind the iron curtain, neglecting to mention to his bosses that her real mission would be short-term human rights propaganda.

Arden Winch’s Sometimes We Play Dirty Too is equally uninspiring, a simple police story masquerading as a Sandbaggers plot. Why did an agent die in a car crash in Prague? And do we care?

Who Needs Enemies is probably the best of the non-Mackintosh scripts. Although it has many of the standard Sandbaggers qualities, including political manoeuvrings within SIS to get Burnside reassigned, it fails to understand some of the important relationships between the characters that make the various power-plays depicted implausible.

The series ends on Mackintosh’s final script, Opposite Numbers, which concluded with a cliffhanger of enormous proportions that was never to be resolved, the producers deciding the show couldn’t continue without its creator. Burnside, incensed by impending arms reduction talks with his implacable, untrustworthy enemies, the Soviet Union, decides enough is enough and he’ll have to intervene to stop them. Returning to the show’s overseas home of Malta with Sandbaggers in tow, he tries to exfiltrate a defector to force the talks to break down.

Although not meeting the heights set by the previous series, the third series manages to continue the show’s depiction of the corrosive effects of espionage on the psyches of those involved. Caine and Burnside are nearly empty shells by the end of the series, Burnside’s various schemes becoming almost suicidal in their recklessness. When modern shows such as 24 depict supermen who can survive years in Chinese prisons with little ill effect, it’s refreshing to be able to see spies who are also human beings, thanks to the miracle of DVD.


Network have already used up the main special features from the US releases of the show on the previous two series’ DVDs. Obviously unwilling to fill in the gaps with the minor trivia Granada and BFS Video had also supplied – including “Sandbaggers abbreviations guides” and lists of “memorable dialogue” – Network has instead chosen to provide a story from Crown Court that featured Roy Marsden. As an example of Crown Court at its finest and most pedantically accurate, it’s wonderful, but as a special features for an 80s spy series, it lacks a little something.


The picture has considerable noise and distortion. Sound quality is good, however.


  • I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.