Series Review: The Sandbaggers (1978 – 1980)

Character driven, gritty and realistic spy show in the vane of John le Carré's greatest and most cynical works.

The mid-1970’s was, if nothing else, a dark time for the representation of British Spies in the media. Ian Fleming’s death in 1964 meant that any James Bond adaptions from then on would lack the creative direction and gritty realism that kept the series grounded during the Sean Connery years. Connery’s exodus from the series in 1971 further exacerbated this problem and the introduction of Simon Raven (a comedic writer often described to have “the mind of a cad”) to the series’ constantly revolving writing team meant that the series took a huge shift in tone from then on. Instead of the familiar boisterous yet professional gentleman spy that the fans had become familiar with, they had to endure the controversial Lazenby and Moore years.

Furthermore, instead of actual intelligence work, most representations of spies during this period relied on them acting more like law enforcement, as was the case for The Professionals (1977) where officers of the fictitious Criminal Intelligence, Section-5 (CI5) dealt with any cases that they wanted. It’s commonly thought that it wouldn’t be until the end of the decade, and the adaption of John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979) that the genre saw resurgence in quality and popularity, however, that is only partly true. A year before this mini-series, Yorkshire Television (a subsidiary of ITV) debuted Ian Mackintosh’s The Sandbaggers (1978), a staggeringly accurate television program depicting the inner workings of the British Secret Intelligence Service.

The reason why I believe The Sandbaggers (1978) succeeded where the shows and movies that came before it failed is because of its authenticity. Mackintosh, head writer as well as creator, sprinkled his scripts with a liberal dose of believable (and often real) spy jargon, combined with authentic terminology (The Sandbaggers (1978) was one of the first to refer to Britain’s foreign intelligence service under its proper name “The Secret Intelligence Service” as opposed to the more common “The Secret Service.”)

Where Mackintosh learned all this secret information is still up for debate to this date. As this was before Colin McColl’s tenure as C of SIS, reliable information on the service was hard to come by. Some have suggested that like Fleming before him, Mackintosh had at some point been involved with Naval Intelligence and thus had contact with officers from SIS. Mackintosh, unfortunately, disappeared in 1981, so we may never know for sure. Whatever the source, this authenticity, combined with a ultra-realistic representation of an intelligence officers’ work as boring and sometimes tedious gave the show an edge of voyeurism that even now, 33 years later, brings people to it.

The show itself concerned the missions undertaken by Neil Burnside (Ray Marsden) and the Special Operation Section of the Secret Intelligence Service, also known as the Sandbaggers. As their name suggests, The Sandbaggers are the people in MI6 who go behind enemy lines without official cover, the people who handle MI6’s military operations, and, very occasionally, the people tasked with assassinating those whose continued survival is deemed to be detrimental to national security. They’re also the people in MI6 most likely to be ordered to their death, a fact represented in the show by the constant change in cast, with Burnside and his trusted deputy Willie Caine (Ray Lonnen) as the only characters to survive all three seasons. As can be expected, both actors portray the roles admirably enough with Ray Marsden portraying Burnside as halfway between a spymaster and a grizzled veteran and Ray Lonnen portraying his character as the younger, less experienced of the two – a man with great vitality, but also someone on the slippery slope towards cynicism.

The missions undertaken by the Sandbaggers, the elite of MI6, are tedious, dangerous and often pointless and they themselves are distrustful of each other, bitterly cynical about their work and severely underpaid and underfunded. They know that when they die during assignment, most likely no one but those in the section will care, and few more will ever be aware of the fact that they died doing their duty for Queen and country. As you expect, this is not a show for those seeking a happy ending or The Sweeney (1975) levels of violence or action. The action in The Sandbaggers (1978) is slow, drawn out and painful for those involved. As Burnside notes at the end of the first episode:

“Special Operations doesn’t mean going in with all guns blazing. It means special planning, special care, fully briefed agents in possession of all possible alternatives. If you want James Bond, go to your library. But if you want a successful operation, sit at your desk and think, and then think again. Our battles aren’t fought at the end of a parachute. They’re won and lost in drab, dreary corridors in Westminster…”

As you can expect, the show was never popular during its original run and if not for its cult status and the success of Greg Rucka’s Queen and Country (2001) it would have no doubt withered away completely. But tastes change and to a modern audience The Sandbaggers (1978) sits comfortably amongst recent shows like Spooks (2002) and Homeland (2011) where once it was the outsider amongst The New Avengers (1976) and The Sweeney (1975). Ultimately, while the show does have its limitations (including an obviously small budget and the fact that it hasn’t aged particularly well) for those who enjoy gritty and realistic Spy shows and who are looking for something more in the genre, missing out on The Sandbaggers (1978) would be a sorry mistake.

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