Thursday, 15 May 2014

The Sandbaggers (season one, 1978)

The Sandbaggers is a British television espionage drama, originally broadcast between 1978 and 1980. It takes the gritty realist approach to spy dramas about as far as it can be taken, which is either a good thing or a bad thing depending on your point of view.

The series is concerned with an elite but entirely mythical unit within the Secret Intelligence Service (also known as MI6). This elite unit is known as the Sandbaggers. Their job is to carry out dangerous and/or politically sensitive covert operation.

The idea behind the series was to get as far away as possible from the popular glamourised “guns, girls and gadgets” conception of the world of espionage. The series was created by Ian Mackintosh, a former naval officer who had established a reputation as a television writer with the successful BBC series Warship. Mackintosh wrote the first two seasons and the early episodes of season three before his death in 1979. The mystery surrounding his death (his light aircraft with two other passengers aboard including his girlfriend) disappeared over the Gulf of Alaska, fueling speculation that he had been a real-life spy.

The series emphasises the political machinations behind espionage operations. In fact it emphasises this aspect so much that it ends up being to some extent a political drama series rather than a spy series. Given the focus on the political side it was probably inevitable that the series would be very talky. And it is very talky indeed. Ironically, given that the series was intended to be a reaction against the older style of TV spy series, this actually makes the series seem in some ways a little dated. It can also also make for deadly dull television if not done well.

The series seems to be at pains to show the British government in the worst possible light. Politicians are portrayed as cynical, corrupt, self-serving, short-sighted and stupid. All of which was probably true at the time, and is certainly even more true today. 

The Sandbaggers adopts a rather unusual technique for a spy show. We see very little indeed of any actual operations. What we see in the early episodes are people in the London headquarters of the Secret Intelligence Service planning operations, people in offices discussing operations, people in offices waiting for telephone calls telling them the results of operations, but to a large extent the actual operations take place off-stage so to speak. This technique was clearly adopted as part of a frantic attempt to distance the program from  any hint of a James Bond-type approach. In some circumstances it can be a very effective tension-enhancing dramatic technique to have crucial events take place off-stage. On the other hand  when you have a program that is already very talky such an approach can result in a program that is less than exciting. I’m inclined to think that the technique is overused here and that this series desperately needed to have a bit more action. In the later episodes of season one there’s rather more action so perhaps the producers came to the same conclusion

The surfeit of talk and the lack of action leaves very little scope for location shooting and as a consequence this series has, by the standards of the late 70s, a rather studio-bound feel to it that makes it seem somewhat old-fashioned.

While the series is aiming for a very realistic feel that there are one or two aspects that are perhaps less than convincing. I cannot believe that any British government would have the nerve even to contemplate political assassinations, and I certainly do not for one moment believe  that a British government would countenance the idea of killing a very senior British civil servant suspected of being about to defect. This is James Bond licence to kill stuff. It’s not that I don’t think a British government would be cynical enough to consider such courses of action but no western government at any time since the Second World War would have had the guts to take such actions.

The motivation for introducing far-fetched James Bond licence to kill elements was clearly not to make the series more exciting but to serve a political agenda, a political agenda that is unfortunately all too obvious and all too heavy-handed. In this series politicians and senior civil servants are all assumed to be members of the upper-class old boys’ network, a network that we are clearly expected to consider as corrupt and incompetent.

Apart from its other flaws at times Mackintosh is guilty at times of plain old-fashioned bad writing, of plot twists that are clumsy and predictable and, worse still, of manipulating the viewer.

The head of operations and the man in charge of the Sandbaggers is Neil Burnside (Roy Marsden). I don’t know this for certain but I’m fairly confident that a real-life spy holding such a position would spend more time getting on with the job and less time complaining and behaving like a spoilt petulant child.

I honestly can’t imagine any organisation run the way Burnside’s section is run surviving for any length of time. No organisation can survive unless it makes at least a token effort to look after its own. Again my feeling is that the desire to push an agenda has overruled genuine realism.

I can see why a certain type of British television critic would have gone into raptures over this series. The sort of critic who dislikes television that is entertaining. The Sandbaggers is slow, talky, anti-British, very political, it takes itself very seriously and at times it’s dull. So, for that type of critic, it ticks all the necessary boxes. And as the icing on the cake for those critics, it manages to be even more anti-American than it is anti-British.

The Sandbaggers does certainly have its virtues. It does quite rightly recognise that espionage has political dimensions and that these can make life almost intolerable for those who are simply trying to get on with the job. The focus on the planning side of operations as well as the actual field work is a strength and adds to the feeling of verisimilitude. 

Ray Lonnen as Willie Caine, the senior sandbagger, is an interestingly different kind of television secret agent. For one thing he has a horror of guns!

I have to be honest and say that the approach adopted by this series is not on the whole one that appeals to me very strongly. It’s not quite to my personal taste, but those with different tastes may well enjoy the series very much. It’s well-made and well-acted and (except when agendas seem to intrude to an excessive degree) generally well-written.  

The cynical approach to television espionage series was pioneered by Callan in the late 60s and early 70s. For my money Callan did it better, with subtler characterisations and without too much of an obvious agenda. By the late 1970s the dark and edgy approach was becoming de rigueur in British television and in my personal opinion it quickly became overdone. While it initially offered the advantage of less predictable outcomes, without the inevitable triumph of the good guys and their equally inevitable escapes from seemingly impossible situations, it has its own perils. When taken to excess it can, paradoxically, be just as predictable as the earlier approach. Inevitable downbeat endings can quickly become just as conventional as inevitable upbeat endings. At times The Sandbaggers seems to me to fall into this trap with its outrageously high body count.

If you’re the type of person who loves the ultra-cynical British style of political drama then you’ll find a great deal to enjoy here. If that sort of thing doesn’t float your boat then you may find the series to be heavy going.

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