Friday 9 September 2016

The Sandbaggers, season two (1980)

The Sandbaggers, made by Britain’s Yorkshire Television, ran for three seasons from 1978 to 1980. This series took the gritty realistic and cynical spy drama further than it had ever been taken before, and in fact it took that approach about as far as it could be taken.

Ian Mackintosh created the series and wrote all of the episodes of the first two seasons and some season three episodes before his tragic death at the age of 39 in 1979. Mackintosh had earlier created the successful Warship series while still serving in the Royal Navy. There have been persistent rumours that Mackintosh had actually been a serving member of the Secret Intelligence Service or had at least been seconded to the SIS at some point during his naval career. The accuracy of his knowledge of the inner workings of the intelligence community has fueled these rumours although it’s also possible that he simply did his research very very thoroughly. Mackintosh himself was non-committal on the subject.

Either way the series presents a remarkably accurate picture of how real-life spies actually operate and how the intelligence community interacts, sometimes catastrophically, with government. Of course some liberties were taken for dramatic effect - even a hyper-realistic spy series has to have a bit more action than a real-life spy would normally encounter.

Mackintosh wanted the series to be accurate but with the focus largely on the internal politics of the SIS and its interactions with its political masters and with the CIA.

The result is a series that is fascinating but also unremittingly bleak and horrifyingly cynical. I watched the first season a while back and at times I found it to be just a little too nihilistic and despairing. You really have to be in the mood to watch this series. If you do happen to be in the mood it can be riveting television.

The Sandbaggers are a very small and specialised team department of the SIS. They handle the really dirty and dangerous jobs. There are never more than three Sandbaggers, working under Neil Burnside (Roy Marden). Burnside had been a Sandbagger and is now  the SIS Director of Operations, responsible for all operations involving field agents. His relations with his superiors are uneasy.

Season two opens with At All Costs. A year after a disastrous operation in Berlin the SIS receives an offer that is almost too good to be true. The head of the Bulgarian secret service has offered to provide the SIS with extraordinarily valuable information. The offer is so good that it surely has to be a set-up. And yet it could be real, and if it is real it’s an offer that cannot be passed up. The Bulgarian secret service chief will only had the information over to Sandbagger Two. This in itself is suspicious, but then again there could be a valid reason. Burnside is full of misgivings but “C” (the head of the SIS, played by the wonderful Richard Vernon) is keen. The SIS is about to have its already meagre budget slashed and they need a major success. The operation goes ahead. 

This episode encapsulates most of the major themes of the series - the impossibility of knowing whether you’re going to be double-crossed or not, the necessity to go ahead with insanely high-risk operations for political reasons, and most of all the all-pervasive sense of fear when operating alone in a hostile country knowing you may be walking straight into a trap. 

In Enough of Ghosts the Sandbaggers have to deal with terrorism and they find out that not all the fanatics are on the terrorists’ side.

In Decision by Committee an aircraft is hijacked. Two very senior British military men are aboard and they are the principal targets of the terrorists. What the terrorists don’t know is that there are two other notable passengers - a Sandbagger and a CIA operative. The British government in the manner one would expect from a government - they do a great deal of discussing but are desperate to avoid making any actual decision. Neil Burnside however is determined to do something. It is an unwritten law in the Secret Intelligence Service that if a Sandbagger is in trouble some attempt must be made to get him out of it. This puts Burnside at odds with his superiors. A very tense episode and a very good one.

A Question of Loyalty presents Burnside with multiple problems - a failed operation in Warsaw and a possible double agent in Stockholm. It’s a complex web of deceptions in which, as so often in this series, the biggest problems are posed by friends and allies rather than enemies. 

It Couldn't Happen Here is an exceptionally provocative episode. A Cabinet Minister is involved in a car accident in Germany. A woman is killed and she happens to have been a Secret Intelligence Service officer. The Cabinet Minister’s behaviour after the accident was questionable to say the least and Burnside decides to do some digging. The results are alarming. MI5 and the CIA have been digging into the Minister’s past as well, with equally alarming results. While this is happening the American Secret Service has borrowed both Sandbaggers to protect an American senator. Neil finds out that his old friend at the CIA, Jeff Ross, has some rather colourful conspiracy theories about political assassinations. Of course such things could never happen in Britain, except that maybe they could if the circumstances were extraordinary enough. And those extraordinary circumstances may have already arisen.

Lots of fascinating and breathtakingly cynical political machinations in this excellent episode. 

Operation Kingmaker has something you definitely don’t expect in an episode of The Sandbaggers - humour. Low-key understated cynical humour but moments of humour nonetheless. Neil Burnside is playing a dangerous internal political game for very high stakes.

I’m not sure whether the second season was actually better than the first or whether I’m just a bit more in tune with the intentions behind it but I did enjoy season two. It’s still pretty bleak although the good guys do sometimes win. That of course is assuming we’re meant to see the SIS as the good guys. In fact we really don’t see much of the KGB at all. They’re more like a constant background noise but there’s very little focus on actual active KGB operations.

The acting is a major strength. Roy Marsden is terrific as Neil Burnside, a man for who we feel some sympathy and some admiration while at the same time his personal flaws, his recklessness, his cold-blooded cynicism and his often poor judgment appall us. He’s a very flawed hero indeed. He combines ruthless ambition with an extraordinary ability to sabotage his own career.

Richard Vernon (who happens to be one of my favourite English actors of this era) is superb as “C” - a bit crusty and pompous but shrewd and flexible and very confident.

Ray Lonnen has one of the more sympathetic roles this series has to offer as Sandbagger One Willie Caine. Willie is a complex man who detests violence but has spent six years in the Special Operations Section in which violence is all part of the job. He’s also the closest thing to a friend that Neil Burnside has.

Bob Sherman is the CIA’s station chief in London, a cheerful slightly amoral character who has established a very close and amicable working relationship with Burnside.

Each episode is basically a standalone drama although there is certainly some degree of character development (Burnside for example becomes steadily more obsessive and his judgment becomes increasingly erratic). While there are no real multi-episode story arcs actions do have consequences for the characters and those consequences are evident in later episodes.

The Sandbaggers is not exactly light entertainment. It’s an ambitious and very cerebral spy drama with the focus on motivations and political consequences rather than action. Highly recommended.

The Sandbaggers is available on DVD in both Regions 1 and 2.


  1. I can't believe you haven't mentioned the fantastic Jerome Willis as Burnside's desk-bound, immediate superior!

    I think it's a great series - but in retrospect, maybe it should have ended after the first series. I watched the whole box set in less than a week - shows how much I liked it - but that just highlighted how much of a reset there is between series one and two. In reality, after the events of the last episode of the first series, no-one would have touched Burnside with a barge pole! How on Earth anyone ever trusts him again is beyond me!

    However, if you do watch season three, at the very least there's some great location footage in Malta!

    1. Interesting observation. You may be right - the whole point of the first series seems to be that Burnside's judgment is so poor that he will end up completely destroying his own credibility. He always seems to be so focused on what he hopes he's going to achieve that he doesn't realise that his plans are ludicrously reckless and unworkable.