Having been watching The Game on BBC2 recently, I was prompted to hunt out my DVD of another spy series set in the 1970s that was a big favourite of mine when I was growing up.
It’s alarming to realise that The Sandbaggers was actually made only four years after The Game is set. You wouldn’t know it to look at it: unlike the über retro-stylised The Game, the older series wears its 1970s setting very lightly because it never occurred to the show that it belonged to a period, the programme makers instead merely opened the door and filming what was outside at the time. Other than obvious details such as fashion and cars together with a complete lack of computers and mobile phones there’s very little to date this show. Even a new cold war with the Russians is currently back in vogue in 2015, although a late visit to the Berlin Wall reminds us of an artefact of the age that will be completely bemusing to anyone born post-1989.
‘Sandbaggers’ refers to the Special Operations Section of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, which is the proper name of the organisation known popularly but inaccurately then and now as MI6. In the series, the Sandbaggers are a three-man team within SIS who actually carry out covert ops overseas, making them realistically low-key James Bonds on a civil service salary with none of the perks. Willie Caine (Ray Lonnen) is the head operative but the Director of Operations in charge is Neil Burnside, an intense and compelling early starring role for Roy Marsden. Burnside is something of an anti-hero, entirely consumed by his job and capable of utterly ruthless decisions to achieve his ends, but at the same time unshakeably loyal to his team even as he knows he’s ordering them on potentially deadly missions.
Burnside has a formal but mutually admiring relationship with the shrewd head of Service known as “C” (Richard Vernon) but an adversarial one with the deputy chief Matthew Peele (Jerome Willis) who fusses more about expense claims and winning political points in Whitehall. Burnside himself exploits a familial link with Sir Geoffrey Wellingham (the wonderful Alan MacNaughtan) who is the permanent undersecretary of state at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Burnside is well served by a super-capable and slyly cheeky PA (Diane Lawler, a scene-stealing turn by the delightful Elizabeth Bennett) while his chief intelligence asset is a close working relationship with his CIA opposite number in London, Jeff Ross (Bob Sherman).
The show does break away briefly to join Caine and the other operatives on their missions (set in locations such as Norway, Cyprus and Berlin but invariably looking like they’ve been shot on the Welsh hillsides or in a quarry in southern England, much like most of Doctor Who’s contemporaneous alien worlds), but the unusual main focus is on inter-office politicking. In the first episode, Burnside advises his Norwegian opposite number that the intelligence and espionage war is more often won or lost by how carefully the plans are laid in the corridors of power in Whitehall than by the actions of those in the middle of the battlefield.
Unusually for a programme of this sort of vintage, the show never seems slow or lagging. Even when there are long scenes of Burnside walking the streets of London, it’s usually to illustrate his frame of mind or to leave us wondering whether he’s under some sort of surveillance that we should be able to spot in the background, keeping the tension at heightened levels throughout. In general the writing is top-notch: there were a couple of times when I thought “That doesn’t feel right …” such as one new agent straight out of training school proving to be as good as the veteran Caine, but rather than finding I’d exposed a misstep it turned out to be a major clue that the characters themselves were soon aware of and acting upon.
The writer/creator of The Sandbaggers was former Scottish naval officer Ian Mackintosh, and his realisation of the shadowy world of SIS feels so completely authentic that everyone has always assumed he had first hand experience of what he was writing about, much as John Le Carré did. The second series was an episode shorter than the first and third, and it’s rumoured that one of the scripts was vetoed by the intelligence services who felt that it gave away too much under the Official Secrets Act. And just to add a final convincing layer of mystery, Mackintosh himself was declared missing in an unexplained aircraft accident over the Pacific Ocean near Alaska midway through the making of the third series.
Without him, the series was quickly brought to an end – but what a magnificent 20 episodes it left behind, right up there with Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy. Talking of which, it’s such a relief to have a UK spy series that isn’t obsessed by internal mole hunt sensationalism but which is instead focussed on the day-to-day reality of spycraft at the absolute height of the Cold War.
Season 1 episodes comprise:
First Principles (18 September 1978)
A story largely concerned with introducing the characters and premise for the series follows Burnside’s painstaking planning for an operation to rescue a group of scientists whose plane has crashed over the Russian border. Unfortunately someone else doesn’t appreciate Burnside’s meticulous approach, and their impatience causes the mission to blow up in everyone’s faces.
A Proper Function of Government (25 September 1978)
A story highlighting Burnside’s cunning and manipulative side as he tries to arrange things so that he himself gets sent to assassinate an African head of state responsible for the murder of one of Burnside’s friends years before. A pious Prime Minister rules out any use of assassination, but changes his tune when a high-level defection in Vienna threatens a political crisis.
Is Your Journey Really Necessary? (2 October 1978)
A mission goes terribly wrong resulting in the death of a Sandbagger in Russia. Another of Burnside’s team is so traumatised by the events that he hands in his notice, and Burnside goes to terrible lengths to prevent that from happening – which end up in tragedy for everyone concerned.
The Most Suitable Person (9 October 1978)
While Willie is in Gibraltar acting as bait to flush out a murderer, Burnside tries recruiting a new agent only to find that the best man for the job is a woman, the reluctant Laura Dickens (Diane Keen). Burnside also has another big problem on his hands when it appears that a junior SIS officer with access to top secret intelligence is part of a London-based KGB spy-ring.
Always Glad to Help (16 October 1978)
Burnside is under pressure to facilitate regime change in the middle east and depose a pro-Soviet king in favour of his more pro-western son. Burnside is convinced that something isn’t right and sends Laura on her first mission to work her way into the Crown Prince’s affections in order to find out what’s really going on.
A Feasible Solution (23 October 1978)
An unusually action-orientated episode as Willie investigates the sudden disappearance of a British missile scientist in Cyprus with the help of a rookie field agent called Jill Ferris (Sarah Bullen) who is almost too good to be true at her job.
Special Relationship (30 October 1978)
A mission to retrieve top secret photos from an East Berlin asset is blown and a Sandbagger caught red-handed by the Stasi. Burnside had to go to extreme lengths, not only to try and rescue his officer but also to prevent the disclosure of all of SIS’s Hungarian operations as well as to save the special relationship with the CIA.
The full boxset of all three seasons of The Sandbaggers is available from Network DVD.