What can one say about ‘The Sandbaggers’ that can adequately describe what a superlative programme it is? My friend and colleague, Fearlono, once called it ‘televisual heroin’, which comes very close, but still doesn’t convey all of its intelligent but savage genius.
Lasting three series from 1978 to 1980, ‘The Sandbaggers’ is about the British secret service. There are no James Bond type characters, no nights at the casino, no pointed bon mots, no arched eyebrows, no super villains with mountain retreats or space stations; nobody has sex. Instead, an agent dies in agony in a crummy bedsit in Poland, lying alone in his own mess with a bullet in his spine; an intelligence chief who has been passing secrets to the Russians apologises profusely to a colleague and then bites down on a cyanide capsule; the department head has his own fiancée assassinated rather than risk her giving away national secrets. It’s a tough, supremely unsentimental show – and utterly compelling.
The cast is superb, but Roy Marsden dominates as intelligence chief Neil Burnside. Burnside is a man possessed, willing to cut any corner, ignore any order, make any deal to achieve his goal. He drinks only coke and coffee and almost never goes home. His top man is Willie Kane (Ray Lonnen), an easy going, likeable guy who just happens to be a world class undercover man and assassin. Kane is not a hero, and he hates violence, but he is supremely good at his job, even if he knows the best case scenario for his prospects is an obscure retirement on a pittance of a pension.
These spies are very much part of the Civil Service, and their work is complicated by departmental squabbling, uncomprehending superiors, complicated approval processes and penny pinching (they are allowed to fly to missions first class, to keep them fresh; coming back they are crammed into the cheap seats). Most of the time, their assignments, which are enormously dangerous, seem to be almost meaningless outside of the framework of the Cold War, a deadly comedy of manners; much of their work revolves around favours owed to other intelligence agencies. If they are caught they will be either imprisoned or put against a wall and shot and the UK government will deny all knowledge of them. Only now and again do we really feel that the missions matter, the rest is simply part of a chess game where half of the board is obscured.
Halfway through the third series, creator and writer (and alleged former spy) Ian Mackintosh’s light aircraft disappeared somewhere in Alaska. No trace of him or the plane has ever been found. Writers were called in to complete the series (Mackintosh had already written the final episode), and the producers decided to call it a day without Mackintosh, leaving the narrative arc unresolved. It’s a real shame, as it’s an incredible series that could have gone on twisting and turning for years.