The Sandbaggers

It’s come to my attention that there are people on my flist who have never seen or even heard of The Sandbaggers. I must do what I can to remedy this.

The show ran for three seasons on the BBC around 1978-1980. This being the BBC, that means there are only twenty episodes, all told. Almost every one is brilliant; the few that aren’t, were not written by the usual guy, and even then they don’t suck.

This is a spy show, but as the main character points out in the first ep, “if you want James Bond, go to your library. If you want to run an intelligence service, sit at your desk and think, and then think again.” 90% of most eps covers the planning, the piecing together of information, and most especially the politicking necessary to make the missions happen (or to stop them from going through). The fieldwork, when it happens, usually looks a bit cheap, partly because it isn’t the slick flashiness Bond has conditioned you to expect, and partly because it’s the BBC in the late seventies, and the production wasn’t exactly rolling in cash.

“Sandbaggers” is a nickname for a three-man special section in the Secret Intelligence Service, aka MI6. The main character, Neil Burnside, is the Director of Operations for SIS, but the show focuses particularly on the deployment of the Sandbaggers for particularly delicate or difficult missions. In practice, this means the plots often involve Burnside ricocheting back and forth between the offices of C (the head of SIS), the deputy chief, and the Permanent Undersecretary at the Foreign Office, as he tries to get clearance for or obstruct various operations. Also, thanks to a “special relationship” of information-sharing between SIS and the CIA, he’s usually wheeling and dealing with the head of their London station. Burnside, being a character somewhat of a type with Francis Crawford of Lymond and Dr. Gregory House, is very very good at what he does, but not remotely afraid to be a manipulative bastard in pursuit of that end.

I mentioned that a few of the eps are less good. This is because much of the show’s awesomeness derives from its scripts, written by a guy named Ian Mackintosh, about whom there is much mysteriousness. It’s widely speculated, even by people who worked on the show, that Mackintosh was ex-naval intelligence himself. The scripts certainly came close enough to realism that one of them was censored under the Official Secrets Act; that’s why there are only six episodes in the second season.

And why didn’t he write all of the third season? Because he disappeared. Without a trace. He was flying in Alaska with a friend who was (I believe) an ex-RAF pilot, and they radioed in a call for help just before flying into the one zone that wasn’t covered by US or Soviet radar. Nothing was ever seen of them again. It’s possible they crashed into the ocean and the wreckage all sank, but it doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to wonder; some of the people involved in the show honestly thought Mackintosh had defected to the USSR. They found no sign of him after the Iron Curtain fell, though, so it remains a complete mystery to this day.

So that’s why you get only twenty episodes. They hired people to fill out the remainder of the third season, but understood that nobody was up to Mackintosh’s standard, and decided to stop there.

You can get the show on DVD these days. The image and sound quality are bad enough that the disc puts up a disclaimer/apology while it’s loading, but the scripts and the acting are fantastic, full of twisty plot and authorial ruthlessness.

. . . and now I want to go watch more, instead of doing the work I should do. Siiiiiiigh.

0 Responses to “The Sandbaggers”

  1. kadnkadnk

    We love the Sandbaggers. John had it on vhs, recorded off of pbs in the age of the dinosaurs, but when we found it had been released on dvd we bought it immediately. Love.


  2. wadam

    Far and away, the Sandbaggers is my favorite spy drama. We’ve been watching Spooks, and while the first season is very good (Matthew McFadyen excellent as a tortured operative), it’s always disappointing because it’s never quite so ruthlessly calculating as Sandbaggers.

    I forget, have you read Queen & Country? If not, I would recommend it. It is (obviously) ripped off from Sandbaggers, but well executed nonetheless.

    • Marie Brennan

      I read about the first three trades of Q&C, and never quite engaged with it as fully. Partly because a lot of the early plots were remixed renditions of missions from the TV show, though I’m told that improves later on.

  3. carbonel

    The other caveat that might be worth mentioning is that the American accent of the CIA guy is really, really bad. Makes me cringe every time I hear it.

    It’s probably time to watch them again — after I finish watching Criminal Minds.

    • Marie Brennan

      That actor’s an American, actually. No doubt cast because he’s of the Robert Redford type and his accent fits the expected markers for American-ness (i.e. all Americans sound like they’re from Texas), but I don’t think it was faked.

      Their other “American” characters, on the other hand, are pretty bad sometimes. And I’m currently watching the ep where the American politician from West Virginia (who sounds like he’s from West Texas, natch) is out riding . . . on an English saddle. Not a Western one.

      • gollumgollum

        Yeah, he’s an American. He shows up on the special features disk (with Ray Lonnen, aka my man Willie Caine) and sounds exactly the same.

  4. tchernabyelo

    Very strangely, given that I lived in the UK and watched a lot of TV around that time, I have absolutely no memory of even the existence of this show.

    • tchernabyelo

      Which, research reveals, was possibly because it was on ITV (though I did watch some ITV shows, ours was predominantly a BBC household). And it was not actually a huge hit in the UK – certainly I remember things like The New Avengers and The Professionals and even (shudder) Dempsey and Makepeace, but not The Sandbaggers.

  5. serrana


    *bounce bounce bounce*

    (Sorry, was reading along on fof and I have been going show in desperate need of a (modern) fandom about Sandbaggers for a while now….)

  6. benbenberi

    Sandbaggers was awesome in its awesomeness. Best. Spy. Show. Ever.

    And you’d think there would be at least a few SB/Professionals crossovers out there in fic-land, but I’ve never found any (and don’t have the chops to write one myself, alas).

  7. strangerian

    Oooohhh, yes. Sandbaggers. I heard of it through Pat Jacquerie (no longer of this world, alas) who had a huge love for the show and who all but thrust videotapes into your hands if you showed any interest in it at all. It was all you say, and a bag of chips as well. A big bag. I only ever saw a tiny amount of fanfic, probably because the show, unlike many, was better than the average fanwriter. I must find and view the DVDs.

    • Marie Brennan

      the show, unlike many, was better than the average fanwriter

      This is my feeling on why there isn’t more fanfic of Dorothy Dunnett, either. I know I feel completely inadequate to the task of ficcing her characters, and I do this for a living.

  8. gollumgollum

    I gave S3 back to you before you moved, yes?

    My big issue with Sandbaggers is that the DVDs are so ridiculously expensive. Makes me sad, really. Anyway, i’m really, really glad you showed it to me. I don’t know that there’s anything out there that holds a candle to it.

    Warren Ellis paid it a nice homage in one of his X-Men issues a while back; he had Pete Wisdom doing everything but yelling at his secretary for coffee.

    And i was just thinking a few minutes ago about what i would have had the opening shot of S4 be if i were in charge. (It starts with Willie sitting at his desk…)

    • Marie Brennan

      Yes, you gave it back.

      I’ve said it before, but the handling of Diane is one of my favorite things. Yes, Burnside yells at her to bring the coffee, but then you also get scenes like the one where she psychoanalyzes the Sandbaggers and (when Burnside tries to tell her she’s wrong) points out that she’s been in the ops directorate longer than he has.

      • gollumgollum

        Diane and…oh damn, the second secretary–are both fucking awesome. The scene where she tells Burnside he’s essentially ruined Willie’s life is probably in my top 3 favorite moments in the whole damn series.

        Ooh! The show totally meets the criteria for the Bechdel rule! *grin*

  9. ide_cyan

    Thank you for your post, and for persuading to watch, who in turn got me interested in this show. I am loving it.

    • Marie Brennan

      I saw your post — glad you’re enjoying it! There’s definitely the occasional shortcoming (most of them traceable to the time period and budgetary constraints), but the scripts are just diamond.

      • ide_cyan

        I’ve watched enough old school Doctor Who, Blake’s 7 and the likes to cope with any production values limitations and late 70s british fashion sense issues. The show wins out completely with Mackintosh’s scripts, the acting, and the directing. It’s often thrilling simply in the way they go about staging and blocking dialogue scenes subtly but effectively to translate their intellectual and emotional complexity to the screen.

        • Marie Brennan

          I’d love to see you break down the staging/blocking thing, if you’re so inclined — I don’t have the technical or critical vocabulary to analyze that kind of thing, so while I admire the scripts and the acting, I can only really look at them with a prose fiction writer’s eyes.

Comments are closed.