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.