The Sandbaggers

1978 | United Kingdom

British television comes in all forms and perhaps one of the most original, honest, witty and fascinating series was the 1978-80 Yorkshire Television series, The Sandbaggers about the world of professional secret agents.

The series centered round a covert elite operations section of British Intelligence commonly known as the S.I.S. (Secret Intelligence Service), but nicknamed 'Sandbaggers', and their leader, Neil Burnside, who was having more and more to deal with British bureaucracy than enemy agents. The series was set contemporaneously when the Cold War was still in full swing. The series was known for showing the realistic side of international espionage. It was not at all like the glitz and glamour of James Bond, but a grim, lonely, thankless world, often bogged down in office politics.

Unlike his glitzy counterpart James Bond, Burnside wasn't concerned with being suave and bedding dozens of women in every country. The tools of his trade were more low-tech than high. His team of agents didn't use lasers concealed in cigarette lighters, or pen-sized walkie-talkies, but rather a desk covered with unfinished paperwork and stale cigarettes. The agent's battles didn't take them to far off exotic locales, instead to British government offices. At best, the work of the 'Sandbaggers' is dirty, ugly and thankless. At worst, it could leave them stranded anonymously in a dank prison behind the Iron Curtain for the rest of their lives. For most of the time, the Sandbaggers operated in a shadowy world of midnight rendezvous, border crossings, prisoner exchanges and double cross.

The people who work for the S.I.S. are as dedicated as any other people who firmly believe in the justice of their cause. Yet, their work would wear down their souls. In their world, conscience is an early casualty; cynicism is standard and fatalism and survival mechanism.

Mystery writer, Ian MacKintosh, who had served as a Lt. Commander in the British Royal Navy from 1958-76, created the series. It has been rumored that he'd also spent time as an espionage agent. MacKintosh wrote his first novel, "A Slaying In September", in 1967 and went on to write nine novels in total, including scripting numerous teleplays and scripts for various television series including Warship. MacKintosh penned all but three of the series twenty episodes. If it were true that MacKintosh had spent many years as a secret agent, the end result of his time help make The Sandbaggers a tight, realistic, intriguing series that was considered by many to be a very accurate portrayal of the field.

The series starred Roy Marsden as Neil Burnside who was the Director of Operations for the British S.I.S. Burnside himself was a former agent, and believed in a no-hold's-barred attitude when dealing with the KGB, and other foreign agents. He is rather ruthless in his work and therefore seems to have no qualms about lying to underlings, equals or superiors to achieve his ends, and frequently mounts operations without official approval. Burnside could be rather callous, brutal and emotionless.

Burnside's assistant was Willie Caine, played by Ray Lonnen, who was the senior officer in the Special Section. Caine was an ex-paratrooper sergeant seconded to the S.I.S. He hates violence and is sometimes horrified by Burnside's ruthlessness, but is described by Burnside as the best special agent in the world.

Burnside's dedicated Personal Assistant (Elizabeth Bennett, later Sue Holderness) helps him fight frequent inter-office battles. Although Burnside usually has the tacit consent of "C, he frequently has to prove his case to the Permanent Undersecretary who represents S.I.S.' interests in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, silky-smooth Sir Geoffrey Wellingham (Alan MacNaughtan), who also happens to be Burnside's former father-in-law. "C" was the powerful director of S.I.S. (originally Richard Vernon, later Dennis Burgess). He was a career diplomat who showed a surprising amount of sense when dealing with the S.I.S. He frequently knew when to dive head first into a mission, and when not too. Sir Geoffrey was the official liaison between the government and the S.I.S. He was a canny, intelligence-wise official who above all, remained a career politician.

Burnside also frequently enlisted the unofficial help of the head of the CIA's London station, the perpetually rumpled Jeff Ross (Bob Sherman). Jeff was a good old boy whose friendship with Neil keeps the 'special' relationship going. Both Ross and Burnside were willing to bend the rules for each other, but Jeff often displayed the classic 'cover my back' mentality and was not above pulling the occasional 'fast one', under CIA orders, at S.I.S.' expense.

Matthew Peele, as played by Jerome Willlis, was the pedantic and priggish Deputy Chief that specialized in thwarting Burnside's attempts to bypass the proper bureaucratic process. 

The Sandbaggers

The first episode of The Sandbaggers was broadcast on the ITV network on September 11, 1978. Titled "First Principles", and written by Ian MacKintosh and is a prime example of the caliber of script that became standard for the entire series run. As a result the series became extremely popular with its viewers.

Sadly, The Sandbaggers only aired for three seasons and came to a sudden end in mid-1980. A fourth season was in the planning but the series never progressed any further when Ian MacKintosh was mysteriously killed in a plane crash while flying over the Gulf of Alaska. The series has been screened on select PBS stations in the United States, while the CBC aired the series in its entirety in the late 1980's.

Published on January 27th, 2019. Written by Laurence Marcus for Television Heaven.