Reviews Too Late: The Sandbaggers

by wjw on October 27, 2008

Netflix told me I was going to like The Sandbaggers. Netflix was right.

The Sandbaggers is a Cold War espionage drama dating from the 1970s— the length of the characters’ sideburns is a clue that I decoded before I got to the copyright date of MDCCCCLXXVIII. It stars the Young Roy Marsden, who looks surprisingly like the Old Roy Marsden except with more hair. It is labeled a “Yorkshire Television Colour Production,” which assures us that, while the budget was very small and the sets tacky, it’s at least not in black and white. (The sets would have looked more convincing in black and white, if you ask me.)

The Sandbaggers is the only spy drama I know of written by someone who seems to have been an actual spy. (Creator Ian Mackintosh disappeared on a flight over the Bering Sea before he could finish writing the series.)

Whether Mackintosh was a spy or not, he’s certainly got a convincing mastery of the jargon and tradecraft. Marsden’s character, Burnside, is the D-Ops of SOS, who reports to Peele, the Deputy Head SIS, though Marsden frequently goes over Peele’s head to C, who is a former diplomat, and thus distrusted by Burnside, who himself has an operations background. (All, however, unite against the threat of MI5.) Burnside’s also the former son-in-law of the Permanent Undersecretary, who oversees SIS, and is friends with Jeff Ross, who reports to Langley, and constitutes the other half of the “Special Relationship.”

You will understand from this description that the story is more about bureaucracy than derring-do. The series’ low budget probably has a lot to do with this— the agents drive Minis rather than Aston-Martins— but the low budget is mirrored in the plots, in which Burnside’s special operations unit is hanging by a fiscal thread.

In any case, most episodes consist mainly of people talking to each other— but the dialog is great dialog, and Marsden is just wonderful with it. Burnside spends more time trying to keep his unit away from operations that sound good to politicians than in volunteering his section for active duty. When he does commit his three-person unit to action, they’re as liable as not to end up in a complete catastrophe, as in the episode in which one of his agents has to kill another to keep him from talking under torture. (In fact a lot of the regulars die in this series, sometimes in completely arbitrary ways, unusual for a series that has so little action.)

Burnside is a terrific character— he’s such a master manipulator and bureaucratic infighter that it’s impossible to decode what he’s actually thinking, or what his real motives might be. He considers that his subordinates’ private lives are, in effect, his personal property, and when one of his agents gets engaged to a woman he considers unsuitable, he employs blackmail to destroy the relationship. When he asks another woman to dinner, is he genuinely interested in her or trying to manipulate her into staying in line? (Both, probably.)

I haven’t finished the series, so please don’t post any spoilers.

Lance Larka October 28, 2008 at 1:59 am

Sandbaggers is wonderful!

My dad and I watched the series on PBS in the 80’s in the US.
I’ve been trying to find a DVD source the last few months. Thank you for giving me the clue.

Enjoy. The series just gets better. Keep a case of coke available. You’ll understand later 🙂

Anonymous October 31, 2008 at 5:30 pm

The young Roy Marsden is the only actor I’ve heard pronounce the letter “r” more delicately than Alec Guinness. Watching The Sandbaggers is worth it just to hear Marsden say “Sorry”.

Lon November 2, 2008 at 5:37 am

Have you seen the Queen & Country comics that were inspired by the series?

grs November 3, 2008 at 10:55 am

Well, if you like “The Sandbaggers” then you should try “Callan.”

I have no idea if Callan is available, but it bloody well should be!

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post:

Contact Us | Terms of User | Trademarks | Privacy Statement

Copyright © 2010 WJW. All Rights Reserved.