Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The Sandbaggers is a British television drama series about men and women on the front lines of the Cold War. Set contemporaneously with its original broadcast on ITV in 1978 and 1980, The Sandbaggers examines the effect of the espionage game on the personal and professional lives of British and American intelligence specialists.
The main protagonist is Neil Burnside (played by Roy Marsden ), Director of Operations in Britain's Secret Intelligence Service (also known as MI6, although the name "MI6" is never uttered in the series). Burnside oversees a small, elite group of British intelligence officers: the Special Operations Section, nicknamed the "Sandbaggers"—highly trained officers whose remit includes dangerous missions which tend to be politically sensitive or especially vital, such as escorting defectors across borders, carrying out assassinations or rescuing other operatives who are in trouble behind the Iron Curtain. (The nickname "Sandbaggers" is not explained in the series itself, but may have to do with the multiple meanings of sandbag—as a defence or, colloquially, referring to coercion or deception.)
In the series, the United States Central Intelligence Agency and SIS have a cooperative agreement to share intelligence.The Sandbaggers depicts SIS as so under-funded that it has become dependent on the CIA. Burnside consequently goes to great lengths to preserve the "special relationship," most notably in the episode of the same name. The personal price he pays in that episode sparks an obsession with the safety of his Sandbaggers and the survival of the Special Section in subsequent episodes, contributing to Burnside's gradual psychological unraveling and the series' unresolved cliffhanger ending.
1.1 Neil Burnside (Ray Mardsen)
Neil Burnside (Ray Mardsen )
Director of Operations of SIS and a former Sandbagger, Burnside is a career intelligence officer—devious and manipulative and by turns also dour, brusque, aggressive and independent-minded. This combination of traits frequently puts him in conflict with others. He is fiercely patriotic and devoted to the preservation of Britain's national security and "the destruction of the KGB". While the KGB makes life difficult enough for Burnside, he also gets plenty of antagonism from people who are supposedly on his side: his superiors in SIS, whom he alternately considers too cautious or too reckless; the self-serving politicians who grant or withhold permission for the covert operations Burnside wants to carry out; territory-hungry MI5 officers; and entrenched civil servants. The dedication to his job also cost him his marriage, and he has trouble forming close relationships. He is a teetotaler.
Willie Caine (Ray Lonnen )
The senior Sandbagger (or "Sandbagger One") and head of the Special Operations Section, Caine is a former paratrooper and according to Burnside, possibly the best operative of his kind in the world. Grounded and straightforward where his boss is not, he is not afraid to speak his mind, but remains steadfastly loyal to Burnside despite the latter's maneuverings. While not a pacifist, he dislikes both violence and guns, but is prepared to use them when necessary. Besides Burnside, Caine is the only character who appears in every episode of the series.
Sir James Greenley (Richard Vernon )
The Head of SIS when the series begins, code-named "C". A diplomat by training, Greenley was treated with suspicion by Burnside when he first became "C", but Burnside comes to both trust and become fond of Greenley, who has the difficult task of balancing political as well as security concerns. Greenley is almost a paternal figure to Burnside, often protecting him from the consequences of his worst instincts and keeping the peace between Burnside and Matthew Peele, the Deputy Head. Burnside is disappointed to see him replaced, in "Operation Kingmaker", by the less benevolent John Tower Gibbs (Dennis Burgess ).
Sir Geoffrey Wellingham (Alan MacNaughtan )
The Permanent Undersecretary of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that oversees SIS, he represents the political side of things. As Burnside's former father-in-law, he is also Burnside's contact within Whitehall, and the two both share information and use each other. Burnside suggests in one episode that the reason they get along so well is because Wellingham sees a younger version of himself in Burnside. Wellingham is considerably more experienced in politics and double-dealing than Burnside is, and reminds him of that more than once.
Matthew Peele (Jerome Willis )
The Deputy Head of SIS and, like Burnside, a career intelligence officer and a former Head of Station. Unlike Burnside, however, Peele has less field experience, and is more concerned with going by the book and furthering his own ambitions to higher rank. As a result, Peele often opposes what he sees as Burnside's recklessness, contempt for the proper chain of command and lack of political tact. He is disliked within the department and considered a tyrant with no opinions of his own. Peele, however, is a more complex character than he seems, and in his own way just as committed to the security of Britain as Burnside.
Jeff Ross (Bob Sherman )
The head of the CIA's London station, Ross is probably Burnside's closest friend. The two often have lunch and work together to preserve the "special relationship" between the two intelligence agencies. Ross also takes a keen interest in Burnside's personal life and often urges his friend to actually have one. The close relationship between the two, however, does not prevent Ross using Burnside, and SIS, on at least one occasion.
The junior Sandbaggers—many of whom are killed, and some of whom appear in just one or two episodes—are Jake Landy (David Glyder ), Alan Benson (Steven Grives ), Laura Dickens (Diane Keen ), Tom Elliot (David Beames ), and Mike Wallace (Michael Cashman). Burnside's capable personal assistant is Diane Lawler (Elizabeth Bennett ), who is replaced in "Operation Kingmaker" by Marianne Straker (Sue Holderness ).
The Sandbaggers inverts most of the conventions of the spy thriller genre. In sharp contrast to the "girls, guns and gadgets" motif established by Ian Fleming's James Bond, The Sandbaggers features very few action sequences, no flashy cars, and no high-tech gizmos. Neil Burnside is a harried spymaster who doesn't drink; Willie Caine is a secret agent who abhors guns and violence; and no character is seen or implied to have sex over the course of the series. The bureaucratic infighting is reminiscent of John Le Carré's George Smiley novels.
The Sandbaggers, television critic Rick Vanderknyff wrote, "is many things American network television is not: talky and relatively action-free, low in fancy production values but high in plot complexity, and starring characters who aren't likable in the traditional TV way." ("Agents Who've Come In From Cold Storage", Los Angeles Times, March 22, 1994)
The series was produced by Yorkshire Television, based in Leeds. Though the Sandbaggers' missions took them all over the world, most of the exterior filming was actually done in the city of Leeds and the surrounding Yorkshire countryside. Additional exterior scenes were filmed in London and Malta. Interior studio scenes were shot on videotape.
The overall style is one of gritty realism. The series is particularly grim (though laced with black humour), depicting the high emotional toll on espionage professionals who operate in a world of moral ambiguity.
Unusually for an episodic drama, The Sandbaggers is almost entirely devoid of incidental music. The title theme music, composed by jazz pianist Roy Budd , establishes its rhythmic understone with the cymbalum, an instrument often associated with spy thrillers (John Barry, for example, uses the cymbalum in his film score for The Ipcress File.)
The plots are complex, multi-layered, and unpredictable: regular characters are killed off abruptly and surprise twists abound.
The dialogue is intelligent and frequently witty. Indeed, most of what happens in The Sandbaggers is just conversation. In a typical episode, Burnside moves from office to office having conversations—and heated arguments—with his colleagues in Whitehall and in the intelligence community. Sometimes his conversations are intercut with scenes of the Sandbaggers operating in the field; other times the audience sees more of the buzzing "Ops Room," where missions are coordinated and controlled, than of the Sandbaggers' actual field activities.
This "tea and talk, not T&A" approach nevertheless appears to make for compelling viewing, as television critics' reviews of The Sandbaggers have been almost uniformly positive. In The New York Times, critic Terrence Rafferty called The Sandbaggers "the best spy series in television history." ("Spies Who Were Cool and Very, Very Cold", October 12, 2003)
The Sandbaggers was created by Ian Mackintosh, a formal naval officer turned television writer. He wrote all the episodes of the first two series. However, during the shooting of the third series in July 1979, Mackintosh and his girlfriend, a British Airways stewardress, were declared lost at sea after their single-engine aircraft went missing over the ocean near Alaska following a radioed call for help.
Mackintosh disappeared after he had written just four of the scripts for Series Three, so other writers were called in to bring the episode count up to seven. The Sandbaggers ends on an unresolved cliffhanger because the producers decided that no one else could write the series as well as Mackintosh, and they chose not to continue with it in his absence.
Because of the atmosphere of authenticity that the scripts evoked and the liberal use of "spook" jargon, there has been speculation that Mackintosh may have been a former operative of SIS, or had, at least, contact with the espionage community. This has extended to speculation that his disappearance was no accident, or had to do with a secret mission he was undertaking. There is a possibility that Mackintosh may have been involved in intelligence operations during his time in the Royal Navy, but no conclusive evidence has surfaced. When asked, Mackintosh himself was always coy about whether he had been a spy.
However, even if Mackintosh may have had experience of the world of real-life espionage, the structure of SIS depicted in The Sandbaggers is actually closer to that of the CIA than the real-life SIS. There is no formal section of SIS known as the Special Operations Section (as far as is publicly known), and there is no intelligence unit known as "Sandbaggers". This may have been deliberate, so as to avoid problems with SIS and the Official Secrets Act. For example, Ray Lonnen mentioned in an interview that a second series episode was apparently vetoed by censors because it dealt with sensitive information, explaining why Series Two only has six episodes.
Each of the 20 episodes of The Sandbaggers runs just under 50 minutes without commercials. Each episode did, however, originally air with commerical breaks which divided the episode into three acts. ITV, unlike the BBC, is a commercial enterprise.
Animated bumpers similar to the end credits lead into and out of the commercial breaks. They read: "End of Part One," "Part Two," "End of Part Two," and "Part Three." These bumpers have been edited out of the DVD releases but are intact on the Series Two NTSC videotape release.
|Episode #||Original Air Date (UK)||Episode Title||Writer|
|1-01||18 September1978||First Principles||Ian Mackintosh|
|1-02||25 September1978||A Proper Function of Government||Ian Mackintosh|
|1-03||2 October1978||Is Your Journey Really Necessary?||Ian Mackintosh|
|1-04||9 October1978||The Most Suitable Person||Ian Mackintosh|
|1-05||16 October1978||Always Glad to Help||Ian Mackintosh|
|1-06||23 October1978||A Feasible Solution||Ian Mackintosh|
|1-07||30 October1978||Special Relationship||Ian Mackintosh|
|2-01||28 January1980||At All Costs||Ian Mackintosh|
|2-02||4 February1980||Enough of Ghosts||Ian Mackintosh|
|2-03||11 February1980||Decision by Committee||Ian Mackintosh|
|2-04||18 February1980||A Question of Loyalty||Ian Mackintosh|
|2-05||25 February1980||It Couldn't Happen Here||Ian Mackintosh|
|2-06||3 March1980||Operation Kingmaker||Ian Mackintosh|
|3-01||9 June1980||All in a Good Cause||Ian Mackintosh|
|3-02||16 June1980||To Hell With Justice||Ian Mackintosh|
|3-03||23 June1980||Unusual Approach||Ian Mackintosh|
|3-04||30 June1980||My Name Is Anna Wiseman||Gidley Wheeler|
|3-05||7 July1980||Sometimes We Play Dirty Too||Arden Winch|
|3-06||14 July1980||Who Needs Enemies||Gidley Wheeler|
|3-07||28 July1980||Opposite Numbers||Ian Mackintosh|
- In the United Kingdom, Series One was broadcast nationwide on ITV in September and October 1978; Series Two, January-March 1980; Series Three, June and July 1980. ITV repeated The Sandbaggers once in the 1980s. In the 1990s, the cable/satellite channels Granada Plus and SelecTV showed repeats.
- In Canada, the CBC aired The Sandbaggers nationwide in the 1980s.
- In Australia, the Nine Network aired The Sandbaggers nationwide in 1982.
- In the United States, there was never a nationwide broadcast, but The Sandbaggers was sold in syndication to individual PBS stations from the mid-1980s until the mid-1990s.
DVD and Video
- All 20 episodes of The Sandbaggers are available on Region 0 DVDs, in three sets. (The Sandbaggers DVDs are erroneously listed as Region 1 discs on several retailers' Web sites.)
- The complete series is also available on NTSC videotapes, in three sets. (Episode 7, "Special Relationship," was omitted from the Series One set and thus appears out of order on the Series Three set.)
- Four episodes were released on two PAL videocassettes in the mid-1980s, but these PAL tapes are out of print.
- The Sandbaggers by Ian Mackintosh (Corgi Books, 1978) novelises "Always Glad to Help" and "A Feasible Solution". Out of print.
- The Sandbaggers: Think of a Number (Corgi Books, 1980) is an original novel by "Donald Lancaster", a pseudonym for mystery writer William Marshall, who was commissioned to write it after Ian Mackintosh's disappearance. Out of print.
The Sandbaggers in America
Although not a huge ratings hit during its initial UK broadcast, The Sandbaggers generated a cult following when telecast abroad, most notably in the USA. PBS station KTEH-Channel 54 in San Jose, California aired at least five runs of The Sandbaggers after it became "a local phenomenon." ("Sandbaggers Back for More", Ron Miller, San Jose Mercury News, November 9, 1990)
Queen and Country
Greg Rucka, novelist and creator of the comic book espionage series Queen and Country, has said that the comic book is consciously inspired by The Sandbaggers and is in a sense a "quasi-sequel". In the comic book, the structure of SIS mirrors that seen in the television series, down to the division of responsibilities between Directors of Operations and Intelligence and the existence of a Special Operations Section known as the "Minders". The comic book also features a more modern and sophisticated Ops Room, and bureaucratic wrangling reminiscent of the television series.
Several characters and situations in Queen and Country parallel The Sandbaggers, including a fatherly "C", a Director of Operations who is fiercely protective of the Special Section, a Deputy Chief antagonistic to the independent nature of the Minders, a rivalry with MI5 and a cooperative relationship with the CIA. In addition, several scenes and lines of dialogue are similar or allude to the television series. However, the comic book takes place in the present day, the geopolitical situation is very different and the stories are more action-oriented and focus on the exploits of Minder Tara Chace rather than on Paul Crocker, the Director of Operations.
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