My greatest TV viewing pleasure over the last year or so has been The Sandbaggers, a British spy drama that originally aired from 1978-80. The show is so good that I could not bear to binge-watch it, but instead carefully rationed out the episodes as little treats to myself (I watched it via Britbox). But now I’m done, sadly, and will have to wait for a while before I can indulge in a re-watch.
What makes The Sandbaggers so good? To start with, cracking scripts and a compelling lead performance by Roy Marsden as Neil Burnside, the director of operations of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (commonly known as MI6, though it is never called this on the show). The writer of most of The Sandbaggers, Ian MacKintosh, had a background in intelligence work, which gave the series a lot of credibility and some notoriety back in the day.
In an interview for Robert Folsom’s book The Life and Mysterious Death of Ian MacKintosh: The Inside Story of The Sandbaggers and Television’s Top Spy, the actor Jerome Willis, who played Burnside’s immediate superior, put his finger on another one of the show’s special qualities:
“One of Ian’s great skills as a writer was almost completely to exclude exterior scenes. The regular settings were Burnside’s office, “M”’s office, Matthew Peele’s office, the Foreign Office and the Operations Room. This gave a highly claustrophobic effect, very suitable for a spy series and gave the occasional action scenes even more impact.”
For today’s viewers, those occasional action scenes will mostly seem comically simplistic. Although Burnside’s agents are deployed to various European capitals and locations behind the Iron Curtain, limited budgets meant that various areas around Leeds have to stand in for these exotic spots. (It is perhaps a commentary on the capital stock of 1970s Britain that a few scenes shot in crumbling socialist tower blocks did look pretty convincing to my eyes.) The real action in the The Sandbaggers is in the endless arguments that take place over the telephone and in the office. The energy of the show flags whenever the characters step out of doors.
Burnside is a mid-level bureaucrat, sitting above a team of agents that he can deploy at will, but below the true authorities to whom he must constantly justify his actions. The predicament of middle management is the show’s true subject, not the exploits of the dashing agents–most of whom are well-adjusted and likable people, quite different from the often unpleasant and obsessive Burnside. He is inevitably thwarted from exercising his best judgment by political considerations, or office politics, or simple differences of opinion, and must scheme to get his way. A passage from Folsom’s book captures the dynamic well:
The Sandbaggers never varied from its primary theme: In practically every episode, Burnside has to confront the machinations of his own government before dealing with the Soviets and the Cold War. He considers anyone who gets in his way to be a foe. When the government interferes, as it invariably does, he deals with them in any manner he can to gain an edge, whether his actions are right or wrong, moral or immoral, ethical or unethical.
It is this focus on the inner workings of bureaucracy that makes The Sandbaggers a more lasting work of art and not just a piece of Cold War nostalgia. It is one of the best portrayals of unprincipled bureaucratic infighting I have ever seen on screen. In most of the episodes the bureaucratic battling is over some real thing happening in the world, and the fact that Burnside is usually smarter and better informed than his opponents allows us to, mostly, root for him, or at least sympathize. For me, though, the show’s apex is possibly “Operation Kingmaker,” the last episode of the second season. It is the story of the covert campaign Burnside wages to influence the choice of the next head of SIS, an effort in which he is obviously in the wrong.
A couple of the episodes in the third season felt off to me, more conventional and superficial (MacKintosh died in an airplane accident in 1979, before he had finished writing all of the planned episodes). The problem was precisely their departure from that “primary theme.” In one episode, Burnside confronts his superiors because he wants to more vigorously support the Soviet dissident movement. And in the final episode, Burnside tries to sabotage his own government’s negotiations with the Soviet Union because he doesn’t agree with the goal. These episodes portray Burnside as an idealist, which feels like a departure for such a cynical realist.
More fundamentally, they broke with the premise of the show: that Burnside’s real battles are not with enemy agents or foreign regimes, but with his own colleagues who stand in the way of him doing his job as he sees fit.
The true enemy is always within.