”If I want to send an agent to the lavatory, I need the Foreign Secretary's permission. If I want him to do anything when he gets there, I need the Prime Minister's written approval!”
- Neil Burnside, Director of Special Operations Section, SIS
In the 1970s James Bond had gotten, well, a bit silly. Roger Moore dashed across the globe with a seemingly unlimited budget for cigars, scotch, fast cars and Q-branch gadgets. He was supported by an omniscient MI6, apparently the world’s foremost intelligence and assassination outfit. His enemies were character villains lurking in volcano bases and bent on world domination. Everything was glitzy, glamorous and utterly, utterly devoid of realism. While all this was going on, the commercial British channel ITV was quietly broadcasting Bond’s antithesis.
The Sandbaggers is perhaps the closest representation of what a double-0 section would actually look like in real life. Its protagonist is not a dashing super-spy, but a put-upon Director of Operations named Burnside. His name really is the most exciting thing about him. He’s divorced, he doesn’t drink, he completes his paperwork. He is the head of the Special Operations Section sometimes, but by no means universally, known as The Sandbaggers. Their job is to undertake covert missions behind the Iron Curtain. They do it carefully, reluctantly and above all, cheaply.
The Sandbaggers is a short series. Just three seasons and twenty episodes in total. The series creator, Ian Mackintosh only made seventeen in total and the final three have a slightly different feel. The reason he stopped making them is curious. Mackintosh was formerly of the Royal Navy and many people have speculated that he might have been involved in secret intelligence himself. Certainly the Sandbaggers cut close to the bone; the second season only has six episodes, the seventh having been vetoed for security reasons. Mackintosh never confirmed that he had been a spy, and ultimately never had the opportunity to. He disappeared in July 1979 when his single-engined aircraft went missing over the Gulf of Alaska following a mysterious stop at an abandoned US Air Force base. Neither the US nor USSR had radar coverage in the area and his ultimate fate is unknown.
Despite the impression of drama in the creator’s life, the average episode of The Sandbaggers does not feature very much action. We see the world from Burnside’s office-bound perspective, sweating as reports come in from the field. We follow him as he moved from office to office, collating information, giving instructions and battling the establishment who would rather his dangerous and potentially embarrassing department just disappeared. Stories are as likely to focus on Smiley-style internal intrigue as fighting a covert war with the Soviet Union. Either way, they are a tense understated business, set against a drab grimy background of tatty offices and mounting red tape.
Throughout the series there is a real sense of peril. The Secret Intelligence Service is understaffed and underfunded. Burnside does not just turn to the CIA for support but is open about his reliance on them for accurate information. Although his operatives are competent, their lack of resources frequently places them in danger. Lives are lost frequently, and unusually for a series of its era, no character is safe from a stray bullet. People do not die good and noble deaths in the Sandbaggers. Often the best they can hope for is slowly bleeding to death in a dingy bedsit somewhere in the Soviet sphere.
Ultimately, the key to Sandbaggers is the dialogue. The closest modern analogue is probably the first four seasons of the West Wing. Exposition and information dumps are seamlessly and efficiently delivered by characters who never utter the sentence “as you know.” Complex plots are not sacrificed to excessive clarity; the viewer is assumed to have a reasonable degree of intelligence and the ability to draw correct conclusions without too much hand-holding. Nonetheless, there is little in the way of dramatic irony; an intelligent audience will keep up with the characters but only very rarely overtake them.
As far as I know, the Sandbaggers is not being repeated anywhere in syndication, but the full series has been released on DVD. Fans of realistic, intelligent drama would be well advised to investigate it.