April 2, 2020


'The Sandbaggers' Is the Best Spy Show Ever MadeThe Sandbaggers, a British spy drama that aired just 20 episodes between 1978 and 1980, is hands-down the best T.V. show ever about espionage. (David Axe, 4/01/20, National Interest)

The Sandbaggers was created and written by Ian Mackintosh, a former Royal Navy officer whose previous drama Warship is also a cult classic. Mackintosh died in a mysterious 1979 plane crash. His spy show died with him, ending on a cliffhanger at the end of its third series.

While The Sandbaggers occasionally indulges the audience by actually showing SIS's agents in action--sneaking across Soviet territory, infiltrating a terrorist camp in Cyprus or thwarting Iraqi hijackers--the real drama takes place almost entirely at the desk of Neil Burnside, SIS's director of operations, played with a deeply-suppressed snarl by Roy Marsden.

Burnside is divorced. He doesn't drink. He briefly dates a girl during The Sandbaggers' first series but it ends, well, badly. His only friend--if that's the right word--is his CIA counterpart Jeff Ross, portrayed by Bob Sherman. But it's hard to tell if Burnside and Ross actually really like each other.

No, they need each other--and are careful to maintain their "special relationship" in pursuit of, as Burnside puts it, "the utter destruction of the KGB." Ross admits that the CIA is "sloppy ... but rich." He needs SIS's expertise. SIS for its part is always starving for funds and relies on the CIA's manpower and technology.

Burnside oversees three "Sandbaggers"--special direct-action operatives. In the pilot episode, a Norwegian spy plane has crashed in Soviet territory and the Norwegians, lacking experienced agents of their own, want the Sandbaggers' help rescuing the crew.

Burnside is reluctant--it's too risky. But for political reasons his superiors order him to send in two agents, including the veteran Sandbagger One, played with quiet confidence by Ray Lonnen. But the Norwegians, piquing at the Brits' recalcitrance, also ask for CIA assistance ... and fail to inform SIS of the duplicative request.

The result is a disastrous special ops collision behind enemy lines that nearly gets Sandbagger One blown up. The CIA team and the Norwegians come to a bad end and the SIS men barely escape. Burnside flies to Oslo for a one-minute meeting with the Norwegian spy chief.

One minute is all he needs to make it very clear how badly the Norwegians have behaved--and what the repercussions could be in the titanic Cold War struggle.

Burnside goes to great lengths to protect his Sandbaggers, but he also doesn't hesitate to risk their lives when the mission is important, the information is good, the access is adequate and, perhaps most importantly, SIS can cover its tracks.

Fundamentally, The Sandbaggers is about the process of weighing outcomes, gathering info, ensuring access, attributing success and denying failure. It is, in other words, about planning.

Looks like you can watch free on Tubi.

Posted by at April 2, 2020 12:00 AM