The three seasons of The Sandbaggers (ITV, 1978-1980) contain the greatest espionage television ever produced.
Rob Schwimmer told me about The Sandbaggers a few years ago; I was skeptical (wouldn’t I have at least heard of it by now?) but Rob assured me I didn’t know what I was missing. We watched all the episodes together on the big 2019 Mark Morris UK tour and I kept gasping in shock and delight. During the 2020 pandemic I re-watched the series with my wife Sarah. She said, “We are as riveted to this old show as if we were watching the latest Netflix sensation!”
Ian Mackintosh created the concept and wrote most of the episodes. While there are agents in the field — the two or three “Sandbaggers” who give the show its title — most of the scenes concern bureaucratic affairs at home. The main set is an office building, a drab structure that emits a claustrophobic feel reminiscent of a submarine. Each internal phone call ratchets up the tension. At times an old hand like myself suspects that every possible espionage plot twist, reversal, and betrayal has been done already, but Macintosh manages to surprise me in almost every episode.
There was not much of a budget to do fancy effects. Both times I’ve seen the second episode, the inept car “chase” and “crash” caused the audience to burst out laughing. (Most of the other minimal action scenes are fine.) With the exception of a concluding jaunt to Malta, non-London locales are obviously shot in Leeds. The least-satisfying episodes concern either an American assassination or the political dissident Anna Wiseman. Roy Budd’s theme music could have been better.
Everything else is top shelf. There’s nothing quite like old-school English acting, where intense emotion just barely peeks through a composed countenance. The lead is the relentless Neil Burnside, played by Roy Marsden. A touch of comic relief is provided by his annoying superior, Matthew Peele, played by Jerome Willis. Whenever Marsden and Willis are in a scene together, the atmosphere is electric.
Mackintosh was lost at sea during the third season, abruptly halting the show in its prime and giving the cult Sandbagger fans another reason to obsess. Producer Michael Ferguson was on board for the whole series and even directed several early episodes, establishing the show’s unique tone. Each episode works as a standalone, but all three season finales deliver extra “oomph.”
There’s no reason to give anything else away. If all this sounds like something that might appeal, stay away from the spoilers on Wikipedia and dial up The Sandbaggers on BritBox.
The canon of 20th Century English spy novels is notably robust: Eric Ambler, Ian Fleming, Len Deighton, John LeCarré, Anthony Price, many others.
Short stories are comparatively rare. W.S. Maugham’s wonderful Ashenden from 1927 began the era of “realistic” espionage fiction with interlinked short tales. The James Bond shorts collected in For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy have their place, but the novels starring 007 define the character.
The best postwar English espionage short stories are probably by Michael Gilbert, collected in Games Without Rules (1967) and Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens (1982), telling the tales of two reasonably regular blokes who are also Her Majesty’s ultimate agents in the field. Calder is the more physical, Behrens the more analytical, but nether say all that much and both take decisive action when required.
Gilbert’s genial heroism is far more predictable than the “shades of grey” skepticism that gives Ambler and LeCarré a long finish. Calder and Behrens always win, and their delightfully unsentimental boss, a mysterious Fortescue, is always right. (A simplistic ethical framework boasting a pair of heroes might suggest one of Brian Clemens’s classic TV shows The Avengers or The Professionals.) However — like Ian Mackintosh above — Gilbert also manages to pack in an amazing amount of plot within restricted parameters. If you blink in the wrong place, you might miss something.
British espionage works so well because the social strata is so obvious. In The Life and Mysterious Death of Ian Mackintosh: The Inside Story of the Sandbaggers and TV’s Top Spy by Robert G. Folsom, Roy Marsden describes how he worked carefully with a costuming agent to get the right clothes for Neil Burnside.
…One of the actors in one of the episodes looked at my tie and said, “I don’t believe it!” I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “You’re wearing a Leander Club tie. You’re too common. You’ve never been in it,” meaning there was no way that I would have been accepted into this club.
Class differences and “the old-school tie” are naturally also a part of Gilbert’s world. Both series also delight in staging scenes where the mandarins of Whitehall are discomforted by the proposals of the secret service. Sanctioned murder is a given, but the executions might only be approved at the local level, not by the higher-ups.
Gilbert had a long career. His best-known book is probably the classic murder mystery Smallbone Deceased, which has stayed in print since first publication in 1950.
I’m pleased to report that Gilbert got better and better as a writer — or at least, that Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens is even stronger than Games Without Rules. While Gilbert’s work isn’t truly timeless in the manner of The Sandbaggers, it would be a shame for these gentlemanly spies to disappear completely from view. When I was a boy, paging through copies of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine owned by my mother, a Calder and Behrens story struck like a thunderbolt. Looking through these Gilbert collections today still gives nothing but escapist pleasure.