Broadcast on ITV in 1978 and 1980, the three seasons of The Sandbaggers contain the greatest espionage television ever produced.
Rob Schwimmer told me about The Sandbaggers about 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!”
The concept and scripts come from Ian Mackintosh, who created a claustrophobic and unsentimental setting for political infighting, where each internal phone call ratchets up the tension, where there are no heroes and no villains, and the best you can hope for is to survive to fight another day.
The episodes are 50 minutes long and pack in an amazing amount of plot. At first glance, the nearest thing to the Sandbaggers is the marvelous 1979 BBC adaptation of John LeCarré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy starring Alec Guinness. However, on closer examination, it turns out that Tinker, Tailor has a fairly basic story and the seven BBC episodes are a spacious dissertation on class, friendship, and love.
Mackintosh would have burned through LeCarré’s material in about thirty minutes and needed another subplot to fill out an episode.
The Sandbaggers didn’t have much of a production budget, and, both times I’ve seen it, the inept car “chase” and “crash” in episode two caused the audience to burst out laughing. (Most of the other minimal action scenes are fine.) With the exception of two episodes in Malta, non-London locales are are rather obviously shot in Leeds, including when it’s “America” or “an Eastern bloc country.” I admit the theme music by Roy Budd could have been better. The least-satisfying episodes concern either an American assassination or a political dissident, Anna Wiseman.
Everything else is top shelf. There’s nothing quite like old-school English acting, with various shades of internal emotion peeking through a superficially composed countenance. The lead is the relentless Neil Burnside, played by Roy Marsden. A touch of comic relief is provided by his annoying immediate 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. After you check it out, find me after a gig sometime, and I’ll gladly talk your ear off about Mackintosh’s devious handling of narrative.
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). These two reasonably regular blokes are 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 (let alone The Sandbaggers) 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, Gilbert also manages to pack in an amazing amount of plot within restricted parameters — if you blink in the wrong place, you’ll miss something — and is casually unconcerned about murder for the “right” reasons.
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.
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 their ultimate merit is perhaps a matter for specialists only — none of Gilbert’s work ranks with The Sandbaggers, which is now gaining traction as the digital era enables new viewers to discover a masterpiece — it would be a shame for these gentlemanly spies to disappear completely from view. When I was a boy, paging through my mother’s Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazines, a Calder and Behrens story struck like a thunderbolt. Looking through these Gilbert collections today still gives nothing but escapist pleasure.