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Sandbaggers, The (1978-80)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Sandbaggers, The (1978-80)
Yorkshire Television for ITV, 18/9/1978-21/07/1980
20 x 60 minutes, colour
DirectorMichael Ferguson
 Derek Bennett
 Peter Cregeen
ProducerMichael Ferguson
ProducerDerek Bennett
ScriptIan Mackintosh

Cast: Roy Marsden (Neil Burnside); Richard Vernon ("C" (Sir James Greenley)); Ray Lonnen (Willie Caine); Alan MacNaughtan (Sir Geoffrey Wellingham); Jana Sheldon (Karen Milner); Bob Sherman (Jeff Ross); Dennis Burgess (John Tower Gibbs); Diane Keen (Laura Dickens)

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Neil Burnside, the cynical and headstrong chief of a small black ops unit in British Intelligence, has to contend with government interference, shrinking resources and the disapproval of his boss at home, while running dangerous missions overseas.

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The New York Times recently called the cerebral spy drama The Sandbaggers (ITV, 1978-1980) "the best spy series in television history". It was created by former naval intelligence officer Ian Mackintosh and depicted the decidedly unglamorous activities of a small SIS (aka MI6) unit, nicknamed 'Sandbaggers', which undertakes shady overseas operations. Director of Operations is Neil Burnside, a hard-bitten, astonishingly cynical ex-Sandbagger who lives only for his work, played with just the right combination of paranoid ruthlessness and neurotic deviousness by Roy Marsden. It is to Marsden's credit that Burnside remains sympathetic even when forced to make appalling decisions, as in the breathtakingly cruel finale to 'Special Relationship' (tx. 30/10/1978), when he has one of his own operatives (and his own lover) assassinated by the CIA.

Exploring the internecine and Machiavellian machinations of British and American intelligence, the highlights of most episodes are Burnside's spiky exchanges with Whitehall Minister (and ex-father-in-law) Sir Geoffrey Wellingham (Alan MacNaughton) and encounters with CIA contact Jeff Ross (Bob Sherman), either during park strolls or meals at McDonald's (still a novelty in late 1970s Britain). Ross was one of Burnside's few friends, but this is extinguished after the CIA tries to trick British Intelligence in 'All in a Good Cause' (tx. 9/6/1980). Burnside's attempts at a love life always end badly, and his only steadfast friend remains Willie Caine (Ray Lonnen), his longest serving Sandbagger.

Usually trying to outwit Peele (Jerome Willis), his often foolish direct superior, Burnside initially finds an ally in Sir James Greenley (Richard Vernon), head of SIS, but he dies at the end of the second series, replaced by the openly hostile John Tower Gibbs (Dennis Burgess).

Sandbaggers was mostly shot in the studio, with Leeds standing in for Eastern Europe and overseas filming limited to Malta, the location for the heart-wrenching 'To Hell with Justice' (tx. 20/6/1980), in which one of the series regulars is exposed as a KGB mole.

The series' trademark complex plotting, vivid characterisation, terse dialogue and dark wit are largely absent from the three third series episodes which others wrote after Mackintosh's mysterious disappearance in June 1979. Significantly they do not feature Wellingham and use the kind of standard spy plots (an agent fakes his own death, British intelligence plants a mole in Russia) which Mackintosh eschewed. Consequently, the series ended on an unplanned cliffhanger, with Burnside defeated by Peele and Caine seriously, perhaps fatally, wounded.

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. Caine's offer (3:12)
2. Wellingham's request (1:33)
3. Signatures (4:02)
4. CIA chit chat (1:52)
5. Death of a sandbagger (2:35)
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