Neil Burnside, the lead character in this classic ’70s ITV series, lets the viewer know early on that this isn’t going to be a series full of 007-style outlandish plots and over the top action –“If you want James Bond go to a library” he informs a colleague in the first episode. The Sandbaggers is more interested in the backroom boys than with the agents in the thick of things; it’s the political wrangling that’s at the heart of the show and it’s the characters making the life and death decisions (with other peoples lives) that are the most compelling.
The Sandbaggers of the title are an elite group of covert operatives under the command of Neil Burnside. The seven episodes in this first season see them tracking down defecting government officials, finding kidnapped scientists and plotting to overthrow a foreign government. But the real battles are between Burnside and his superiors, not to mention his own conscience.
Ray Lonnen, who would go on to star in the well regarded Harry’s Game, plays Sandbagger 1, Willie Caine. For Caine it’s simply a job, one he often doesn’t like but is extremely good at, and Lonnen plays him as an honest working stiff, with none of the airs and graces of the higher-ups. Caine is the most genuine character in the show, and because of that he’s far less interesting than some of the more politically savvy characters.
I’ve always associated Diane Keen with comedy but she’s surprisingly good here. She plays Laura Dickens, the emotionally scarred trainee agent who’s seconded by Burnside into his Sandbaggers outfit. Her relationship with Burnside becomes more than merely professional, which allows us to see a human side to the career focused Sandbagger chief, and it’s testament to how good she is that we accept this change in character.
But the star of the show is Roy Marsden and he makes Neil Burnside one of the most complex characters ever seen on British TV. At times he’s an egotistical, ruthlessly ambitious bastard but he’s also fiercely protective of his Sandbaggers and his relationship with Laura Dickens is touching, partly because he’s so inept at dealing with emotional issues. The political battles between Burnside and his superiors (Richard Vernon as Sir James Greenley aka ‘C’ and Jerome Willis as Deputy Chief Matthew Peele) and his attempts to manipulate his ex-father-in-law Sir Geoffrey Wellingham (Alan MacNaughton) are the show’s highpoints, with the planning usually more enjoyable than the missions themselves.
Series creator and chief writer Ian Mackintosh (he wrote all the episodes for this first season) brings an authenticity to the show, with the writer’s Royal Navy background and (possible) ties to the intelligence community giving him an insider’s perspective. Mackintosh’s scripts all had to be vetted by the Government before they could be made, with one proposed second season episode a casualty of the Official Secrets Act.
The Sandbaggers was a firm favourite of my Dad but had little to appeal to a thirteen year old boy, which is how old I was when the show first aired. Watching it now I can see why he enjoyed it so much and why he became a lifelong Roy Marsden fan. I’m looking forward to discovering seasons two and three immensely.