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The Sandbaggers

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7.3/10 TV

Created by  Ian Mackintosh
Theme music composer  Roy Budd
First episode date  18 September 1978
Number of seasons  3
Number of episodes  20
8.9/10 IMDb

Genre  Espionage
Developed by  Ian Mackintosh
Country of origin  United Kingdom
Final episode date  28 July 1980
Network  ITV
The Sandbaggers httpsimagesnasslimagesamazoncomimagesMM
Starring  Roy Marsden Richard Vernon Ray Lonnen Alan MacNaughtan Elizabeth Bennett Jerome Willis Bob Sherman Diane Keen Dennis Burgess Michael Cashman
Cast  Roy Marsden, Ray Lonnen, Jerome Willis, Richard Vernon, Alan MacNaughtan
Similar  Flambards, Strangers, Stay Lucky, Enemy at the Door, Steel River Blues

The Sandbaggers is a British television drama series about men and women on the front lines of the Cold War. Set contemporaneously with its original broadcast on ITV in 1978 and 1980, The Sandbaggers examines the effect of the espionage game on the personal and professional lives of British and American intelligence specialists.



The protagonist is Neil D. Burnside (played by Roy Marsden), Director of Operations in Britain's Secret Intelligence Service (also known as MI6, although the name "MI6" is never uttered in the series). Burnside oversees, among others, a small, elite group of British intelligence officers: the Special Operations Section nicknamed the "Sandbaggers". This group is composed of highly trained officers whose work includes dangerous missions that tend to be politically sensitive or especially vital, such as escorting defectors across borders, carrying out assassinations (sandbagging), or rescuing other operatives who are in trouble behind the Iron Curtain.

In the series, the Central Intelligence Agency and SIS have a co-operative agreement to share intelligence. The Sandbaggers depicts SIS as so under-funded that it has become dependent on the CIA. Burnside consequently goes to great lengths to preserve the "Special Relationship" between the CIA and SIS—most notably in the episode of the same name. The personal price he pays in that episode sparks an obsession with the safety of his Sandbaggers and the survival of the special section in subsequent episodes, contributing to Burnside's gradual psychological unravelling and the series' unresolved cliffhanger ending.

Series creator

The Sandbaggers was created by Ian Mackintosh, a Scottish former naval officer turned television writer, who had previously achieved success with the acclaimed Warship BBC television series. He wrote all the episodes of the first two series. However, during the shooting of the third series in July 1979, Mackintosh and his girlfriend, a British Airways stewardess, were declared lost at sea after their single-engine aircraft mysteriously went missing over the Pacific Ocean near Alaska following a radioed call for help. Some of the details surrounding their disappearance have caused speculation about what actually occurred, including their stop at an abandoned United States Air Force base and the fact that the plane happened to crash in the one small area that was not covered by either US or USSR radar.

Mackintosh disappeared after he had written just four of the scripts for Series Three, so other writers were called in to bring the episode count up to seven. The Sandbaggers ends on an unresolved cliffhanger because the producers decided that no one else could write the series as well as Mackintosh, and they chose not to continue with it in his absence. Actor Ray Lonnen, who played Sandbagger Willie Caine, has indicated in correspondence with fans that there were plans for a follow-up season in which his character, using a wheelchair, had taken over Burnside's role as Director of Special Operations.

Because of the atmosphere of authenticity that the scripts evoked and the liberal use of "spook" jargon, there has been speculation that Mackintosh might have been a former operative of SIS or had, at least, contact with the espionage community. This has extended to speculation that his disappearance was no accident or had to do with a secret mission he was undertaking. There is a possibility that Mackintosh may have been involved in intelligence operations during his time in the Royal Navy, but no conclusive evidence has surfaced. When asked, Mackintosh himself was always coy about whether he had been a spy.

However, even if Mackintosh may have had experience in the world of real-life espionage, the organisational structure of SIS depicted in The Sandbaggers is actually closer to that of the CIA than the real-life SIS. There is no formal section of SIS known as the Special Operations Section (as far as is publicly known), and there is no intelligence unit known as "Sandbaggers". This may have been deliberate, so as to avoid problems with SIS and the Official Secrets Act. For example, Ray Lonnen mentioned in an interview that a second series episode was apparently vetoed by censors because it dealt with sensitive information, explaining why Series Two has only six episodes.

Production and story style

The series was produced by Yorkshire Television, based in Leeds. Though the Sandbaggers' missions took them to various places around the world, most of the exterior filming was done in the city of Leeds and the surrounding Yorkshire countryside. Additional exterior scenes were filmed in London and Malta. Interior studio scenes were shot on videotape.

The overall style is gritty realism. The series is particularly grim (though laced with black humour), depicting the high emotional toll taken on espionage professionals who operate in a world of moral ambiguity. The Sandbaggers aimed to invert most of the accepted conventions of the spy thriller genre. In direct contrast to the "girls, guns, and gadgets" motif established by the James Bond movies, The Sandbaggers features ordinary people in extraordinary jobs of work. In keeping with the sense of reality there are very few action sequences and the equipment available to the operatives are standard vehicles and regular issue tools.

On a number of occasions through the series, the characters engage in explicitly disparaging the fictitious world of James Bond and with it the romanticized view that some amateurs and outsiders have of the intelligence business. In contrast to that entertainment-focused vision, Neil Burnside is a harried spymaster who doesn't drink; Willie Caine is a secret agent who abhors guns and violence; and no character is seen to have sex over the course of the series (the first series' romantic sub-plot explicitly refers to its sexless nature). The bureaucratic infighting is reminiscent of John le Carré's George Smiley novels. The lack of funding enforces more borderline judgment calls to be made and with them (as often as not made under political pressure) the risks increase.

The plots are complex, multi-layered, and unpredictable: regular characters are killed off abruptly, and surprise twists abound. The dialogue is intelligent and frequently witty. Most of what happens in The Sandbaggers is conversation which drives the plot along - it wasn't necessary for the audience to see everything in minute detail. In a typical episode, Burnside moves from office to office having conversations (and heated arguments) with his colleagues in Whitehall and in the intelligence community. Sometimes his conversations are intercut with scenes of the Sandbaggers operating in the field; other times the audience sees more of the buzzing "Ops Room," where missions are coordinated and controlled, than of the Sandbaggers' actual field activities. The way events and their consequences were revealed via talk created interest as the audience worked out how each denouement completed further the picture as each episode progressed..

Theme music

The title theme music, composed by jazz pianist Roy Budd, establishes its rhythmic undertone with the cimbalom, an instrument often associated with spy thrillers (John Barry, for example, used the cimbalom in his scores for The Ipcress File and The Quiller Memorandum). From series 2 onwards, the theme contains an additional organ playing the same melody line. This version (or 'mix') was also used in the opening titles of episode 2 and episode 7 of series 1).

Unusually for an episodic drama, The Sandbaggers is almost entirely devoid of incidental music. One notable exception is the last episode of series 1 (episode 7) where Burnside's feelings get the better of him for reasons the audience (by then) fully understand.


Neil Burnside (Roy Marsden)

The Sandbaggers stars Roy Marsden as Neil D. Burnside, who is the Director of Operations (D-Ops) of the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, also known as MI6). Himself a former Sandbagger and a former Marine, Burnside has been D-Ops for only a short time at the start of the series. He is arrogant and regularly finds himself at odds with his superiors.

Sir James Greenley (Richard Vernon), "C" (series 1 and 2)

Burnside's chief superior (for the first two series) is Sir James Greenley, code-named "C" and head of SIS. Because of Greenley's diplomatic background, Burnside is initially wary of him, but over the course of the show, they develop a friendly relationship.

John Tower Gibbs (Dennis Burgess), "C" (series 3 only)

In the third season, Greenly is replaced as the head of SIS by John Gibbs, who openly disapproves of Burnside and his method of operating. His appointment (along with a continued lack of funding) leads to increased tension amongst the teams' management.

Matthew Peele (Jerome Willis), Deputy Head of SIS

Burnside is often mistrusted by Peele, his immediate superior, towards whom Burnside's demeanour is insubordinate and sometimes even hostile. Peele is generally considered a nuisance by most characters, although he is briefly a candidate to succeed Greenley as "C" (because Burnside hates Gibbs more than Peele).

Sir Geoffrey Wellingham (Alan MacNaughtan)

Burnside's personal and professional life come together in Sir Geoffrey Wellingham, who is both Burnside's former father-in-law and the Permanent Undersecretary of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that oversees SIS. They share an informal but sometimes antagonistic relationship which on occasion is tested to the very limit, but also maintain an unspoken fondness and have respect for each other.

Willie Caine (Ray Lonnen), "Sandbagger One"

Caine, a former Paratrooper, is head of the Special Operations Section. He shares a bond of friendship and trust with Burnside, although they are occasionally at odds with each other. Caine is occasionally ribbed for his working-class background. In "A Feasible Solution", Burnside describes Willie as "the best operative currently operating anywhere in the world". He is the only Sandbagger to appear from the series' beginning to its end.

Jeff Ross (Bob Sherman), head of London station, CIA

Serving as Head of the London Station of the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is Jeff Ross. The relationship between the CIA (which has more resources) and the SIS (which has more freedom of action) is considered a special one, pivotal to multiple episodes. Ross and Burnside are friends, but are forced to work against one another on occasion; in one episode, Ross sends his wife, a former CIA field agent, to seduce a British official. During the second series Ross is assisted by Karen Milner (Jana Shelden), a CIA field officer who works with SIS from time to time and is romantically interested in Burnside.

Other characters

Burnside's personal assistant Diane Lawler (Elizabeth Bennett) has regular clashes with her boss but is fiercely loyal to him. She retires at the end of the second series, hand-picking her replacement, Marianne Straker (Sue Holderness).

In the beginning of the series, there are two other Sandbaggers: Sandbagger Two Jake Landy (David Glyder) and Sandbagger Three Alan Denson (Steven Grives). They are both killed and replaced for the first series by Laura Dickens (Diane Keen), the only female Sandbagger, killed at the end of the first series.

The second series opens with two new Sandbaggers: Tom Elliot (David Beames), who is soon killed, and Mike Wallace (Michael Cashman), who survives as Sandbagger Two as of the end of the third series. Another recurring character is Edward Tyler (Peter Laird), the SIS Director of Intelligence (D-Int), introduced in the first episode of the second series. Tyler and Burnside share a friendly relationship, but Tyler dies early in the third series and is replaced by Paul Dalgetty (David Robb). Dalgetty, who appears in only two episodes, is openly antagonistic towards Burnside and is briefly scheduled to replace Burnside as D-Ops owing to a KGB plot in "Who Needs Enemies" (S03E06).

Sam Lawes (Brian Osborne), Brian Milton (Barkley Johnson) and Bruce (Paul Haley) are often on duty in the ops room.


Each of the 20 episodes of The Sandbaggers runs just under 50 minutes without commercials. Each episode did, however, originally air with commercial breaks which divided the episode into three acts.

Animated bumpers similar to the end credits lead into and out of the commercial breaks. They read: "End of Part One," "Part Two," "End of Part Two," and "Part Three." These bumpers are intact on the R2 DVD releases, although absent from the R0, and also the Series Two NTSC videotape release.

Critical review

Television critics' reviews of The Sandbaggers have been almost uniformly positive. In 1989, Walter Goodman of The New York Times dubbed The Sandbaggers "the real stuff" for fans of the spy genre. He goes on to note, concerning the seventh episode ("Special Relationship"): "Although the issue of love versus duty is overdrawn and the tale, like others, is a bit forced in places, the Burnside character and the urgency of the story-telling make it work. Most of the Sandbagger episodes work." Similarly, critic Terrence Rafferty called The Sandbaggers "the best spy series in television history".

The Sandbaggers, television critic Rick Vanderknyff also wrote, "is many things American network television is not: talky and relatively action-free, low in fancy production values but high in plot complexity, and starring characters who aren't likable in the traditional TV way".

Broadcast history

  • In the United Kingdom, Series One was broadcast nationwide on ITV in September and October 1978; Series Two, January–March 1980; Series Three, June and July 1980. ITV repeated The Sandbaggers once in the 1980s. In the 1990s, the cable/satellite channels Granada Plus and SelecTV showed repeats.
  • In Canada, the CBC aired The Sandbaggers nationwide in the 1980s.
  • In Australia, the Nine Network aired The Sandbaggers nationwide in 1982.
  • In the United States, there was never a nationwide broadcast, but The Sandbaggers was sold in syndication to individual PBS stations from the mid-1980s until the mid-1990s.
  • In Italy, the series was briefly shown on some local television stations in 1988. All episodes were dubbed in Italian.
  • In Israel, Channel 1 aired The Sandbaggers (titled "The Selected") nationwide in the mid-1980s. All episodes were subtitled in Hebrew.
  • DVD

  • All 20 episodes of The Sandbaggers are available in the North American market in Region 0 NTSC-format DVD sets which were released by BFS Entertainment in August 2001 (Series 1 and 2) and September 2003 (Series 3).
  • All 20 episodes are available in the UK and European market in Region 2 PAL-format DVD sets, the first two series being released by Network DVD in August 2005 and May 2006 respectively. (Unlike the BFS DVDs, the Network DVDs include in each episode the "bumpers" which led into and out of advertisement breaks during transmission on commercial television. These bumpers display "End of Part One", "Part Two", "End of Part Two" and "Part 3" accompanied by a snippet of the theme music.)
  • Video

  • The complete series is also available on NTSC videotapes, in three sets. (Episode 7, "Special Relationship," was omitted from the Series One set and thus appears out of order on the Series Three set.)
  • Four episodes were released on two PAL videocassettes in the mid-1980s, but these PAL tapes are out of print.
  • Books

  • The Sandbaggers by Ian Mackintosh (Corgi Books, 1978) novelises "Always Glad to Help" and "A Feasible Solution". Out of print.
  • The Sandbaggers: Think of a Number (Corgi Books, 1980) is an original novel by "Donald Lancaster," a pseudonym for mystery writer William Marshall, who was commissioned to write it after Ian Mackintosh's disappearance. Out of print.
  • The Sandbaggers in America

    Although not a huge ratings hit during its initial UK broadcast, The Sandbaggers generated a cult following when telecast abroad, most notably in the USA. PBS station KTEH-Channel 54 in San Jose, California aired at least five runs of The Sandbaggers after it became "a local phenomenon".

    American Sandbaggers fandom produced fanzines, websites, and even a convention: Ray Lonnen was the guest of honor at "Sandbagger One" in New Jersey in 1992.

    Queen & Country

    Greg Rucka, novelist and creator of the comic book espionage series Queen & Country, has said that the comic book is consciously inspired by The Sandbaggers and is in a sense a "quasi-sequel". In the comic book, the structure of SIS mirrors that seen in the television series, down to the division of responsibilities between Directors of Operations and Intelligence and the existence of a Special Operations Section known as the "Minders". The comic book also features a more modern and sophisticated Ops Room, and bureaucratic wrangling reminiscent of the television series.

    Several characters and situations in Queen & Country parallel The Sandbaggers, including a fatherly "C" who is eventually replaced by a more political and less sympathetic appointee; a Director of Operations who is fiercely protective of the Special Section; a Deputy Chief antagonistic to the independent nature of the Minders; a rivalry with MI5; and a cooperative relationship with the CIA. In addition, several scenes and lines of dialogue are similar or allude to the television series. However, as the comic book takes place in the present day, the geopolitical situation is very different. In addition, the stories are more action-oriented and focus on the exploits of Minder Tara Chace rather than on Paul Crocker, the Director of Operations.


    The Sandbaggers Wikipedia