Weekend Film Recommendation: The Sandbaggers

Britain has long managed to turn out espionage films at all points along the dimension that has escapist fare like James Bond and The Avengers at one pole and grey-shaded, unglamorous, works like Smiley’s People at the other. I can enjoy the fantasies as much as the next moviegoer, but the Brit spy films that stay with me and thereby end up as my film recommendations are all from the grimy, realistic, end of the spectrum: The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, Charlie Muffin, Callan, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and this week’s film recommendation: The Sandbaggers.

Like Callan’s “The Section” this television series focuses on a small team of agents you’ve never heard of: the “Sandbaggers”. These trouble-shooting spies are led by a former sandbagger, the dour, workaholic, Neil Burnside (Roy Marsden, in a magnificently austere performance). Burnside spends as much time fighting Whitehall bureaucracy and careerism as he does his opposite numbers in The Soviet Union, a process that is complicated by his ex-wife being the daughter of the Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office! (Alan MacNaughtan, succeeding in a markedly different role than he played in the satisfying To Serve Them All My Days).

The cast never put a foot wrong, which is a credit to their own talents as well as that of the primary directors, Michael Ferguson and Peter Cregeen. The show was produced by Yorkshire Television, and has an unmistakably Northern English chip on its shoulder about London, HMG, and people who went to Eton, which productively accentuates the cynical viewpoint of the series.

The Sandbaggers was scripted by Ian Mackintosh, a former Naval Officer who may have been in the game himself, and who (almost too perfectly) mysteriously disappeared in 1979. Every bit of the show feels real, from the civil service backbiting and hassles (I cringe in recognition at the ongoing subplot of British secret agents having to fly in economy) to the exciting front-line missions of the sandbaggers. And as in real life, virtue often goes unrewarded, many missions fail, and death does not look pretty.

As with many modestly budgeted British television shows of this era, there is no soundtrack or incidental music, only an opening and closing theme over the credits. Luckily, they got Roy Budd (who wrote the immortal music to another former RBC film recommendation, Get Carter) to compose it. As usual, Budd hit it for six.

As a complete work, the first season is the best for overall narrative arc, especially the evolution of the relationship between Burnside and the first female sandbagger, Laura Dickens (Well-played by Diane Keen). But for a single episode that gives you the flavor of the series, I would recommend from Season 2 the nail-biting Decision by Committee.

The Sandbaggers is a 40-year old show and Yorkshire Television doesn’t exist anymore, so I don’t know if it’s still copyrighted or not. But I will channel Neil Burnside and take the risk to tell you that whatever the rules are, an agent with initiative can find almost every episode of the brilliant series on Youtube.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

7 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: The Sandbaggers”

  1. I’ve always objected to one of the most famous Le Carre titles, because it misstates reality (and he certainly knew it). The only way that a spy comes in from the cold is in a pine box.

    That said, I enjoyed The Sandbaggers when it was replaying while I was Over There and dealing with “their”… associates frequently, in the late 1980s. If anything, the review underplays the show’s cynicism toward public-school boys in the intelligence service(s) and government.

  2. I rewatch this every five or six years or so (it’s avaialble on DVD in the UK) and I always find it in equal parts thrilling, moving, and funny — it’s as jaded about British bureaucracy as Yes Minister or The Thick Of It, but the stakes are higher. It showcases some terrific, and mostly unsung, British actors. Would be interesting to see a remake. although the writing is so good I find it easier to ignore the bargain basement production values than I do with something like Blake’s 7.

  3. Wonderful series. I too rewatch frequently … I bought the vhs set years ago… but GOOD NEWS the series is now on BRITBOX… and wonderful to see it without lugging out the vhs tapes and connecting it to the tv.

    In fact, I just may have to watch some now…

    I do often wonder about Ian Mackintosh’s death and if we will ever find out what REALLY caused it.

  4. I do not recall ever having heard of this series, but I have now watched three episodes and will be watching more. Did it ever run in the U.S., to your knowledge? I am struck by what seems to be to be sometimes stunningly dark subject matter — Episode 1-3 fresh in mind — in the context of a talky, low-action, as you say “modestly budgeted” package. No contradiction there, but not a common combination in my experience.

    1. I am not aware of it ever showing in the US, though it’s always possible some regional public television station aired it at 2am on Thursdays or somesuch.
      I’m frankly envious that you are getting to watch it first time through – I hope you continue to enjoy it.

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