Jim and I espouse the virtues of the incredible George Smiley TV adaptations (based on the John Le Carre novels) every chance we get. And, even though very few people have taken our advice and actually watched these complex spy dramas, they're just so good that we can't help but keep pushing them. Spy aficionado and good friend Matthew over at Double O Section has been just as persistently forceful with us about The Sandbaggers, a late 70's British television series that I feared would be a dated and possibly even corny show for spy lovers only but, I'm thrilled to report, that it is in fact the closest thing to the Smiley shows I've ever seen.
It's a serious and seemingly realistic look at the world of the British secret service in the late golden years of the Cold War. Neil Burnside, played by Roy Marsden, is the dashing and acutely intelligent director of an elite unit of “Sandbaggers”, special agents that get things done. Burnside's a man who means business and the show, which is surprisingly mature and intricate, means business too.
Fighting the secret war, Burnside sends Sandbaggers Willie Caine, Jake Landy and Alan Denson behind enemy lines; out to haul in potential defectors to be tried; parachuting out of planes; and plans political assassinations. But this is absolutely not James Bond, something the characters actually declare early on. Like the work of Le Carre, the traditional fictionalized spy universe of high-ttech gadgets, world travel, and easy strangers who are incredibly hot is totally debunked. These spies are real people forced into high stakes situations by petty political pressure and commands from higher ups who haven't got the slightest idea what they're doing. The war's fought behind desks through extensive planning and re-planning – not in the driver's seat of an amphibious Lotus with a rocket launcher.
The show was created by Ian Mackintosh, who had been a Scottish naval officer before devoting his talents to writing for the small screen. The tone of the show was so authentic that it sparked speculation over possible espionage-oriented experiences Mackintosh may have taken part in during his naval career. Speculation that only grew when Mackintosh and his girlfriend mysteriously vanished while flying near the Alaskan/Russian border in 1979.