The Sandbaggers

The Sandbaggers
The Sandbaggers
Genre Espionage
Created by Ian Mackintosh
Developed by Ian Mackintosh
Starring Roy Marsden
Richard Vernon
Ray Lonnen
Alan MacNaughtan
Elizabeth Bennett
Jerome Willis
Bob Sherman
Diane Keen
Dennis Burgess
Michael Cashman
Theme music composer Roy Budd
Country of origin United Kingdom
Language(s) English
No. of seasons 3
No. of episodes 20
Executive producer(s) David Cunliffe
Producer(s) Michael Ferguson
Running time approx. 50 minutes per episode
Production company(s) Yorkshire Television
Original channel ITV
Original run September 18, 1978 – July 28, 1980

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.



Series premise

The protagonist is Neil D. Burnside[1] (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, or rescuing other operatives who are in trouble behind the Iron Curtain.

Why the group was called the Sandbaggers was not explained in the context of the show, but it may have to do with putting up sandbags as a defence against an incoming flood. To "sandbag" someone also means to coerce him through heavy-handed means or to misrepresent one's position to gain an advantage.[original research?] It may also refer to the officially accidental death in 1941 of a Japanese cryptographer in that country's New York consulate on the 38th floor of Rockefeller Center, one floor below the offices occupied by Sir William Stephenson (a/k/a "Intrepid"), in which a scaffolding broke through the window and the Japanese man was bludgeonded to death by a construction sandbag; Ian Fleming who served under Stephenson at the time, later claimed that he had killed the agent in question with a sandbag.

In the series, the United States 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 (who played Sandbagger One, Willie Caine) 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 all over the world, most of the exterior filming was actually 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 Sandbaggers inverts most of the conventions of the spy thriller genre. In sharp contrast to the "girls, guns, and gadgets" motif established by the James Bond movies, The Sandbaggers features very few action sequences, no flashy cars, and no high-tech gizmos. On more than one occasion, in fact, characters explicitly disparage the fictitious Bond and the romanticized view of the intelligence business that some amateurs and outsiders have. In contrast, 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 bureaucratic infighting is reminiscent of John le Carré's George Smiley novels. The overall style is one of 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 plots are complex, multi-layered, and unpredictable: regular characters are killed off abruptly, and surprise twists abound. The dialogue is intelligent and frequently witty. Indeed, most of what happens in The Sandbaggers is just conversation. 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.

Unusual for an episodic drama, The Sandbaggers is almost entirely devoid of incidental music. The title theme music, composed by jazz pianist Roy Budd, establishes its rhythmic understone with the cimbalom, an instrument often associated with spy thrillers (John Barry, for example, uses the cimbalom in his film score for The Ipcress File).


From left to right: Jeff Ross (Sherman), Willie Caine (Lonnen) and Neil Burnside (Marsden) in Burnside's office.

The Sandbaggers stars Roy Marsden as Neil D. Burnside, who is the Director of Special Operations (D-Ops) of the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, also known as MI6). Himself a former Sandbagger and a former Marine,[2] 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.

Starring alongside Marsden for the series' first two series is Richard Vernon in the role of Sir James Greenley, code-named "C" and head of SIS. Because of Greenley's diplomat background, Burnside is initially wary of him, but over the course of the show, they develop a friendly relationship. In the third season, he is replaced as "C" by John Tower Gibbs (Dennis Burgess), who openly disapproves of Burnside and his method of operating.

Similarly, Matthew Peele (Jerome Willis), Deputy Head of SIS, often mistrusts Burnside. Burnside's demeanour towards his superior is insubordinate and sometimes even hostile. Peele is generally considered a nuisance by most characters, although he is temporarily considered for the position of "C" in lieu of Gibbs.

Burnside's personal and professional life come together in Sir Geoffrey Wellingham (Alan MacNaughtan), 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 but also maintain an unspoken fondness for each other.

Ray Lonnen portrays Willie Caine, "Sandbagger One" and 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. Burnside refers to Willie as "the best operative currently operating anywhere in the world". He is the only Sandbagger to stay alive from the series' beginning to end.

In the beginning of the series, there are two other Sandbaggers, Jake Landy (David Glyder) and 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 of the end of the third series. Another recurring character is Edward Tyler (Peter Laird), the SIS Director of Intelligence (D-Int), who dies early in the third series.

Serving as Head of the London Station of the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is Jeff Ross (Bob Sherman), who rescued Burnside from death in the 1975 fall of Saigon. The relationship between the CIA and SIS (in which the CIA has more resources, but the SIS has more freedom of action) is considered a special one and serves as the subject of 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.

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).


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.

Episode # Original Air Date (UK) Episode Title Writer Director Guest cast
1-01 18 September 1978 First Principles Ian Mackintosh Michael Ferguson Olaf Pooley, Richard Shaw, Barkley Johnson
1-02 25 September 1978 A Proper Function of Government Ian Mackintosh Michael Ferguson Brian Osborne, Michael O'Hagan, Laurence Payne, Barkley Johnson
1-03 2 October 1978 Is Your Journey Really Necessary? Ian Mackintosh Derek Bennett Brenda Cavendish, Andy Bradford
1-04 9 October 1978 The Most Suitable Person Ian Mackintosh David Reynolds Stephen Greif, Christopher Benjamin, John F. Landry, Hubert Rees, David McAlister, Jonathan Coy
1-05 16 October 1978 Always Glad to Help Ian Mackintosh David Reynolds Malcolm Hebden, Peter Miles, Terence Longdon, Gerald James
1-06 23 October 1978 A Feasible Solution Ian Mackintosh Michael Ferguson Donald Churchill, Barkley Johnson, Sarah Bullen, Richard Cornish, Kenneth Watson
1-07 30 October 1978 Special Relationship Ian Mackintosh Michael Ferguson Brian Ashley, Alan Downer, Cyril Varley, Richard Shaw
2-01 28 January 1980 At All Costs Ian Mackintosh Michael Ferguson Peter Laird
2-02 4 February 1980 Enough of Ghosts Ian Mackintosh Peter Cregeen Edith MacArthur, Donald Pelmear, Jurgen Anderson, Barbara Lott, Wolf Kahler
2-03 11 February 1980 Decision by Committee Ian Mackintosh Michael Ferguson David Freedman, Marla Gillot, David Beale, Kim Fortune, Stephanie Fayerman, Andrew Lodge
2-04 18 February 1980 A Question of Loyalty Ian Mackintosh Michael Ferguson Patrick Godfrey, Charles Hodgson, Philip Blaine
2-05 25 February 1980 It Couldn't Happen Here Ian Mackintosh Peter Cregeen Weston Garvin, Daphne Anderson, Don Fellows, Norman Ettlinger
2-06 3 March 1980 Operation Kingmaker Ian Mackintosh Alan Grint Peter Laird
3-01 9 June 1980 All in a Good Cause Ian Mackintosh Peter Cregeen Gale Gladstone, John Steiner, Peter Laird, Kristopher Kum
3-02 16 June 1980 To Hell With Justice Ian Mackintosh Peter Cregeen John Alkin, Glynis Barber, Mark Eden
3-03 23 June 1980 Unusual Approach Ian Mackintosh David Cunliffe David Horovitch, Brigitte Kahn, Terry Pearson, Rio Fanning, Philip Bond
3-04 30 June 1980 My Name Is Anna Wiseman Gidley Wheeler David Cunliffe Carol Gillies, Anthony Schaeffer, Terry Pearson, Guy Deghy, Terry Walsh
3-05 7 July 1980 Sometimes We Play Dirty Too Arden Winch Peter Cregeen John Line, Susan Kodicek, Milos Kirek, Derek Godfrey, Michael Sheard, Sherrie Hewson, Aimée Delamain
3-06 14 July 1980 Who Needs Enemies Gidley Wheeler Peter Cregeen David Robb, Harry Webster, John Eastham, Edith MacArthur
3-07 28 July 1980 Opposite Numbers Ian Mackintosh Peter Cregeen John Alkin, David Robb, Frank Moorey, Larry Hooderoff


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." [3] Similarly, critic Terrence Rafferty called The Sandbaggers "the best spy series in television history" [4]

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" [5]

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.



  • 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.)


  • 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.


  • 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.


  • American Sandbaggers fanzines and T-shirts from the early 1990s turn up from time to time on eBay.


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.[6]

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.

See also


  1. ^ Burnside's middle initial, D., is provided in the opening credits sequence which shows a letter addressed to "N.D. Burnside, Esq.
  2. ^ Conversation between Burnside and Wellingham in ep. 1, "First Principles"
  3. ^ Goodman, Walter (April 30, 1989). "TV VIEW; For Spy Addicts, The Sandbaggers Are the Real Stuff". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-07-22. 
  4. ^ "Spies Who Were Cool and Very, Very Cold" (PDF). The New York Times. October 12, 2003. Retrieved 2008-07-21. 
  5. ^ Rick Vanderknyff, "Agents Who've Come In From Cold Storage". Los Angeles Times (March 22, 1994).
  6. ^ "Sandbaggers Back for More," Ron Miller, San Jose Mercury News November 9, 1990

External links

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