The Best Television Series of the 1970s
By Bert Ehrmann
March 16, 2007
Back in the 1970s, the world existed someplace between the tensions of the Cold War and the possibility of a nuclear war. On one side was NATO, lead by the US, and the other the Warsaw Pact lead by the Soviet Union. Though these two "superpowers" weren't involved in a traditional shooting war, there was a covert war being fought along the edges of the Cold War. This is where the characters of the television series The Sandbaggers operated.
Filmed and set in the 1970s, the series followed the exploits of British Intelligence agents known as "Sandbaggers" who acted as real life "James Bonds" minus the suave social skills, gadgets, gizmos and flashy tuxedos. Whereas Bond was shown constantly in motion around the globe, part of the Sandbagger job description included sitting behind a desk writing reports and shuffling paperwork. As Director of Operations, and overseer of the Sandbaggers, Neil Burnside (Roy Marsden) put it, "If you want James Bond go to a library, but if you want a successful operation go to your desk and think. And then think again."
The life of a Sandbagger was not a safe one. A typical mission would be something like sneaking into a hostile country to extract a person of importance wishing to defect or a canister of film containing some state secret. If captured, a Sandbagger faced death or, worse, torture. They're low paid, are seen as expendable by superiors and have to follow unsavory orders that they might not agree with.
Yet somehow there's never a shortage of new recruits.
Director of Operations Burnside worked in the typical governmental system. Though he might have been in charge of, and responsible for, his compliment of three Sandbaggers Burnside didn't have the final say on what missions the Sandbaggers would undertake. Above Burnside existed several levels of bureaucracy that constantly called Burnside's often-crass judgments into question. In the series, nothing would rile Burnside more than when his Sandbaggers were forced to risk their lives in order to maintain the current government's standing in the public eye.
Working alongside British Intelligence with a "special relationship" was the CIA Station in London. This "special relationship" was an arrangement in place between these two agencies to share some responsibilities and intelligence reports from time to time. Still, this relationship didn’t mean these two services existed in total harmony. In one episode, CIA Station Chief Jeff Ross (Bob Sherman) asked for help in extracting a wounded agent from the Soviet Union. Except this rescue attempt was a ruse set up by the CIA in hopes that the Sandbagger sent into the USSR would be captured, and the confusion that would follow would allow the CIA to mount the REAL rescue mission to extract their man.
Yet I got the feeling watching this episode that if the roles were reversed that British Intelligence would have done exactly the same thing to the CIA.
Differing from contemporary (and even modern) television shows, The Sandbaggers was written in a gritty, realistic style. From the sheer terror of a Sandbagger being wounded and all alone behind enemy lines to Burnside constantly fighting his superiors to make sure the Sandbaggers have a fighting chance to survive their jobs, stories in The Sandbaggers had an air of extreme realism. It's hard to believe that a show as well written as The Sandbaggers existed alongside contemporaries of the time like The Incredible Hulk, Dallas and The Six Million Dollar Man. Even today, episodes of The Sandbaggers makes programs like 24 look positively juvenile in comparison.
Typical of most Brit produced television series of the time, the production values of The Sandbaggers was low. The picture of the series varies from harsh videotape quality to grainy film. And, for the most part, no matter which exotic local a Sandbagger traveled to, everything looks like it was shot somewhere in the UK. Yet The Sandbaggers manages to rise above low production values on the merit of plot, story and acting.
Currently, all 21 episodes of The Sandbaggers are available on three DVD sets. After you've checked out the DVDs, be sure to pick up a few issues of the comic book Queen and Country that "borrows," to say the least, many elements from The Sandbaggers.
A scene from the episode "Decision by Committee."