Sunday, June 18, 2017



Premiering a decade after the quintessential ‘60s British espionage series Callan—written about in a previous column—The Sandbaggers set the standard for British TV spies in the late ‘70s. Created by Ian Mackintosh, it starred Roy Marsden as spy master Neil Burnside. This was long before Marsden became indelibly linked to his portrayal of detective Adam Dalgliesh, created by P. D. James.

Running from 1978 to 1980, The Sandbaggers was grounded in the reality, the scut work, and the day to day grind of the espionage game and those who choose, willingly or not, to play it. There were no gadgets, no megalomaniacal malefactors bent on world domination, no henchmen with shark teeth or deadly bowler hats, no villains’ lairs hidden in volcanos, underseas, or outer space, and only one explosion in the entire series—which took place in the first episode. Somehow, however, this world of whispers, glances, and devious maneuvering becomes riveting, breath holding, must see DVD TV.

Series creator Ian Mackintosh, was a lifelong naval officer who was possibly involved in espionage during his career—more on this point later. In developing The Sandbaggers, he wanted to get as close to the real world of espionage as possible. To this end, he employed his own specialized knowledge of the UK espionage nexus and the modus operandi of the various branches. This effort at getting close to the truth caused great authoritarian concern. Fearing the show would reveal actual Crown secrets, the government required every episode to be reviewed and given a security clearance before being produced. One episode was axed and never filmed because it was judged to infringe on the Official Secrets Act.

The lynchpin of The Sandbaggers is taciturn Neil Burnside, Deputy Director of Operations of the UK Special Intelligence Service (SIS). His most closely guarded resource is his Special Operations Section, known as Sandbaggers—a term used to define those who deceive others about their real intentions or abilities for gain.

Burnside is on a constant slow burn—calm on the outside, raging on the inside. He is smart, obsessed with his work, passionate about protecting his unit, and willing to do anything—no matter how dirty—to get his job done. Constantly in trouble with his superiors, he is a ruthless adversary, and not a man to cross unless you want your career, your freedom—or possibly your life—to end.

Special Operations doesn't mean going in with all guns blazing. It means special planning, special care, fully briefed agents in possession of all possible alternatives. If you want James Bond, go to your library. But if you want a successful operation, sit at your desk and think, and then think again. Our battles aren't fought at the end of a parachute. They're won and lost in drab, dreary corridors in Westminster...

— Neil Burnside —

While Sandbaggers #2 and #3 are often killed and replaced, Sandbagger #1—Willy Caine—is a survivor despite, or maybe because of, his aversion to questionable undertakings and his phobia toward guns. Jeff Ross is the head of the CIA in London, who is Burnside’s ally and secret weapon. Diane Lawler runs the Sandbaggers’ logistics. Her wry and dry sense of humor adds balance to the otherwise grimly austere tone of the show.

Burnside’s duties most often confine him to seedy, interchangeable, government offices. His immediate adversaries are not those of a foreign power, but petty British government officials—with more power than sense—who argued constantly about how to handle every given situation. The majority of the interference comes from the Director of SIS known as only as C. Next in order of aggravation is Burnside’s counterpart, Deputy Director Matthew Peele, a man who deeply mistrusts Burnside. And finally there is Burnside’s ex-father-in-law, Sir Geoffrey Wellingham, a sometimes ally sometimes foe, who is the Permanent Undersecretary of State. To these men who opposed Burnside, agents in the field are a commodity to be used as bargaining chips and sacrificed as often as pawns on a chessboard. 

Constantly fighting for people and resources, Burnside is never able to field more than three Sandbaggers—less if one is killed on assignment. As a result, there are too many complex missions and too few Sandbaggers to minimize risks. Burnside is constantly weighing those risks against possible rewards. Often, he is compelled to make the dark choice of putting the sovereignty of the British government above the life of his agents.

The scenarios confronting The Sandbaggers are frequently ambiguous. There is never enough data, evidence, or time for Burnside to make informed life-or-death decisions. Instead, missions are run based on innuendo, rumors, and half-truths—situational guesses. Plans and strategies are heatedly discussed by government toadies jockeying for political favor and position. Miscommunication, and sometimes downright disinformation, is rampant. Bad luck and deadly coincidences abound. The screws on Burnside are constantly tightened, sometimes viciously twisted. Everyone, including allies, have hidden agendas. 

Broadcast at the height of the Cold War, The Sandbaggers played into the public fears of communism and foreign powers. Real countries and stories ripped from fearmongering headlines drove the storylines, the accompanying high stakes and intense urgency of unfolding history palpably riveting. The Sandbaggers don’t always win. Agents die, information is leaked, situations might not be what they appear—all of which can cause missions to go dramatically tits up, with caustic fallout and more finger pointing than a proctologist convention.

In July 1979, halfway through the writing of the third season of The Sandbaggers, creator and head writer Ian Mackintosh disappeared under mysterious and conspiracy theory riddled circumstances. A light aircraft carrying Mackintosh, Susan Insole (Mackintosh’s girlfriend), and pilot Graham Barber vanished over the Gulf of Alaska.

There was a distress signal sent, but no survivors or wreckage were ever found. The mystery is further complicated by two factors: Barber failed to file a flight plan, and the plane made an unexplained stop at a disused World War II airfield. 

Mackintosh left behind four completed scripts for The Sandbaggers, including the finale. Other writers were brought in to round out the full season of episodes, but the magic of The Sandbaggers resided in Mackintosh—who had written all the episodes of the first two seasons. In a story as complicated and ambiguous as the show itself, The Sandbaggers was cancelled.

Robert G. Folsom's 2012 biography, The Life and Mysterious Death of Ian MacKintosh, delves deeply into the circumstances of Mackintosh’s death, his naval career (for which he was awarded an MBE), and his success as a television writer. 

Two TV tie-ins to The Sandbaggers were published in paperback by Corgi. The first was written by Ian Mackintosh, novelizing two of his scripts from the show’s first season, and published in 1978. 

The second tie-in novel is much more rare. Published in 1980, The Sandbaggers: Think of a Number is an original novel written by Donald Lancaster—a pseudonym for Australian mystery novelist William Marshall, best known for his Yellow Thread Street mystery series. In the wake of Mackintosh’s disappearance (and to take cynical advantage of the accompanying headlines), Marshall was given ten days by the publisher to turn in the manuscript. Given the time constraint, and the fact he was working off a binge viewing (way before it became common place) of the first season of The Sandbaggers, Marshal created in a remarkably good story.

Today, The Sandbaggers deservedly remains one of the best espionage shows ever written. The three seasons of the show are available individually or in a DVD boxed set, and the tie-in novels can be tracked down with minor effort.


In 2001, bestselling author Greg Rucka began writing Queen and Country, a series of comic books heavily inspired by The Sandbaggers. Rucka stated at the time, There don’t seem to be many of us who know the glory of The Sandbaggers, but those who do and read the comic, it’s my sincere hope they’ll smile a bit and nod a bit, and recognize the debt I’m trying to pay. While Queen and Country is essentially The Sandbaggers: The Next Generation, Rucka’s handling of the series is nothing short of brilliant. The nine storylines from the original 32 issues of Queen and Country were later collected as graphic novels. 

Queen and Country focus on Tara Chace, an operative of the Special Operations Section (nicknamed minders as a substitution for sandbaggers) of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service. As in The Sandbaggers, the action in Queen and Country is driven by maneuverings and political double dealings of government officials—all of which endangers the lives of the minders in the harsh environments of the field where they operate.

Tara Chance is not the traditional glamorous comic book heroine—far from it. She is a dressed down, hard-bitten spook realistically portrayed. Playing in the sandbox with her are two other minders, the former Head of Special Section Tom Wallace, and Edward Kittering. Other characters include Director of Operations Paul Crocker, Deputy Chief of Service Donald Weldon, Chief of Service Frances Barclay—who is, not surprisingly, commonly referred to as C

There's a trick, they teach it to you at the School. When someone pulls a gun on you, they say, ‘charge at him like a bloody lunatic. It's the last thing they expect and most of them can't hit water from a submarine anyway...and repeat to yourself over and over you're doing this for Queen and Country.’

— Tara Chace, Operation: Broken Ground

With the success of the comic series, Rucka expanding his characters into a series of successful novels.  A Gentleman's Game, was published in 2004, featuring Tara Chace and making reference to the events of the comic book series. Private Wars followed in 2005 and takes place a few months after the end of the comic series A third Queen and Country novel, The Last Run, was released in October 2010.
The Queen and Country graphic novels were later continued in the form of three prequels referred to as Queen and Country: Declassified. The first two were written by Rucka and the third by Antony Johnston under Rucka's supervision. They deal specifically with the past missions of various characters.
Four Queen and Country Definitive Edition collections are available covering the full run of the original stories and the later prequels. My recommendation is track them down immediately.




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