ACTION TV ONLINE DVD REVIEW
There's much debate in connoisseurs' circles about which of the various contenders is the best British spy show. It's relatively easy to dismiss glossy and shallow shows like Spooks and older fare like The Cold Warrior. Serials such as Smiley's People and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy put in considerable competition, although may be too lacking in action for some. Most arguments eventually narrow down to two shows: Callan and The Sandbaggers.
Callan has the slight edge in terms of dialogue, characters
and generally downbeat atmosphere, The Sandbaggers has both
greater realism and more intricate plotting that probably give
it the eventual crown.
Throughout the three series of The Sandbaggers, the directorate is headed by former Sandbagger Neil Burnside (Roy Marsden), director of operations. Burnside is a hawkish, ruthless man, moulded by the sharp end of espionage, whose one care in all the world is the proper performance of his job and the safety of his Sandbaggers. There is literally nothing Burnside wouldn't do if the job demanded it of him or if he thought it was the right thing to do to win the day or support his Sandbaggers.
Unlike more action-packed shows, most of The Sandbaggers' scripts revolve around Burnside attempts to cajole the mandarins of Whitehall, his superiors in MI6 - including the services' heads, C and his deputy - and his opposite numbers in allied countries into doing his bidding. More often that not, each story revolves around Burnside being stymied by political lack of will, the timidity of others or, equally commonly, the far greater humanity and common sense of those he needs to persuade. Equally commonly, Burnside's circumventing of the rules or some quick thinking by the lead Sandbagger, Willy Caine (Ray Lonnen), save the day, although usually not without some cost - either to Burnside's career prospects or in human life.
Season two opens a year after the end of the first season. That saw Burnside commit one of the most supremely ruthless and jaw-droppingly calculated and self-sacrificing acts ever seen on British television. The repercussions from it are still being felt a year on, with Caine no longer trusting Burnside and Burnside even more destructive - and self-destructive - than before.
In "At All Costs", Burnside breaks Foreign Office rules and travels to East Germany to rescue his most junior Sandbagger, who has been injured during a bust out. Desperate to avoid another loss, Burnside finds himself forced to make a difficult choice. As usual, the outcome isn't good, but is the best that could be hoped for.
is tired of being a Sandbagger and wants to resign in "Enough
of Ghosts". But Burnside gives him one last mission, after
the permanent secretary to the Foreign Office - his former father-in-law,
confidante and occasional enemy - is abducted by suspected terrorists.
All is not as it seems however and Caine finds he may be too
good to leave the directorate, no matter how much he thinks
he wants to. Caine finds his skills called upon unexpectedly
during "Decision by Committee", when the plane home
from his latest mission is hijacked. The real intrigue, however,
comes from Burnside's attempts to get government approval for
the SAS to storm the plane, even though it's on foreign soil.
Couldn't Happen Here" raises the spectre of conspiracies
in the JFK Assassination, years before it had become de rigeur.
More importantly, it asks the question "Could MI6 follow
the CIA or FBI and assassinate a member of the government -
even if they knew him to be a spy?" It's an eye-opening
episode with neither Burnside, who favours the disposal of the
spy, nor C, who strictly forbids such an act of treason, ever
shown to be in the right - both can see the disadvantages to
their beliefs as well as the advantages. The eventual conclusion
is typical Sandbaggers and typically unsettling.
Acting quality is somewhat varied in the episodes, with Marsden and his fellow civil servants giving fine performances; Lonnen is likeable enough but lacks the gravitas to be totally convincing as an ex-paratrooper turned spy. The other Sandbaggers, including a young Michael Cashman, are moderately uninspiring, as are most of the guest cast, although there are particularly fine turns by the likes of Wolf Kahler among others. However, there are no performances that actually drag the show down.
Compared to modern shows like 24, The Sandbaggers is slow-moving and visually unchallenging. It has no incidental music whatsoever. Much of the screen-time is taken up with statically shot arguments between talking heads in brightly lit 70s offices. The rest of the time is spent with silent, meandering walks by Marsden through London and film work in whatever part of the YTV area is being used as the country of the week.
Yet for all that, The Sandbaggers remains as enthralling and disturbing as it was 25 years ago. There's little daring-do, few bullets fired and people die brutally and with disturbing regularity, often because of decisions taken hundreds of miles away from them. It's not the escapist fare most people are used to, but it's essential viewing for anyone who wants to see a spy show whose only problem was a lack of budget.
On the negative side unlike the equivalent Region 1 release, there are no extras on this two-disc DVD set and picture quality is poor, with no attempts having been made to remaster the show.