Tinker, tailor, soldier, Sandbagger: sometimes TV from the 70s holds up

, | TV reviews

From watching The Sandbaggers, I have come to appreciate two things. The first is Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. Matthew Holness and Richard Ayoade’s ode to bad British genre TV from the 70s is hilarious even if you don’t know bad British genre TV from the 70s. What else would it be with Holness, Ayoade, the incomparable Matt Berry, and the even more incomparable Alice Lowe? But now that I’ve seen Sandbaggers, which has the same style, tone, and production values that Darkplace lovingly mocked, I get the joke even better. So this is what it was like to watch TV in the UK!

But then there’s the second thing I’ve come to appreciate.

That’s Sandbaggers itself. The style, tone, and production value might be bad British genre TV from the 70s, but the writing and acting are as good as anything that would get an Emmy these days. Heck, better!

If you’re like me, you have no idea what this show is, what it’s about, or what a sandbagger even is. Based on the title, I figured it was some sort of comedy. The sandbaggers are a bunch of wacky ne’er-do-wells talking in Cockney accents and living on the dole. Tune in next week when the sandbaggers run out of tea on the double-decker bus to the match with Manchester United! I couldn’t have been more wrong. The Sandbaggers is an ultra doubleplus serious dramatic examination of the unique challenges faced by British intelligence during the Cold War. In other words, a spy show. Really, an anti-spy show, considering what spy usually means.

The title refers to an informal name for elite MI-6 agents. Like James Bond, but the opposite. These elite agents spend a lot of time sitting in offices or waiting in hotel rooms. They deal with bureaucracy. They do paperwork. They write out reports, longhand, with a pen. They have to catch a flight to Vienna in the morning. They don’t carry guns. They don’t have many action scenes. In one action-heavy episode involving actual gunfire, the sandbagger is clearly unhappy about it. He’s plenty handy with his gun, but it’s not his preferred approach. It’s all such a bother, he thinks as he takes the shot.

Sandbaggers are so elite that there are only two or three at a time. The main character is the director of operations for this group, and one of the challenges he faces in the first season is a high turnover rate. In the second episode, one of the agents explains to another what happened to his predecessor. The agent had been outed while on an operation in East Africa. He was tied to an anthill and his stomach was cut open.

“The ants found their way into the cut,” he says.

And that’s the end of that conversation. Use your imagination. It’s an episode about the ethics of assassination, and like most episodes, it has a frank answer. The general structure is an A-plot and a B-plot, which is typical TV formula. But part of what makes the writing so good is how the plots interact and eventually come together. What does this murderous East African dictator have to do with a government advisor lying about where he went on vacation? Nothing, directly. A lot, indirectly.

It’s smart, dense, layered, and varied. Norwegian intelligence needs help recovering a downed spy plane. A Middle Eastern prince asks for support in a coup against his father’s government. A psychoanalyst is using his practice as a front for double agents. A sandbagger is trapped behind enemy lines in Russia. Another sandbagger wants to quit so he can settle down and get married. In every situation, director of operations Neil Burnside has to make a decision.

Burnside is played by Roy Marsden, who carries the show. I’d never heard of Marsden before (but I have heard him; he was one of the voice actors in Total War: Rome II). From certain angles, he’s a dead ringer for Richard E. Grant, with the same arch demeanor, as if he knows he’s better than you and he assumes you know as well. But whereas Grant’s Englishman is given to bloviating and easily reduced to bluster, Marsden has a quieter and keener edge. He exudes intelligence. When he squints at you, it’s because he’s wondering if you know what he’s already figured out. He opens a folder, studies a piece of paper, and thinks for a moment. The gears turn, but by the time he speaks, everything has clicked decisively into place. He now knows what needs to be done. At this point, he’s a man of action, willing to trade whatever political or personal capital it takes.

He’s also an asshole. This gives Sandbaggers real bite. The lead character is not nice or kind or charming. He snaps irritably at his secretary. He uses friends and even family. He has no compunction about getting people killed, even if they’re on his side. But this isn’t some sort of “for Queen and country” British patriotism. He openly loathes his superiors and doesn’t seem to take any pride in his country. Does he believe in any cause? Does he hate communism? Does he fight for freedom? Irrelevant. He just does his job. He doesn’t even drink tea. Neil Burnside takes his coffee as black as his heart.

The rest of the cast is fine, but none of them stands out like Burnside. Despite the name, The Sandbaggers is not an ensemble show. The supporting cast is all 70s TV actors showing up to do their bits as British agents or ministers, with the occasional Norwegian or Frenchman thrown in for good measure. One of the recurring characters is a CIA agent. You can tell he was cast because someone thought he looked like Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor. I found this from a fanzine interview with actor Bob Sherman, who played CIA agent Jeff Ross.

Jeff was the primary American on the show. Did you ever feel he was written stereotypically American, or that you were given direction to do something stereotypically American?

Oh God, yeah. All of the above. I mean, he was written stereotypically American, and I was always receiving direction to do something stereotypically American.

The production values, a la Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, are certainly dated. This is low budget TV, shot on a sound stage with cheaply built sets standing in for offices, hotel rooms, apartments, and the occasional parlor. The outdoor sequences shift abruptly into the muted glare of an English countryside, standing in for Malta, Vienna, and even Siberia. The first episode actually has an explosion! With a boom and flames and everything. Later episodes can’t afford that level of extravagance. A car crash is hilariously cheated with editing and camera angles. When a terrorist tries to take down a passenger jet with a shoulder-mounted missile, hoo boy. It makes Kirk’s fight with the Gorn look like Game of Thrones.

But since the heart of the show is people talking to each other, this stuff is actually kind of charming. And the props from the era are a real joy. Telephones on cords. Boxes of cigarettes. Everyone has a lighter. Folders stuffed with pages. Typewriters and ashtrays and a huge intercom system on the desk. Not a computer screen in sight. Even the editing belongs to the period. One scene ends and abruptly cuts to the start of the next scene. The story has things to do, places to be. No point lingering on someone’s post-dialogue pause. It can’t even be arsed with establishing shots most of the time.

One of the most dated aspects of the show — and in my opinion a dramatic fumble — is a workplace romance late in the first season between Burnside and his subordinate. It’s creepy. It’s stiffly acted. Pushing Marsden into the role of giddy schoolboy is unbecoming. Presumably, this is to highlight how these characters aren’t accustomed to social interaction, but it feels contrived, all for the sake of a later payoff. And while that payoff is effective, I’m not convinced it’s earned. The writing shows a real lack of attention to the woman’s character.

“Are you sleeping with her?” Burnside’s colleague asks.

“If you mean sleeping, yes. If you mean anything else, no. She’s got a hang-up at the moment.”

A hang-up? Namely, that she doesn’t want to sleep with you? I suppose it’s an authentic bit of insight into how women were treated in the workplace in the 70s. And while I’m willing to accept the lead character being an asshole, it’s a bit harder to accept the lead character being a sexist asshole. I suppose you could say I’ve got a hang-up at the moment.

The Sandbaggers predates John Le Carre’s Smiley’s People, which will become the de facto British TV show about esionage, by four years. It ran for three seasons before coming to an unexpected end. The series creator and writer, Ian Mackintosh, was sightseeing in Alaska in a single-engine plane piloted by a friend. 45 miles from shore, over rough seas, the pilot radioed that he was experiencing engine trouble. Then he went silent. No wreckage or bodies were ever recovered. I’ve only seen the first season of The Sandbaggers, but I’ve read that the final season ends with a cliffhanger. This makes me want to quit watching. I’m not sure I have the stomach to know a storyline and its characters are going to be abandoned. That’s one of the two main problems with TV as a medium: that it might end too soon or that it might go on for too long.

But The Sandbaggers holds up. It’s great writing, with a great lead actor, and therefore great TV. Especially when you consider what us Americans were watching back then. In 1978, there were no shows about espionage or the Cold War. American television had no desire to get political or address the wider world. We went to movie theaters for that stuff. 70s cinema and 70s TV couldn’t be more diametrically opposed. In 1978, in the comfort of our own homes, we just wanted to forget about Vietnam and watch Columbo, Kojak, and The Rockford Files.

But none of those shows holds up. They are uniformly awful. I can still appreciate Peter Falk’s nattering charm, Telly Savalas’ cool, and James Garner’s charisma, but the series built around them are awkward relics, embarrassingly glib, cheap, and clunky. They’re all trifles, resting heavily on the shoulders of their stars, without much else to offer. None of those shows has the layered writing, flawed characters, and national introspection of The Sandbaggers. This kind of quality is timeless.

(Wondering what’s all this stuff about a really old TV show from a whole other country? Why is a guy who writes about videogames and sometimes movies writing about The Sandbaggers? If you support my Patreon campaign for $10 or more, once a month you’ll have to opportunity to assign me a review of anything you want.)