Having whetted my appetite with this, I looked around for more and quite accidentally stumbled upon The Sandbaggers, a short-lived series from 1978-80 that ended only because the creator, Ian Mackintosh, disappeared while flying his single-engine plane across Canada. His body was never discovered, but he’s presumed to be dead.
The Sandbaggers is an entirely different beast, focusing instead on the intelligence administrators. Much of the time is spent in drab London offices or men’s clubs, discussing operations we get occasional glimpses of. The central character, Neil Burnside (Roy Marsden), runs the “sandbaggers”, a small group of agents sent in to do risky work and occasionally to murder. He was once a regular sandbagger himself, and thus has great empathy for those under him, spending a lot of his time trying to get them out of jobs he deems too risky. Like a good LeCarre novel, we’re constantly seeing the jobs from the top—from the decision makers’ perspectives—and the bottom—going with the sandbaggers into missions that fail as often as they succeed. And things are complicated by the Americans, who help and hinder and sometimes get people killed along the way.
There’s a mystique about the show’s realism that comes from one episode never being filmed because it would have violated the Official Secrets Act (Mackintosh had been in the employ of the British military). But spy shows don’t have to be real to be realistic, so that’s neither here nor there for me. All I know is that The Sandbaggers has some of the most intelligent writing I’ve seen on television, and seldom makes allowances for meek audiences—Burnside, despite his heavy conscience, continuously shows himself to be one of the hardest characters on television, one who’s easy to hate and seldom redeemed by a “heart of gold”. Yet despite this you slowly grow to understand him and appreciate his efforts in the face of seemingly endless disappointments.
He’s an atypical action-packed sequence from the show:
It’s only in the last few months that I came across Callan, an amazing, claustrophobic series from 1967-72, which starred Edward Woodward in his pre-Equalizer days as a hired gun for the British government. There’s a similar feel between this and The Sandbaggers, and Woodward’s David Callan is as embittered and ruthless as Burnside. Also, this one spends a lot of time in a drab office, but takes us out in the air a little more often to follow him on his jobs.
The overall feel is lightened somewhat by Callan’s sidekick, Lonely (Russell Hunter), a low-level thief who, we are told endlessly, is in desperate need of a bath. For some unexplained reason, Callan takes it as part of his job to keep Lonely alive, and it’s through this relationship that Callan’s able to show he might have a heart after all.
Callan is probably the gloomiest of the three shows, but it’s consistently entertaining, and like all these excellent shows there’s always an extra level of complication, some extra twist, that’s often unpredictable. And like The Sandbaggers, there’s so much going on that you really have to pay attention lest you miss the boat. But it’s so worth it, every time.
Here’s a typically chatty scene, focusing on one of the brilliant secondary characters, Toby Meres, a psychopathic co-worker.
Anyway, these shows have been on my mind lately, and I thought I’d share during one of my rare moments away from children’s music and aborted attempts to actually write my own novel. If you’ve seen any of these, chime in below, or if you know of something I might have missed, then feel free to enlighten. I always love good advice. And if you come across any of these, do yourself a favor and watch.