Roy Marsden as Neil D. Burnside in Ian Mackintosh’s The Sandbaggers
“Neil Burnside: If he annoys me, I’ll belt you.
Diane Lawler: Promises, promises.”
Growing up in Canada, I discovered that British television contained a treasure trove of incredible programming going back to the 1960’s, most of which would never see the light of day on American television. These shows placed the focus on intricate plots, dramatic complexity, believable characters and masterful acting—performed by often relatively unknown actors. In fact, the British dramatic tradition has always stood for the performance and much less for the performers. Shakespearean training and standards might have something to do with that. But it’s also directly connected to how British post-enlightenment values and work-ethic connect to the execution of any product, creative and otherwise.
I also knew that the Brits of yesteryear still believed in themselves. They remained advocates and protectors of Western Civilization. They loved and cherished their history and traditions. And not tradition for tradition’s sake but in service of a heroic ideal that permeated the character of their nation and empire. Plus I was named after James Bond.
And so every year or so, I would make a well-researched list of the best British dramas ever produced (according to various sources). It was a pilgrimage to the past, in the hopes of inhaling it all. And perhaps along the way, informing and inspiring my character to be more than I was. Than I am.
I discovered many great treasures on this journey but none quite equaled Ian Mackintosh’s espionage masterpiece—The Sandbaggers.
Scottish-born Mackintosh was a brilliant Naval officer who had developed the critically acclaimed series “Warship” for the BBC, while fulfilling his naval duties. His talent was to create believable, complex yet timeless adventures that were entirely appealing to spy-fans of all ages. Although the hero of The Sandbaggers, Neil D. Burnside (Roy Marsden), Deputy Director of the Special Intelligence Service (SIS), is quick to point out that he’s no James Bond. And he was right. Burnside is moral hero fighting a losing battle against the barbarians at the gates and those who have already snuck inside.
And that’s really what The Sandbaggers spoke to. The new world was destroying the old. The end of Britain. The end of Empire. Of Europe as well and perhaps The West itself.
Sandbaggers was Art reflecting Life and back again. And Burnside was the metaphor. And in the case of Mackintosh himself—the Avatar.
Watching it, you get a sense of Mackintosh’s grave concerns about the suicidal policy errors that the British Government were making at the time. Concerns that might have cost Mackintosh his life. He was apparently another spy that never came in from the cold (war).
I loved many things about The Sandbaggers which ended abruptly with Mackintosh’s mysterious death during the 3rd season.
And I would be remiss in pointing out the most obvious selling feature. The show revolves around an unapologetic group of individualist spies and spymasters who spit in the face of mindless bureaucracy, group-think and internal corruption. Glorious bastards as I see them—ending some very bad people without remorse or paying any lip service whatsoever to the politically correct sensibilities of their day (or ours). Recognizing the true threat of totalitarian Marxism, The Sandbaggers are willing to risk anything, breaking all the rules, all the time for the sake of their ultimate goal—saving Britain and therefore, The West from what seemed inevitable. And perhaps was.
The main bastard of the group is of course Burnside. He’s Vulcan-like at times in his stoic (supposed) lack of emotion. In fact, he’s an extremely deep and caring fellow. Just in the most controlled, focused and deadly sense you’ve ever seen. In many ways, like an Ayn Rand-John LeCarre love child (Roark Smiley?). And there are shadows of the Randy one all over Sandbaggers. One episode is even titled “Decision by Committee”. And it’s certainly not a very flattering portrayal of the idea for which it’s named. Of course, this might just be a coincidence but what did Ian Fleming say about that again?
But you don’t need to be a Rand fan to enjoy The Sandbaggers. Even our friends at The (failing) New York Times called it “THE best spy series in television history”. And I concur. It’s also a wonderful antidote to the mindless PC-infected fiction we’re bombarded with today. And The Sandbaggers remains a substantial tribute to the genius, talent and character of Ian Mackintosh, the Scottish hero who created it.