Monday, 21 January 2013

An Appreciation: The Sandbaggers

When I was a kid we had a local TV station with a bizarre notion of "after-school" programming.

The first thing I remember them showing were silent short comedies with Charlie Chaplin and others. Then came the anarchic comedy of the British trio The Goodies, and after that came The Sandbaggers.

The Sandbaggers was a radical shift from the other afternoon time wasters, something obvious from its opening credits...

As you can tell, it's not a comedy or a kid's show. It is, in fact, probably the best TV show you have never seen.

It was a spy drama from ITV conceived and written by  Ian Mackintosh, a British naval officer turned TV writer that ran for three series from 1978-1980. It was the anti-matter response to the James Bond movies, turning away from fantasy to cold and often cruel realism.

It centres on Neil Burnside the director of operations for MI6. Unlike 007, Burnside isn't classically handsome, he doesn't drink martinis, or any alcohol, his love life is pretty well dead since his divorce, and judging by the freakish size of his shirt collars he doesn't have 007's high end fashion sense. He commands a team of three agents called "Sandbaggers" who handle ultra sensitive "special operations" all over the world.

Often the biggest problems didn't come from the KGB but from the internal fights between MI6 and MI5, and the political machinations of Burnside's ex-father-in-law who is the government's most senior bureaucrat.

The show was never a big hit, earning just enough in the ratings to justify another series. However that all came to an end when its creator/writer Ian Mackintosh mysteriously disappeared in a small plane somewhere in or near British Columbia, Canada.

ITV decided that no one could take over the reins, and let the show end after 20 episodes.

A handful of stations in North America, mostly PBS and CBC ran the reruns, usually as filler, where it developed a small cult following. Aside from me the most famous member of this cult was writer Greg Rucka who says his comic series Queen & Country was inspired by The Sandbaggers.

I was recently able to revive my membership in the cult when I splurged over $100 for the Sandbaggers DVD box set.

Some may say that I spent too much for a box set containing fewer episodes than a single season of an average American network show. But after I've seen some of the episodes, I must say that it's a case of quality over quantity.

The show's gritty realism gives it an almost documentary feel as it explores the world of Cold War era espionage. You can't watch it without thinking that must be what it was really like.

It also shows you the power of good writing.

You see the show had a low budget, even by British TV standards, and the production values are minimal. Interiors were shot on 2  inch analog videotape and exteriors were shot on grainy 16 mm film, creating a visually jarring effect to those not used to British TV of that era.

There's also very little action in the show. The number of shots fired in a season of The Sandbagger is probably less than the average episode of an American TV show. Possibly because they couldn't afford the blanks.

Yet despite the low budget and thin production values, it's a compelling show. It commands that you concentrate on what's going on, and you can't help but follow that command because it's so damn intriguing. 

So if you have the money, and want a spy drama without fantasy I say get yourself The Sandbaggers from Amazon. In my opinion, it's well worth it.


  1. Rainforest Giant here,

    Sorry, we've kept Burnside since he 'dropped in' on us so long ago. It gets monotonous here in the Great Wet Northwest and storytellers are much appreciated on gloomy days.

    In this neck of the woods we had several very good local live TV shows for children with original and and syndicated material. We had J.P. Patches (still alive last time I checked), the Count (Nightmare Theater Double Feature) who is sadly gone on our CBS channel. We had a Brakeman Bill and Ranger Ricky on an independent station.

    When Rainforest Giant's children were younger, back when Madonna was still telling everyone she felt 'like a virgin' again, they'd race home to watch Ranger Ricky.

    Like all red blooded American fathers in the area; RFG joined his children for the half hour show. This was before internet and other sources of bubbly young ladies in the afternoon. One local wag noted that 'fathers are watching the show more than their kids', or something to that effect. The show had interactions that were impossible for younger people to imagine in this day of political correctness and sexual harassment lawsuits.

    'Ricky' flirted with the crew while entertaining the children. One episode had the raccoon puppet 'co-host' getting a little handsy underneath the table.

    The segment ended when Ricky 'accidentally' dumped a large pitcher of juice over on the puppeteer.

    I think that those kind of shows were better for children than what's on now but what do I know? I don't even where trousers most times (need to air out the leg hair).

    Today's kids shows are too age segregated. When I was a kid everyone from toddlers to teenagers watched the J.P. Patches, now shows are geared for one age cohort and unwatchable for kids younger or older. Worse many of them are frenetic to the point of child abuse.

    Is a local live action type children's show the kind of thing that the Canadian broadcasters produces or subsidizes? It seems that would be a good fit for promoting local culture and stuff.

    Rainforest Giant

  2. In my memory, we only had one locally produced kid's show that was geared to a local audience, and it was done by ATV our local private broadcaster. But it ended some time in the early 1980s.

    Most kid's shows by our public broadcaster, the CBC, are made in Toronto, and the ones that are made outside the centre of the universe usually don't have any sort of local content.

  3. Sandy Petersen30/1/13 3:57 pm

    Well I bought all 80-odd episodes of Danger Man/Secret Agent for around $40 and I theorize it is not lower in quality than the Sandbaggers. Which I will now keep an eye out for, though. Thanks.