Apologies for neglecting my blog, I’ve not been well. But one of the pluses about being unwell is that you can have some (mostly) guilt-free vegging around time watching TV. And luckily, courtesy of my friend Stuart, I had some awesome quality TV to watch. On top of which, I thought I'd best hold off passing comment on said viewing to allow some time for what would have been my gushing praise to diminish, with the help of some fresh air and perspective, to the level of a more balanced review. Here we are a week after watching the final episode and unfortunately the breather hasn't done any good. The Sandbaggers, on reflection, stubbornly remains awesome.
At first, this late-70s TV spy drama might strike you as a bit of an oddity; once past its intriguing - and eventually infectious - theme tune, it might even strike you as potentially a bit dull. People in offices, constantly working late, always on the phone, being snarky to one another in the corridors of power, with only the occasional location scene to offer any indication that these people have any life outside of work – except for the fact that when they’re on location, it’s invariably job-related. Then somewhere along the way you realise this at-first-glance unremarkable combination somehow makes for utterly compelling viewing, and the truth sneaks up on you and hits you on the head: this is the West Wing of its day.
Of course, because of the period it hails from and the fact that it's British, it's rougher around the edges. It's grittier too, but doesn't lack for sharp humour. And like the West Wing it operates on the assumption that you know something of how its particular world functions or, if you don’t, is confident you will watch and learn and catch on to its rules and ways. And while the West Wing endeavours to show us an idealised US administration - sort of, wouldn't it be so much better if people in the White House were more like this? - The Sandbaggers is essentially saying, (back in the days before they had laptops and pen-drives to lose on public transport) this is what the UK intelligence service is probably really like, be afraid.
If, like me, you've noticed the complete lack of bastards in the Bartlett administration, you'll be pleased to know that The Sandbaggers has its share of them. Actually, there's one principal bastard, but he's such a mega-bastard he could single-handedly make up for a low bastard quotient in quite a number of shows. He's also what passes for the 'hero'.
The intensity with which Roy Marsden invests the role of Neil Burnside has to be an integral part of what makes the series so compelling. It's a performance as barbed and electric as the best security fence. So charged and intense, in fact, I'd be surprised if the actor didn't suffer nervous breakdowns between the filming each series. More of a workaholic than anyone in the Bartlett administration, the only time I think it lets up is when he's confronted with the prospect of losing his job - and then there's such a look of defeat on his face, you know - if you didn't already - that this job is this man's life. A moment which merely emphasises what will have struck you already if you've watched that far: i.e. that what's remarkable is that he keeps our sympathies entirely with him. (Or, er, maybe that's just me.)
This is no idealised version of the world, but Burnside is at least a man of ideals. Well, one anyway, and even if his single-minded dedication to the destruction of the KGB and all its Warsaw Pact subsidiaries is out of date now, we can respect - if not admire - the man, to the extent that, even when it's at the expense of the most prized principles, it's his schemes we find ourselves rooting for. Maybe it's just that he's surrounded by bureaucrats and in that sort of environment we're bound to root instead for the cold, manipulative, scheming, deceitful, conniving bastard.
And although he clearly believes the intelligence world revolves around him - and he can sometimes have them dancing to his tune - it's not all about Director Of Operations Burnside. Ray Lonnen's nicely laid-back, no-apparent-effort-required performance as Willie Caine - the ex-para who, refreshingly, loathes guns and (given a choice) eschews violence - provides a complimentary contrast to all that Burnside intensity and most of the other Sandbaggers (in spite of a fair degree of staff turnaround) range from dependable to the excellent and generally lovely Diane Keen.
It's her character, Laura Dickens, who serves to tantalise us with a glimpse of the more human side of our resident ruthless D-Ops, but because this is The Sandbaggers, that's far from the full story and her peculiar reserve when it comes to physical affection contributes to an added sting when the relationship comes to its unexpected conclusion. (And I'm being especially coy there, since I managed to inadvertently spoil that for a friend - sorry, mate - and have no desire to do the same for anyone else who hasn't watched the show.) (And I can only hope my friend can take some consolation in the fact that the series has even bigger shocks to come.)
Richard Vernon's C is a deal higher up the alphabetical order than M for good reason, Alan MacNaughtan is brilliant as Sir Geoffrey Wellingham and Jerome Willis (better known to me as Stephens from The Green Death) is terrific as Deputy Chief Peele. You can also amuse yourself, if so inclined, by playing spot the well-known British character actor. You'll probably recognise Michael Cashman as one of the early Eastenders, but he does a good job as the less experienced secret agent. I'm not fond of the eventual replacement C, but then neither is Burnside and Dennis Burgess is still undeniably good in the role.
But by now, I imagine, you're bored with reading about how brilliant it all is, so I guess I'd better examine some of its failings. Well, um, budget limitations mean that a combination of UK locations and studio work have to play stand-in for diverse locales across the globe, sometimes pretty effectively, sometimes less so. There's a larger proportion of location work as the series progresses - presumably more money being made available (and they do actually go to Malta, for instance) - while earlier on much of what occurs in foreign climes is merely reported, back in the confines of the London offices, say. But in fairness, consider The West Wing again and its general approach to events outside the White House.
There are a couple of episodes later on where much of what has been going on is revealed to us in the course of lengthy conversations between Burnside and a fellow intelligence officer. But since one of those - involving D-Int (Director Of Intelligence and a friend of Burnside's) - carries with it a tremendous emotional weight and dramatic impact, I even found myself forgiving the nature of the exposition.
Am I too forgiving? Have I perhaps been blinded to the series' faults? D' you know what, I'm sure I'm not the best person to answer that. Because I can't help thinking that if I've been blinded, then it was only by its sheer brilliance. I just hope you'll be able to forgive me this one unbalanced and entirely partial review and maybe be prompted to go check out the series for yourselves.
It goes without saying I recommend it. And I hope it won't give anything away just to warn you: it concludes with the most frustrating series end since Deadwood got canned all too prematurely. In this case, it was set to continue but had to be dropped because writer, Ian Mackintosh, mysteriously disappeared somewhere in the Bering Straits. (The producers - rightly - decided that no-one else could possibly have written the series as well.) Giving rise to speculation that he, as well as being a gifted writer, might also have been some kind of spy himself.
A fact which, regardless of whether true or false, only lends an extra touch of mystique to this exceptional slice of TV.