We rejoin the career of Neil Burnside (Roy Marsden), the lonely, driven, insubordinate and brilliant Director of Operations for Britain's Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). Neil's fiefdom is small but crucial. He controls the "Sandbaggers", a select group of agents, no more than two or three, who are always on call to race to global points of crisis in MI6's struggle with the KGB and set thing aright. And sometimes they fail. However, this British television miniseries, which aired in 1978 and 1980, is not so much about Burnside's war with foreign adversaries as with those in London - his own boss, SIS Deputy Chief Peele (Jerome Willis), and the craven politicians in Whitehall and Number 10 Downing Street.
Of the six episodes in the set, perhaps the best is "At All Costs", wherein one of Neil's two Sandbaggers is caught in an espionage sting in Bulgaria, wounded by gunfire, and now lying alone, bleeding, and paralyzed in a Sophia safe house. For all his faults, Burnside is 100% committed to the safety of his agents. So now, in company with his last remaining Sandbagger, the Director takes the dangerous course, much to the keen displeasure of Peele and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, of going behind the Iron Curtain to Bulgaria's capital to get his man out.
I consider the least deserving episode is "It Couldn't Happen Here", which perhaps reflects the British scriptwriters' overly dramatic and sensationalistic view of America's penchant for guns and political assassination. In any case, Neil's CIA London colleague, Jeff Ross (Bob Sherman), who is usually quite level-headed, now comes across as a wild-eyed conspiracy theorist with the FBI as the Machiavellian villains. And U.S. senators drop like flies. To me, the episode was over the top.
In the last episode, "Operation Kingmaker", the MI6 Director General ("C", Richard Vernon) is forced into retirement with health problems. While considering his own career prospects and the fate of his department, Neil must now conspire to back the least unpalatable of two possible successors to C's chair. And no matter who gets the Prime Minister's nod, it's going to be dodgy going for Burnside in Set 3.
Marsden's Burnside is one of the most intriguing protagonists in recent memory. Undeniably wily and capable, he's also cold, ruthless and conniving. He's definitely the man you'd want running special operations for your government's foreign intelligence service, especially if you're the agent at the sharp end, but not a snake you'd want slithering through the grass at your garden party.
THE SANDBAGGERS is first rate entertainment. I look forward to viewing Set 3, the last, but shall be saddened when it's over.
I do not know if Roy Marsden received any award for this series, but he certainly should have. I can't think of a more apt word to describe his performance than "Perfect." And I do not use that word loosely.
And so we get to know his character, Neil Burnside, better and better. And we find that here is a man who will sacrifice anything in life, including those he loves most and his own character as a human being (and one does not doubt that even his own life may be added to this list) for his mission, a free world which at that time was threatened by the Soviets. And Willie Cane, excellently played by Ray Lonnen, stays very close in his shadow. Are these men extreme idealists (even heroes), or do they share a brutal psychopathology? Perhaps both? It is for the viewer to surmise.
So hold on to your living room chair, and keep a strong stomach, especially during the first episode, and the remaining episodes will continue to grasp your attention unto the final one, the most ironic of all of them. It's worth the ride to see one of the finest espionage series of all time.