The series revolves around the Secret Intelligence Service (never called MI6 in the show), and it's Director of Operations, Neil Burnside (played by Roy Marsden, before he became better known as Adam Dalgleish). Burnside is in charge of all the British agents in foreign countries around the world, but his first love is the Special Operations Section, known as the Sandbaggers. These are the smash-and-grab boys, the ones who get sent to perform an extraction or an assassination (or prevent one). Please don't compare them to James Bond or Burnside will slit your throat. He hates Ian Fleming's famous creation.
An example of Burnside's charming personality. In one episode he is in a restaurant and someone informs him: "I just saw your ex-wife out on the street."
"Best place for her." Like I said, charming.
One thing I love about the show is the title. I like to imagine it made John Le Carre, the master of fictional spy jargon, terribly jealous. His name for the same type of group was the Scalphunters, but Sandbaggers is so much better. "To sandbag" means "to launch a sneak attack" but it also means "to build emergency defenses." Clever, eh?
The show had its flaws, of course. The SIS is seen to be strangled with personnel shortages but it felt like that had more to do with TV budgets than anything else. The inside sets look like a high school drama club production. So many of the international crises take place in Malta that one can only assume ITV had a deal with the local tourist board. And the last episode of the show only makes sense if you forgot everything that happened four episodes earlier.
None the less, it has been called one of the best spy shows of all time, and I'm not arguing.
The show was created, and most episodes were written, by Ian MacKintosh, a former naval officer. Because of the series' sense of realism there was speculation that he had been involved in the spy world, but he played coy about it. The series ends with a (hell of a) cliffhanger, because MacKintosh died unexpectedly and the network decided no one else could do it justice.
But I oversimplified when I said MacKintosh died. In reality he and his girlfriend disappeared in a small airplane over the Pacific Ocean after radioing for help. The plane disappeared in a small area where neither U.S. nor Soviet radar reached.
I wonder what Burnside would make of that.
Oh, the show also has a great musical theme (just about the only music ever used in the program). Listen all the way to the last note.
But wait, there's more! In the midst of my Sandbaggery I discovered a very different spy show which is, curiously, both older and newer than The Sandbaggers. Available on Netflix A Very Secret Service (Au Service de la France) was created in 2015, but is set in 1960. And now let's give Grandpa a moment to marvel here over the fact that The Sandbaggers is set closer in time to 1960 than to 2015.
The series (in French, with subtitles) tells the story of Andre Merlaux, a naive young man who is forcibly recruited into the French Secret Service, which promptly makes it clear that they don't much want him. It is a rather peculiar agency where doing your job is much less important than turning in proper receipts and wearing suits from the correct tailors.
This show is wildly and wickedly funny. In one episode Merlaux assumes that a suspect cannot be a terrorist because she is a woman His tutor firmly instructs him: "In cases of terrorism women must be considered humans!"
In another episode the French capture a German on his way from Argentina and suspect he is a Nazi. Fortunately they have a scientific survey which allows them to detect such barbarians. (Sample question: "Adolf Hitler: pleasant or unpleasant?")
The best spy in the bunch is Clayborn, who will never get promoted because she is a woman. All her operations are described as "courtesy missions," which means they involve getting naked with someone, but don't think that means they don't also involve theft, blackmail, and murder.
At one point Merlaux pours out all his troubles to Clayborn. She is, of course, sympathetic: "You feel out of place. I understand. This is the women's bathroom."
Neil Burnside would not be amused, but I was.