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Series / The Sandbaggers

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Willie Caine and Neil Burnside, doing some real spy work.

Special Operations doesn't mean going in with all guns blazing. It means special planning, special care, fully briefed agents in possession of all possible alternatives. If you want James Bond, go to your library. But if you want a successful operation, sit at your desk and think, and then think again. Our battles aren't fought at the end of a parachute. They're won and lost in drab, dreary corridors in Westminster, and hopefully in Oslo.
Neil Burnside, nominally to his Norwegian counterpart but actually to the audience

British spy series that ran three series on ITV, from 1978 to 1980, written by creator Ian Mackintosh. Neil Burnside is the Director of the Operations division of the Secret Intelligence Service (aka MI6) during the Cold War. Under his supervision is the Special Section, three agents nicknamed "Sandbaggers", led by Willie Caine.

Once described as "men in cheap suits dying badly in Prague," it clearly falls on the cynical side of the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism, and is about as far from James Bond as you can get (which the characters themselves are apt to point out.) Most of the plots revolve around Burnside wrestling with bureaucracy within and without, whether it's his superiors at SIS, his domestic counterparts at MI5, or the British government.

See also Greg Rucka's spy series Queen and Country, which was so heavily inspired by this series it could have been called The Sandbaggers: The Next Generation.

Provides Examples Of:

  • Acronym and Abbreviation Overload The dialogue uses so many acronyms that the DVDs have an acronym glossary as a bonus feature.
  • Anti-Hero: Burnside.
  • Anyone Can Die: Sandbaggers have a high mortality rate over the course of the series. It's commented on In-Universe as well.
  • Awful Wedded Life: How Burnside thought of his marriage, made even more awkward by the fact that her father is the Permanent Undersecretary of the Foreign Office.
    Peele: You know, I'm not very keen on this direct line between you and Wellingham.
    Burnside: He sent for me.
    Peele: I know... But he is the permanent Under-Secretary of State. He should talk to C... or me.
    Burnside: Maybe you could marry his daughter.
    Peele: That is not very funny.
    Burnside: No, it wasn't funny for me, either.
  • Black-and-Grey Morality: His stated goal, "the destruction of the KGB," justifies Burnside's ruthlessness.
  • Bottle Episode: SIS office politics play a huge role in the show, and occasionally the entire episode takes place in that environment (though likely including a few London exteriors.)
  • British Brevity: Seven episodes in the first and last series, and six in the second.
  • CIA Evil, FBI Good: Inverted. The CIA are generally portrayed as helpful, and in particular Burnside has a very close working relationship with the CIA's London section chief, Jeff Ross. The show has a Conspiracy Theorist view of American domestic politics that looks peculiar to American eyes, and the FBI is part of it. According to Ross (and apparently, this was really according to Mackintosh), the FBI was behind the Kennedy and King assassinations.
  • Cut Short: Mackintosh's disappearance ended the series on a cliffhanger, with Willie Caine mortally wounded. Rumours suggest Caine would have returned as a wheelchair-bound D. Ops in Series Four, presumably with Mike and Neil similarly promoted. A partially competing rumour has Neil return to his previous job as Sandbagger One in Mike's place.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Just about everyone gets a turn, but particularly Burnside, his secretary and Sandbagger One, Willie Caine.
  • Disposable Woman: Alan Denson's girlfriend.
  • Double Reverse Quadruple Agent: Defied Trope; Tyler says he considered becoming a triple agent after the KGB turned him, but decided it wouldn't help his situation any - he reflects sadly that at least somebody trusts a double agent, but nobody trusts a triple.
  • Exact Words: In "Special Relationship", Willie asks Burnside if he's sleeping with Laura. Burnside answers that if he means sleeping, the answer is yes. If he means anything else, the answer is no.
  • Fun with Acronyms: None are particularly funny, but the sheer number of them can choke segments of dialogue. The PA to D.Ops might relay a message that the PUS at the FCO needs a favour for the DCDS. (Translation: The Personal Assistant to the Director of Operations says that the Permanent Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office needs a favour for the Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff. Simple.)
  • Guile Hero (or maybe Guile Anti-Hero?): Burnside.
  • He Who Must Not Be Seen: Burnside's ex-wife and Wellingham's daughter, Belinda. Burnside's relationship with her (and by extension, Wellingham) is a plot point in several episodes, but we never see her except in photographs.
  • Hypercompetent Sidekick: Jill Ferris, Willie's temporary aide in "A Feasible Solution". This tips Willie off to the fact that she's not the newly-trained, inexperienced agent she's supposed to be. He later learns she's actually a Russian agent sent to silence a defector.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: Burnside personifies this trope, and isn't afraid to get his hands dirty.
  • Incredibly Obvious Tail: Played straight (but justified) in the first ten minutes of the series: Burnside and Caine easily spot tails on their way to the office, but it turns out they're being followed by green Norwegian agents on a training exercise.
  • Inherent in the System: Most of the intelligence community is bent towards maintaining the status quo as a result of the governments and bureaucracies each agency serves.
  • Instant Death Bullet: Subverted in "At All Costs".
  • Insufferable Genius: Burnside is a draconian boss, but superhumanly dedicated to his job and the safety of his agents. Likewise, he regularly lies to his superiors and schemes under their noses, but he's just that good at deception, and it usually serves the interest of the Service.
  • Interservice Rivalry: SIS and MI5 don't get along.
    Wallace: I have a friend in Five who...
    Burnside: Nobody has friends in Five.
  • Knight Templar: Burnside does not hesitate to take matters in his own hands and has a fanatical anti-Communist streak.
  • Legacy Character: "C" is the code name for the head of the SIS. The position is held by Sir James Greenley (Richard Vernon) in Series 1 & 2, and John Tower Gibbs (Dennis Burgess) in Series 3.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: Arranged by the protagonists a few times, when there's a KGB mole who's prominent enough that their trial or suspicious death would cause a scandal.
  • Mauve Shirt: If your callsign is Sandbagger Two, you're not long for this world, but at least we'll have a few episodes to get to know you. Mike Wallace survives, and may have been promoted to Sandbagger One in Series 4.
  • The Mole: Several, including a prominent cabinet minister as well as Edward Tyler, Director of Intelligence.
  • Not My Driver: Wellingham gets kidnapped this way in "Enough of Ghosts".
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: In Burnside's mind, this describes virtually everybody, but Deputy Chief Peele most often fills the role.
  • One-Letter Name / Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep" - The head of SIS is always referred to only as "C"; it takes an entire season to learn his real name and even after that nobody other than Wellingham uses it.
  • The Only One: Diplomacy won't work. The CIA can't get an agent there in time. The Prime Minister refuses to authorize military action. Any number of elements force the Sandbaggers into the line of fire.
  • Out-Gambitted: Wellingham thoroughly outmaneuvers Burnside in the season 2 finale.
  • Overt Rendezvous: Burnside and Jeff Ross tend to meet while strolling through the park.
  • Perpetual Poverty: On an institutional level. The SIS is perpetually under pressure to make budget cuts. Neil, who thinks his Sandbaggers are already underpaid for risking their lives and liberty on a regular basis, is constantly fighting to stop his Sandbagger complement being reduced to just two, and frequently has to call in favours in from the CIA during operations.
  • Pointy-Haired Boss: Deputy Chief Peele, who is more of a career man than an intelligence officer, although he does show glimpses of competence once or twice. (He is fluent in Chinese, for example.) The Prime Minister and the rest of the government usually are treated as Pointy Haired Bosses, as well.
  • Prisoner Exchange: Subverted when Burnside orders her shot halfway across.
  • Refuge in Audacity: Perhaps most notably when Burnside wins a bureaucratic argument by moving the capital of Venezuela. (It Makes Sense in Context.)
  • Revolvers Are Just Better: In "A Feasible Solution", Willie Caine is armed for the first time in the series. While he states that he Doesn't Like Guns, he prefers to use a revolver. We later see that Mike Wallace also prefers them.
  • Sadistic Choice: In "Special Relationship", a mission goes wrong and Laura Dickens is captured in East Germany. If left in jail, she'll break under interrogation and destroy several operations. Burnside can only get her released by getting the French to release one of their prisoners, in exchange for unpermitted access to American intelligence information. So, Burnside can leave his girlfriend in prison, or doom the Special Relationship with the CIA. This leads Burnside to Take a Third Option (see below).
  • Secret Test of Character: Wellingham administers one to Peele in the season 2 finale.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: A few, usually played for maximum Downer Ending. In the third episode, Burnside decides to wreck Alan Denson's relationship so he won't get married and leave the service, as he was recently forced to shoot Sandbagger 2 to prevent his capture on enemy soil, leaving only two agents. When a background search on Denson's girlfriend Sally turns up nothing he can use, Burnside personally threatens to have her kidnapped, stripped, drugged and photographed if she doesn't break off her engagement herself. Later that night, Alan calls Sally to say he's reconsidered leaving and wants to push back the marriage, so she assumes Neil convinced Alan instead and commits suicide with alcohol and pills... and then Alan is struck by a car and killed outside his front door, leaving Burnside with only one Sandbagger and two needless deaths on his conscience anyway.
  • Shoot the Dog: Burnside, notably in "At All Costs."
  • Shown Their Work: Perhaps showing a bit too much - one of the second series episodes was censored for contravening the Official Secrets Act.
  • Spiritual Successor: Greg Rucka's love of the series led to his homage/reworking, Queen and Country.
  • Spy Fiction: Extremely Stale Beer.
  • The Spymaster: Burnside, obviously. Also, the chief of the CIA station in London, Burnside's opposite number at MI5, and several foreign intelligence chiefs. Particularly amusing is the struggling head of the fledgling Norwegian intelligence service:
    "What do they have, two men and a reindeer?"
    "Something like that."
  • Spy Speak: Played straight, but usually not overdone. A typical example uses the "Metaphor" approach, with Burnside in the role of a manager talking to two salesmen in the field.
  • Take a Third Option: Burnside is handed a Sadistic Choice in "Special Relationship": leave Laura Dickens imprisoned by the East Germans, who will break her in interrogation and blow the cover of half of Hungary, or buy her freedom through a deal with the French, which will destroy the Special Relationship with the CIA. Burnside comes up with a nasty alternative: he deals with the French for Laura's release via a prisoner exchange, then has her killed during the exchange so he doesn't have to follow through on his end of the bargain.
  • The Teetotaler: Burnside doesn't drink alcohol, having once made a disastrous decision while drunk. But he drinks Coke by the gallon.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: John Tower Gibbs, Peele and Wellingham all try this on Neil at various points and it doesn't really take. Marianne finally gives a well-deserved one to him in the penultimate episode. Whether it would have got through to him, we'll never know.
  • Tyrant Takes the Helm: John Tower Gibbs in season 3 falls somewhere between this trope and Bait-and-Switch Tyrant.
  • What The Hell, Hero?: Burnside commits some truly despicable acts, including threatening to blackmail a Sandbagger's girlfriend which drives her to suicide and ordering the assassination of one of his own agents, who is also his lover. Willie Caine's otherwise rock-solid loyalty is severely shaken by the latter, although his dedication to the job brings him back.