A Proper Function of Government is an archetypal episode of The Sandbaggers – low on action but high on character and debate. Although there is a mooted mission in Africa as well as an actual one in Vienna, the majority of the story is firmly based at the SIS HQ in London (and the brief scenes in Vienna were obviously not filmed there).
There’s plenty of pointers here about the character of Neil Burnside. He’s quite happy to take decisions independently (sending one of the Sandbaggers to Iran, for example) without first consulting his immediate superior, Peele. Peele has found out, but Burnside is able to talk him round. Since neither Peele or “C” have any operational experience, Burnside is happy to trust his judgement over theirs and make unilateral decisions. This is something that will cause him problems in the episodes to come ….
There are two main plot-threads in A Proper Function of Government. The first concerns Sir Donald Hopkins (Lawrence Payne) who is the chief scientific advisor to the government. He’s currently on leave and his leave form stated he would be fishing in Scotland. But he’s been seen in Vienna – which raises the possibility that he’s preparing to defect.
Burnside approaches Wellingham to break the possible bad news. Wellingham is appalled – Sir Donald is a personal friend and he finds it difficult to believe he could be a traitor. Sir Donald Hopkins is portrayed as a typical establishment figure, with many friends in high places (including the Prime Minister). The year after this episode was broadcast, Anthony Blunt was exposed as a Russian spy, although his treachery had been known in intelligence circles for many years prior to this. If Ian Mackintosh did have links with the intelligence community, then it’s possible that Hopkins was inspired by Blunt’s case.
The second plot-thread concerns a small African state headed by President Lutara. He’s no friend of Britain and during the last year has executed several British citizens. The latest murder brings back unhappy memories for Willie, which he relates to Sandbagger Three, Alan Denison (Steven Grivies).
About three and a half years ago, the boss was Sandbagger One, I was number two and Sandbagger Three was a lad called Bob Judd. He was younger than you are. It was the last time we lost a Sandbagger, so we do remember it quite well. He died in East Africa – one of Lutara’s ant-hills. He was alive when they put him on top of it, but they cut his stomach open and the ants found the cut. And there was nothing we could do about that. Not even Neil Burnside could go for a head of state without permission.
Maybe the latest death will push the government into action? Again, this is something that could have been taken from the headlines. Stories of covert operations, such as the one Willie hopes to mount, have been rife for decades. Willie, of course, wants to lead the mission (if one is agreed). He makes this quite clear to Burnside, but Burnside has an agenda of his own.
He dispatches the two Sandbaggers in London to Vienna – so that they can monitor Hopkins. He’s clearly done this deliberately, so that he can request the Lutara mission himself. For a Head of Operations to go back into the field is unusual, to say the least, and Burnside is prepared to play every card he has in order to get his own way. He sets up a meeting with Wellingham and tells him that he’ll go back to Belinda (his ex-wife and Wellingham’s daughter) if the mission is approved and he’s selected to carry it out. This is a good insight into the single-minded focus of Burnside – he’ll do anything to achieve the result he requires.
In the end, it comes to nothing as the government refuses to green-light the mission. “C” tells Peele and Burnside that the Prime Minster doesn’t approve of political assassination. “He does not consider assassination to be a proper function of government.”
Later, Wellingham authorises Hopkins to be picked up. He tells them that “the Prime Minster made a good point. He feels that Hopkins might start shouting on the way back. Say as he’s going through immigration and customs. Declare himself for what he is and tell the world he’s being forced out of Austria by the Secret Service. It would be almost as damaging to the government as if he actually defected.” Wellingham spells it out – they have authority to kill him.
Burnside is quick to point out the paradox. “We can’t knock over a lunatic who’s murdering ever day, but a man who threatens the government’s future, all the jobs and the perks that go with it, not only authority to assassinate, but instant authority.”
Late on, there’s a spellbinding scene between Roy Marsden and Alan McNaughtan. Willie Caine’s reason for wishing to take the Lutara mission has already been established – but Wellingham knows that Burnside isn’t interested in vengenace for Bob Judd. The sucessful assassination of Lutara would have significantly increased Burnside’s chances of promotion – and he judged that not only was a dangerous mission (where he might be killed) was worth it, he was also prepared to restablish a relationship with a woman that he clearly no longer loves. For Burnside, the SIS is his whole life.
This is an absorbing fifty minutes of drama, which sets up many of the character dynamics and conflicts which we’ll see play out as the series progresses.