The Sandbaggers – Special Relationship


An East German spy called Mittag (Brian Ashley) has obtained aerial photographs of a new missile complex which is probably targeting R.A.F. bases in West Germany.  This information is vital, but there’s a problem – Mittag is convinced he’s under observation, so he won’t travel over to the West.  Instead, he wants somebody to collect the pictures in person.

The question is, who?  There seems to be a shortage of possibilities, as whoever goes has to be Berlin-orientated (i.e. able to pass themselves off as an East Berliner).  Laura has all the qualifications, but Burnside is very reluctant to consider her.  Is it because of their growing relationship or is there another reason?

Willie offers to go – although Burnside points out how foolish that would be, since he doesn’t speak German.  He breezily says he’ll go over the Wall, and it’s clear that he’s made the offer to save Burnside from having to send Laura.  Eventually, Burnside decides that Laura is the right person for the job, and she’s sent in.  But the nightmare happens and she’s caught by the authorities, which leaves Burnside with a limited number of options, all of them bad.

Special Relationship is the ultimate example of how compartmentalised Neil Burnside is.  There’s no doubt that he’s in love with Laura (he’s seen smiling several times in the early part of the episode, which is far from normal behavour) and after she’s detained he starts to make frantic attempts to secure her release.  Given their relationship this is understandable, but there’s another reason.  Before she was sent to East Berlin, Laura was briefed on the Hungarian networks – and if this information is extracted from her it could mean the deaths of dozens of people.  Was this the real reason why Burnside was reluctant to send Laura in?  As so often, there’s no “right” answer – maybe it’s a combination of this and his genuine feelings for her.

Time’s not on his side – within forty eight hours she’ll have told them everything she knows, so she has to be recovered before then.  A swop would seem to be the best option, but there’s nobody currently held by the British who fit the bill.  The French have somebody though, but will they agree to hand him over?  They do, but the price is incredibly high – they want access to the information supplied to the British by the Americans (via the special relationship).  They also want a signed agreement from “C” and Sir Geoffrey Wellingham confirming this.

If the Americans found out that their information was being passed over to the French it would be the end of the special relationship, but Burnside has no other options.  He speaks to “C” first.  “C” says that if they sign it, both he and Sir Geoffrey will be finished, politically.  Burnside agrees, but tells him that his career is drawing to a close anyway.  “C” concurs but ruefully muses that “I had hoped not to end mine in disgrace.”  He reluctantly signs.

Sir Geoffrey is harder to convince.  He’s still smarting over Burnside’s treatment of his daughter and even when Burnside tells him that he’s in love with Laura, Sir Geoffrey doesn’t believe him.  “I think you’re lying Neil.  The way you always lied, cheated, double-dealt to get your own way.”  Burnside makes no defence of his past, but tells him he’s not lying this time.  Sir Geoffrey signs as well.

So this is a three-cornered problem.  Protect the Hungarian networks, maintain the special relationship and save Laura Dickens’ life.  Two out of the three can be done, but not all.  By this point in the story it should already be clear which will have to be sacrificed.

Laura is shot and killed at the rendezvous point before she’s exchanged for the Russian prisoner.  Her death has saved the Hungarian networks and since the exchange didn’t go ahead it allows Burnside to declare the document drafted to the French null and void.  So it’s Laura who was expendable, killed on Burnside’s command.  It’s a powerful moment, with her dead body lying almost at Burnside’s feet.  The split-second before she was shot we see her smile at him, which just twists the knife a little more.

Caine lashes out at Burnside.  This event signals a change in their relationship which will be reflected in the following two series.

CAINE: You bastard! Why?
BURNSIDE: You know why. I had to get Laura away from them, into the open to save the Hungarians. To do that I had to set up the swap with …
CAINE: But why the hell didn’t you swap?
BURNSIDE: I couldn’t. The only way I could convince the Americans was by guaranteeing that there would be no swap. Look, you must see it Willie.

It’s another jarring move by Ian Mackintosh.  Having killed off two Sandbaggers in Is Your Journey Really Necessary? it didn’t seem likely that another death would happen so soon.  Everything looked to be set up to develop Laura’s character further, as she’d only featured in four episodes and there was still considerable scope for broadening her relationship with Burnside.  Her sudden, brutal death brings this to an end – and it’s also an incredibly powerful way to bring the first series of The Sandbaggers to a close.

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