Softly Softly: Task Force – Who Wants Pride …?

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An empty security van – with a very neat hole in its side – is discovered in a secluded wood.  Three men (one of them with a military bearing) were seen running away from it after a loud explosion.  All the evidence suggests it was a test for the military man to demonstrate his skills with explosives.  The question is will they try again, but the next time with a loaded van?

It’s a little while into the story, about ten minutes or so, before we meet the criminals.  This means that the police, especially Barlow, have time to consider who they might be.  The man with a military bearing is of particular interest – is he army, or ex-army?   It concerns Barlow that he might be an soldier, as they – like the police – should have a strong devotion to duty.  Barlow then muses to Watt that this man will have pride in his service, like themselves, which wouldn’t be easy to break.  The cynical Watt counters that for “the money they can take knocking off security vans, who wants pride?”

Shortly after we discover that the soldier is called Jim O’Donnell (Ray Lonnen).  He’s an army regular who wants a little extra money so that he and his girlfriend, Betty Patterson (Jeannette Wild), can buy a flat and settle down.  Betty’s brother Tom (Bill Wilde) and David Marks (Jess Conrad) are the villains keen to use Jim’s expertise.  Jim agrees – but only one job.

Ray Lonnen would later become identified with military/espionage roles (The Sandbaggers and Harry’s Game, for example) which makes this neat casting in retrospect, although at the time he was probably best known for the fruit and veg soap opera Market in Honey Lane.  He’s always an actor that I enjoyed watching, even if his Irish accent does take a little bit of getting used to.

The first meeting we see between Jim, Tom and David is a bit of a nightmare for the cameramen.  There clearly wasn’t a great deal of manoeuvrability around Betty’s flat, as twice there’s a very pronounced camera wobble after it collides with the furniture.

A successful robbery is carried out, although Jim is disappointed that he didn’t get as much money as he’d hoped, so he decides to do one more.  Watt is distressed at the fate of the guards inside the van – dazed and deafened by the blast.  “Beat them stupid with pick handles, throw ammonia at them and now this.”

Presumably Jim would have known this would have happened, although earlier he airily stated that they’d hardly be scratched.  Is this a case of self delusion or is he not quite the expert he appears to be?  Things start to unravel for him after the Special Investigation Branch (SIB) starts to poke around his camp.  Knowing that he’s sure to be found out, he decides to go over the wall – taking more explosives as well as a machine gun.  Jim’s character – a man who lives for danger – is now brought sharply into focus.  His plan is to return to Ireland, along with Betty, where he’s convinced he’ll be safe.

Who Wants Pride …? is a better story than Robert Barr’s previous series two script, Time Expired, but it’s still a little sub-par.  Ray Lonnen’s always worth watching, even if he’s not the most convincing Irishman ever, but the focus on Jim does mean that there’s not a great deal of time to concentrate on the regulars.

But even though Jim gets a decent amount of screentime, he remains a rather nebulous character. The main problem is that it’s hard to understand why he would jeopardise his army career in this way. That he’s possibly a little unstable is suggested on several occasions, most notably when he tells the others that he’s taken the gun in order to ensure he’ll be able to return to Ireland safely. How exactly? It’s also inferred that once he’s back home he’ll be fighting again, although it’s not clear whether it’ll be on the side of the Catholics or the Protestants. There’s plenty of dramatic potential in the concept of an Irishman fighting in the English army (divided loyalties) but it’s not something that’s developed.

It’s also an issue that Jim, Tom and David are placed under very close surveillance towards the end of the story – ensuring that the tension is sapped a little.  They may be planning another job, but since they’re being shadowed every step of the way the story ends with a whimper rather than a bang.

The Sandbaggers – Operation Kingmaker

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Following Sir James Greenley’s sudden retirement, the position of C is vacant.  Despite all their run-ins, Burnside isn’t averse to Peele taking over, reckoning that the devil you know is always better than the devil you don’t.  He maintains that although Peele would be a minor disaster as C, someone they didn’t know would be a major one.

And when Burnside learns that John Tower Gibbs (Dennis Burgess) is the front runner, Peele becomes more and more attractive.  Gibbs and Burnside have a long and painful history and if he did become C there’s nothing to suggest that future relations would be any more cordial.  So Burnside assigns both Sandbaggers with a new mission – Operation Kingmaker.  Its objective is to find compromising material on Gibbs whilst at the same time promoting Peele as a worthwhile candidate.

With no world shattering events to deal with in Operation Kingmaker, office politics are the order of the day.  It has a lighter tone than most of the previous episodes, especially when depicting the relationship between Peele and Burnside.  To begin with, Peele is at his most genial – as he’s attempting to use Burnside and Wellingham’s close relationship to his advantage (hoping that Burnside will be able to persuade Wellingham that he’s a serious candidate for the job).

Burnside though is already ahead of him, as he’s already pushed Peele’s credentials to a slightly incredulous Wellingham.  Wellingham has no particular liking for Peele and correctly surmises that Burnside is simply keen to ensure that anybody but Gibbs gets the job.

This isn’t the only change afoot though, as Burnside’s secretary, Elizabeth, hands in her resignation.  She’s leaving to get married and Burnside is characteristically far from delighted at the news.  He fails to congratulate her and when he realises she won’t reconsider, insists that she appoints a replacement before she leaves.  A further example of his monumental lack of tact is when he mentions he doesn’t want anybody young – someone about her age would be fine!

Finding a replacement is hard though, as nobody seems to want the job (Burnside’s fearful reputation has preceded him, much to Willie’s amusement).  But eventually she does uncover a potential candidate – Marianne Straker (Sue Holderness).  Although Marianne is younger than Burnside would like, twenty-seven, she does have the sort of outspoken attitude that appeals to him.  She used to work for Peele, but was dismissed because, according to Elizabeth “she wasn’t deferential enough.”

Sue Holderness had been acting since the early 1970’s, although she was still a few years away from her career-defining role as Marlene in Only Fools and Horses.  She only has a limited amount of time in this episode, but her brief appearance suggests that she’ll make a decent foil to Burnside.  The tone is set after he discovers she doesn’t have a regular boyfriend and he asks what’s wrong with her.  She counters that he’s considerably older than her and isn’t married, which is a decent retort.  He offers her the job and as the door closes behind her, we see something quite rare – a smile from Burnside.

Another character making her exit is Jana Shelden as Karen Milner.  She appears to have been positioned as a potential romantic interest for Burnside, though in the end this didn’t amount to anything mainly because the scars of Berlin seemed to be too fresh in his mind.  A pity she didn’t return, as she also made a good working partner for Willie (as seen in Decision by Committee) although regular team-ups between the SIS and the CIA would have probably stretched credibility a little.

Neither Willie or Mike appear to be delighted with Operation Kingmaker.  Willie doesn’t have any moral qualms about sabotaging Gibbs’ chances, he’s more concerned about what would happen to Burnside if it was discovered.  But Mike does seem a little apprehensive about what he’s been asked to do, although this may just be Michael Cashman’s acting choice as it helps to make his contribution stand out (given his fairly small role in the story).

Finding dirt on Gibbs is difficult though.  Willie asks D. Int. if he knows anything and he tells him that Gibbs has “the brain of a computer, the stamina of an ox and a bite that’s considerably worse than his bark.” They do finally uncover something promising and Burnside casually mentions it to Wellingham.  But it later becomes clear that Wellingham knew about Gibbs’ indiscretion anyway and this decades-old scandal doean’t prevent him from being appointed as the new C.

Whilst Operation Kingmaker lacks the dramatic punch of the series one closer, it sets us up nicely for the conflicts that would play out during the third (and as it turned out) final series.

The Sandbaggers – It Couldn’t Happen Here

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Jeff Ross is convinced that US Senator Franklin Heron was murdered by the FBI.  Heron was an advocate for the freedom of information and Ross believes he was just the latest in a long line of public figures to have been removed by the Bureau (he also mentions JFK and Martin Luther-King).  Burnside doesn’t dismiss his conjecture out of hand, but he does tell him he’s glad it couldn’t happen in the UK.

But when compelling evidence is discovered that suggests a key member of the Cabinet, Stratford-Baker (Tony Church), is a mole for the KGB, Burnside is forced to reconsider his statement.  The evidence he holds isn’t absolute proof (and was obtained illegally by the CIA) so no further action will be taken.  With the possibility that a KGB mole might one day become Prime Minister, is his removal – by whatever means necessary – justifiable?

It Couldn’t Happen Here is a story that seems to act very much as a mouthpiece for Ian Macintosh’s own opinions.  Jeff Ross spends the first five minutes outlining his theories that the FBI killed both John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther-King – mentioning the clear evidence of conspiracies in both cases which were later suppressed.  Later, Wellingham also expresses his conviction that JFK was the victim of a conspiracy.

The notion that JFK murdered as part of a shady conspiracy (involving either the KGB, CIA, FBI, Mafia, Cubans, etc) was widely held for many decades, although in recent years the possibility that Oswald was really working alone has gained more credence (Gerald Posner’s book, Case Closed, for example).  It Couldn’t Happen Here is therefore a reminder of the more paranoid days of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.  Although since Watergate had happened just a few years earlier, it’s not surprising there was a more jaundiced view of both American politics and the American agencies that were designed to serve both it and the people.

This debate, none too subtly, sets the tone for the remainder of the episode.  Stratford-Baker is by any definition an untrustworthy man – he fled the scene of a car accident in Germany, leaving a woman (one of Burnside’s employees) for dead.  But is he a Russian agent?  He has microdots and secret papers in his house, but it’s not clear proof.  Burnside later agrees with Wellingham that it would be wrong to assassinate him, but his final words to Willie are quite different.  Is he serious when he suggests they should stage a car accident, or is it just idle talk?

Two plotlines run in this one, so whilst Burnside wonders about Stratford-Baker’s loyalties, Willie travels to America to guard Senator O’Shea (Weston Gavin).  O’Shea has taken over Heron’s responsibilities and will therefore be a key target during the time that Willie is assigned to protect him.

This part of the story does rather stretch credibility to breaking point as it’s hard to believe the American government would assign the protection of O’Shea to a foreign operative.  Willie appears to make a hash of it as well – watch the scene when O’Shea leaves the church, following Heron’s funeral.  Willie moves straight to the car, leaving O’Shea completely unprotected and therefore an easy target for a gunman.

O’Shea is killed (although not by the same people who killed Heron – O’Shea’s killer was just a lone nut) and Willie returns home, although it’s tactful that nobody mentions the acres of space he left between himself and O’Shea.

The American sequences (filmed in the UK of course) also show the limitations of the series’ budget.  The funeral of an influential senator like Heron would be a huge affair, with hundreds of people, but The Sandbaggers could only afford a handful of extras – so tight camera angles had to be employed to try and make it look credible.

Elsewhere, Burnside enjoys another meal with Karen Milner and C announces that he’s leaving, effective immediately.  Whilst C might not have been central to many episodes – the main battles tended to be fought between Burnside and Peele – he was always on hand to deliver a pithy assessment of the current situation.  Richard Vernon was a joy to watch in the role and whilst his presence will be missed, it’s a good move series-wise – as it’ll be intriguing to see how the new C works with both Peele and Burnside.

The Sandbaggers – A Question of Loyalty

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Mike Wallace is in Warsaw to extract a defector.  When the defector doesn’t make the rendezvous, Wallace realises he’s been spooked by the clumsy efforts of the local station.  Mike is then forthright in expressing his displeasure to the Head of Section Walter Wheatley (Patrick Godfrey).

Wheatley, with his own reputation to protect, sends an immediate signal to London and blames Wallace for the aborted mission, which results in an investigation being launched, headed by Peele (much to Burnside’s disgust).  When a situation later arises in Stockholm (there’s a suggestion that the Stockholm Number Two may be a KGB agent) Burnside elects to send Wallace, which is Burnside’s way of proving to him that he still has his full support.

A Question of Loyalty might not revolve around matters and life and death for once, but it’s still a compelling episode.  We open with Wallace in Warsaw and it’s a good chance to see him work solo for the first time.  His inexperience is made clear after he’s less than diplomatic with the Head of Station (although it’s easy to imagine Burnside having a similar attitude, so maybe he’s just taking after his boss).

Michael Cashman had been appearing on television since the mid 1960’s, but The Sandbaggers was his first regular television role – although given how the series has run through a number of Sandbaggers, it’s far from clear he’ll be a permanent fixture.

The fallout from the Warsaw mission sees the relationship between Burnside and Peele drop to a new low.  There’s a real bite to their early scene, as Burnside bitterly tells him that he’s sure to side with the Head of Section (since Peele was a former Head of Section).  Peele retorts that Burnside’s bound to side with the Sandbagger (as an ex-Sandbagger).  As ever, it’s riveting stuff.

Neither the Warsaw or Stockholm missions are important in themselves – they just provide the backdrop, whilst the character conflicts and interactions play out.  This is made clear when Burnside attempts to obtain assistance for Wallace in Stockholm.  He doesn’t want to send his other Sandbagger, so he asks Jeff Ross if Karen Milner is free.  This does give us a rather parochial view of both the British and American intelligence services – the British only have two special operations agents and the Americans seem to be just as short-staffed (although it’s possible they have hundreds more in the office next door).

Jeff says he’s happy to send her, if Langley agrees, but suggests that Burnside briefs her over dinner.  It’s his way of trying to play cupid, but Burnside’s legendary spikiness makes it a far from convivial meal (at one point she asks him if he’s drinking coke or vinegar).

When Langley refuses to authorise the mission, she still attempts to assist by dropping a broad hint the next day that eventually allows Burnside to realise that the Stockholm Number Two isn’t a KGB agent, he’s a CIA one.  It’s an interesting development which shows that even so-called friendly powers are capable of deceit and deception.

But is Burnside grateful for Karen’s assistance?  Hardly, as he calls her a bitch, leading Willie to wonder exactly how much of Burnside died in Berlin last year.  This is the starkest picture of Burnside we’ve yet seen – a compulsive/obsessional, with no interests apart from his career and a man who displays a complete unwillingness to let anybody make emotional contact.  The reason’s clear – he let Laura get close and she was killed, so he’s not prepared to let it happen again.  When Willie asks him why he hates Karen, he says it’s “because she’s alive.”

And a further twist is that Peele agrees that Warsaw Station were at fault and Wallace is cleared.  Given that Burnside was convinced Peele would come down against the Sandbaggers, it provides us with another example that Peele isn’t the fool that Burnside often believes him to be – and also that Burnside’s tunnel-vision can sometimes be a handicap.

The Sandbaggers – Decision by Committee

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A Malaysian Aircraft travelling from Sri Lanka to the UK is hijacked by Iraqi terrorists.  A number of British and American nationals are on board, including two British VIPs – the Chief of the Defence Staff and the Chief of the General Staff.  Burnside’s chief concern isn’t about them though – Willie Caine and CIA agent Karen Milner (Jana Shelden) are both on board as well.

It’s an unwritten rule that if ever a Sandbagger is in trouble, then D. Ops would leave no stone unturned to try and rescue them – but things look far from promising.  The terrorists have issued an ultimatum – they want Iraqi prisoners freed or the two VIPs will be killed (one at 1800 hours and the other at 2000 hours) before they blow up the plane at midnight.

It’s long been supposed that series creator Ian Macintosh had been involved with the security services before he became a writer and there’s several touches in this episode that do seem quite accurate.  The first occurs early on, when Willie and Karen are comparing airline tickets.  Karen’s travelling back first class, whilst Willie’s stuck in economy.  He tells her that they always travel out first class (in order to be fresh for the mission) but nobody’s really bothered about their comfort on the way back.  A small detail, but it does sound convincing.

Incidentally, once again we see the ingenuity of YTV’s set dressing as they try to convince us that we’re actually in Sri Lanka at the start of the episode (plenty of plants are scattered about to create the impression of warmer climes).  Luckily it’s only a brief scene, but you have to give them ten out of ten for cheek!

Peele tell Burnside that he’s recommended he should be considered for promotion in ordinary course.  Although this sounds fine, it’s actually the kiss of death – as there’s several other people on an equal footing with Burnside who will have been recommended for early promotion.  So Burnside’s chances of becoming Deputy Chief are now very slim.  It’s obviously Peele’s way of attempting to clip his subordinate’s wings after his repeated flouting of the accepted chain of command.  As the episode title indicates, Peele favours decisions taken by committee whilst Burnside prefers to operate unilaterally.

Another moment that rings true is Peele’s attitude – if Burnside mends his ways then he’s every chance of being recommended for early promotion.  In this scene, he resembles nothing so much as a Headmaster, ticking off an unruly pupil.  Was this the way that the SIS was run in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s?  I don’t know, but it seems horribly possible.

A noteworthy part of Decision by Committee is that we don’t see the terrorists take control of the plane (instead, we’re told, along with Burnside, via a phone call).  Few series would have taken this route – as it’s clearly much more dramatically satisfying to show, not tell.  But as ever with The Sandbaggers, most of the action takes place in London, specifically in the Ops Room and in Whitehall.

As soon as the news breaks, the Ops Room becomes a hive of activity (and it’s also so wreathed in cigarette smoke that it’s almost like a fog’s descended!).  But although there’s plenty of talk, what actually can be done?  The Cabinet is in session, but there’s no clear course of action and Wellingham later admits to Burnside that it’s better to do nothing than do the wrong thing.

They could send the SAS in (as happened in Entebbe and Mogadishu) but if it goes wrong it’ll be a disaster that would dog the government for the rest of their time in power.  But if they prevaricate and things turn out badly they can always blame the incompetence of the local government (the plane has been piloted to Istanbul).  This is another moment that rings very true.

Burnside’s itching to do something though.  He’s not concerned about either the CDS or the CGS, all he wants to do is to extract Willie Caine.  And it’s not because of any feelings of friendship – Burnside knows that Caine will expect something to be done and if he feels let down it could affect his confidence just enough to make him a liability in the field.

It’s ironic that for all Burnside’s planning (he considers sending some of his own men in – to do an SAS style raid – despite everybody telling him that it’s an incredibly bad idea) in the end the resolution is out of his hands.  Willie and Karen are able to overpower the terrorists in a brief, but bloody gun battle.  It’s messy, violent and has unforeseen consequences (several passengers – including a child – are killed).  The Sandbaggers is as far from an action series as you could possibly expect, which makes this scene even more of a stand-out than it already is.  Top marks to Jana Shelden as Karen Milner for remaining cool under fire as well.

Given the ways things could have ended, it’s not a bad outcome – although the deaths of the passengers are likely to remain on Willie’s conscience.  The final scene (Burnside lies to him that he planned to send in the SAS) is intriguing.  Does Willie believe him or does he simply want to believe?  In the world of intelligence, the line between truth and lies remains forever blurred.

The Sandbaggers – Enough of Ghosts

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The disappearance of Sir Geoffrey Wellingham in Brussels (whilst on his way to NATO Headquarters) puts MI6 on red alert.  If he’s been kidnapped, there’s no shortage of terrorist groups who might be responsible – so where do they start?

Burnside decides to send both Sandbaggers to Brussels (despite Peele’s order that only one should go).  Whilst it might be seen as an indication of the respect he still holds for his ex-father in law, as so often with Burnside there’s also another reason.  A top secret file (which shouldn’t have left the building) is currently residing in Wellingham’s safe in the Foreign Office.  If Sir Geoffrey doesn’t return, and the file is discovered, then the consequences will be deeply serious for Burnside …..

Enough of Ghosts opens with Willie Caine visiting Tom Elliot’s parents.  Caine’s awkwardness is apparent right from the start and the torture of his visit is probably made worse by the sheer middle-class stolidity of the Elliots.  There’s a seemingly indeterminable pause, whilst Mrs Eliot makes the tea, before Caine can launch into his spiel.  He tells them that Tom didn’t suffer at all and that he died in a plane crash.

It’s a gross distortion of the truth, but as Burnside later says, what use would it have been if he’d told them Tom died in agony?  Possibly the worst part for Caine is that the Elliots aren’t angry or full of questions.  They realise that Tom was involved in security and understand there won’t be any publicity.  Mr Elliot is a retired Royal Marine, so the service instinct and loyalty remains strong in him.  For Caine it’s pretty much the last straw – he’s been a Sandbagger for six years, but now he wants out.

One of the most interesting moments in the story comes later on, when Bunside’s secretary, Diane Lawler (Elizabeth Bennett), mentions to him that Willie would probably be better off out of the Special Section.  Burnside is far from impressed (rather insultingly reminding her that one of her functions is to make the coffee!) but Diane isn’t cowed and makes sure she has her say.  As she’s been a character who’s remained in the background until now, her unexpected passion carries some weight.

ELIZABETH: Mission planning might suit him better anyway.
BURNSIDE: He’s been a Sandbagger for six years.
ELIZABETH: Yes, but he’s never really been the type.
BURNSIDE: Type?
ELIZABETH: Well, I’ve seen the psychiatric reports on Sandbaggers. That’s what no-one understands about them.
BURNSIDE: What?
ELIZABETH: People think a Sandbagger is some sort of superman, they don’t realise he has to have a basic character defect to quality.
BURNSIDE: Go on, Dr Lawler.
ELIZABETH: You know it’s true, every one of you has had it. None of you has been able to cope with affection, so you’ve all opted for respect instead.
BURNSIDE: Is that so?
ELIZABETH: You feel you can’t be loved or wanted for the person you are, so you have to create a false person – one who is more committed, more dedicated than anybody else. That’s your definition of a Sandbagger.
BURNSIDE: Interesting, but wrong.
ELIZABETH: Is it? I’ve been in the Ops Directorate for twelve years, longer than you. And I’ve seen Sandbaggers come and go.
BURNSIDE: You think Caine’s different?
ELIZABETH: He could have been. Why do you think he has such a loathing for violence? Because this isn’t his scene at all.  He’s a nice, uncomplicated human being who should have had a home and wife and kids.
BURNSIDE: You volunteering?
ELIZABETH: I might have done, before you got to him and turned him inside out.

It’s unusual to see Burnside very much on the back foot – the above extract demonstrates that for most of the exchange he was listening and offering short rejoinders, rather than dominating as he usually does.  He’s on firmer ground with Peele though, especially when he expressly ignores the order not to dispatch both Sandbaggers.

Peele argues, quite logically, that there’s little they can do – and if another mission comes up, it would be foolish to have both of them stranded in Brussels.  Burnside agrees, but then decides to take the opposite course anyway.  Why?  Because it’s what he feels is right or just because he knows it’ll aggravate Peele?

As for Wellingham, he appears to be held by a group of German terrorists and the Sandbaggers are later joined by a group of elite German counter-intelligence officers who have located the group’s hideout.  Nothing is quite what it seems though – although Wellingham is later released unharmed.

The plot-twist is quite neat and it’s telling that Burnside doesn’t seem to be particularly angry or affronted.  Possibly this is because it’s something that he might have done himself in the past (or if not, he may try it in the future).

The successful outcome of the mission seems to have done the trick with Caine, who decides to stay – at least until Sandbagger Two (Michael Cashman) is promoted to Sandbagger One.  By Caine’s reckoning, that’ll be another six years at least.

The Sandbaggers – At All Costs

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The head of the Bulgarian Secret Service makes contact with MI6 and offers them a list of his agents.  If genuine, this would be an incredible intelligence coup – but why would he betray his own people?  Burnside’s initial thoughts are that it’s a setup (this is strengthened when one of the Sandbaggers is requested to make the rendezvous).  Do the Bulgarians plan to lift the Sandbagger and exchange him for a prisoner held by the British?

It’s not surprising that Peele, C and the Director of Intelligence, Edward Tyler (Peter Laird), are all keen.  Burnside remains cautious though, as the last thing he wants to do is to lose another Sandbagger – especially as it’s exactly a year since he ordered the death of the previous Sandbagger Two, Laura Dickens.

At All Costs is a seriously impressive series opener which continues the excellent run of episodes from the first series.  The anniversary of Laura’s death is touched upon briefly by Willie Caine and Jeff Ross – we see both of them ask Burnside how he’s feeling.  Characteristically, he tells them he’s not brooding on the past, but the prospect of another Sandbagger’s life hanging in the balance is the ultimate cruel irony on this particular day.

Series one of The Sandbaggers should have provided ample evidence that this was never a series that took the easy way out or felt obliged to offer happy endings.  A more conventional show would have seen the unfortunate Sandbagger Two, Tom Elliot (David Bearnes), rescued from Sofia (after the hand-over is blown) but the experienced viewer would by now expect a darker outcome.

After killing several Sandbaggers in series one, would they really have the nerve to kill another right at the start of the second series?  For Burnside, a man already haunted by the ghosts of the past, it would be one more crushing blow, especially when he was so dubious about the mission to begin with.

D. Int and Peele didn’t share his qualms about sending Elliot though – if the material is genuine, then the risk would be worth it.  Peele even mentions to Burnside that whilst he understands that Sandbagger Two is taking a risk, surely that’s what the Special Section is for?  C takes a similar view, but he also adds another complication by revealing to Burnside that Whitehall plan to reduce the Special Section from three officers to two.  Burnside is incensed and demands to know if C will fight on their behalf – he says he will, but the best way to maintain the current number of Sandbaggers is by demonstrating that they provide a worthwhile service.  As C says, if Burnside continues to wrap them up in cotton wool it makes Whitehall’s plans all the easier to carry out.

Confrontations between Burnside and Peele are always worth watching.  Early in the episode, Burnside tells him that if he’s not happy then he’ll abort the mission.  Peele counters that he doesn’t have the authority.  No, Burnside agrees, but he does have the means.  The contrast between the two – Burnside (a man totally obsessed by his work, with seemingly no other life) and Peele (a fussy, by-the-book character, grumbling because he wants to leave for a game of bridge) – is never more apparent than here.

But just when you think you’ve got a handle on the characters, they can still surprise you.  After the meeting is blown, Tom Elliot is shot (although he manages to get away).  Burnside wants to go to Bulgaria, along with Willie Caine and Jeff Ross, to get him out.  Wellingham and C are dubious – Burnside is a desk man, not operations (and the intelligence he holds in his head is substantial.  If he’s captured and interrogated, it would be a disaster).  Everything we’ve seen so far suggests that Peele would support Wellingham and C – but instead he agrees with Burnside’s request to go.

Once again, we see the Yorkshire environs doubling for a foreign country (in this case, Bulgaria).  It’s suitably bleak and the grimy 16mm film makes it seem even more so.  The scenes of a badly injured Tom Elliot, hiding in a very grotty room, simply adds to this bleakness.

Willie tracks Tom down and finds him in a bad way – a bullet has grazed his spine and left him paralyzed.  Burnside knows there’s nothing else to be done – Tom has to be put down and Burnside elects to do the job himself.  He’s spared that task at least, since Tom’s already dead when he gets there (plus he manages to extract the intelligence from his lifeless body), but that’s a very small consolation.

After ending the first series on such a dramatic note, you could be forgiven for thinking there would be some respite at the start of series two.  At All Costs offers us no such pause for breath though and it’s hard to imagine a more uncompromising series opener.

The Sandbaggers – Special Relationship

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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.

The Sandbaggers – A Feasible Solution

feasible

A top missile engineer, Professor Colby (Donald Churchill), has disappeared in Cyprus.  When news filters through that a Russian expert in missile guidance has also gone missing, it starts alarm bells ringing. Burnside, Laura and Willie kick around possibilities about who could have taken them.  In the end it seems that a group operating in Cyprus, such as the Greek Cypriot National Front, are the most likely suspects. Smuggling missiles into or out of Cyprus would be tricky – much better to have them prepared inside the country.

Another complication occurs when the deputy head of station in Cyprus is brutally killed. Logically, it makes no sense – until now it was only a theory that forces within Cyprus were responsible for kidnapping the scientists, but this murder seems to prove it. Burnside dispatches Caine to Cyprus and he’s accompanied by the replacement deputy, Jill Ferris (Sarah Bullen).

Wille’s not happy about minding a woman, but she quickly proves to be more than capable – which raises his suspicions, as she’s supposed to be fresh out of the training school. The answer is that she’s a Russian agent, who’s disposed of the real Jill Ferris (the Russians also killed the previous deputy head of station, so they could replace him with one of their own). Since the Russians only have a limited presence in Cyprus it makes sense for them to work covertly with the SIS. For now, Caine is told to play along with her – which may be a problem as he seems to find her somewhat attractive.

A Feasible Solution is a somewhat unusual episode of The Sandbaggers since it features quite a heavy amount of gunplay and plenty of dead bodies.  As soon as Caine and the bogus Jill Ferris arrive in Cyprus, they find themselves pitched into an intensive gun battle.  It’s interesting to hear Willie say that he doesn’t really like guns and Burnside comments that it’s the first time in over a year that Willie Caine has been armed.  Although he’s the chief Sandbagger, it seems that killing people isn’t something he particularly cares for – although he’s undoubtedly good at it.

Once again we see the UK doubling for a foreign country.  It works quite well here – thanks to the fact that the sun shone when the filming took place.  The soundtrack of chirping insects also helps to create the illusion of being abroad.  The missing scientists are almost a Macguffin, since the thrust of this part of the story is concerned with the relationship between Willie and Jill, as well as providing us with a more action-orientated episode than is usual.

Back in the UK, Burnside pays a visit to the section psychiatrist Philip Jeremiah (Richard Cornish).  Burnside tells him he’s convinced that Laura Dickens has some sort of hang-up and he wants to know what it is.  Jeremiah replies that she has no hang-up which will affect her performance as a Sandbagger, but there is something.  “She was dominated by her parents and told that all men are beasts, that sex is simply for the propagation of the species.”

The conclusion seems to be that Laura is very emotionally fragile. When Burnside asks how she would respond to kindness, say a dinner invitation, Jeremiah tells him not to try and hustle her into bed. “Incurable romantic” mutters Burnside in return. But he seems to have got the answer he wanted, and this is the clearest evidence yet that he’s interested in her as a person and not just as a Sandbagger.

Burnside and Laura have their dinner.  It’s another good scene from Marsden and Keen, with Burnside acting somewhat hesitant (a departure from his usual gruff, professional attitude).  When they return to his flat for a drink, she tells him that, given her past, he’ll have to be patient.  He replies that he can be, and the scene ends with Burnside laughing.  Which isn’t something you see every day!

By the end of the episode, he’s back to his usual, cold self though.  Caine has returned – and he’s managed to rescue Professor Colby.  The fake Jill Ferris also located the Russian scientist, Yugorov, although since he defected willingly she kills him.  Caine and Ferris go their separate ways, much to Burnside’s annoyance.  “You were alone with Colby and Yugorov whilst she made a dummy run with the ambulance. You didn’t think to put a bullet in Yugorov, blame it on the opposition? With Yugorov dead and out of the way, she’d have kept her cover and stayed on as the Cyprus number two and we could have fed her false information.”

A Feasible Solution is a good story for Ray Lonnen, as it allows us to see how well Caine works in the field.  It also develops the Burnside/Laura relationship – which is going to be resolved in the next story, which was also the final story of the first series, Special Relationship.

The Sandbaggers – Always Glad To Help

always

The M.O.D. are concerned about a Russian merchant vessel called the Karaganda.  They believe it may be a spy ship and want Burnside’s help to investigate it.  He considers that the Royal Marines and the S.B.S. (Special Boat Service) would be the best people for the job and refuses.  The Director General of Intelligence at the M.O.D. (Gerald James) threatens to go over his head, but Burnside, as usual, isn’t intimidated.

Back at HQ, we see Peele visit Burnside in his office.  It’s interesting to see how Caine and Burnside react.  Caine immediately stands up when Peele enters the room but Burnside doesn’t.  Since Peele outranks Burnside he should have stood up too, but he’s clearly got no time for such formalities.  He’s even less time for Peele’s request that they need to reduce the special section’s travel costs by 10%.  “If they go first class they arrive fit, if they go economy they arrive tired.  The difference could be their lives.”

Once again, Burnside ridicules Peele’s lack of operational experience.  Although Peele was the one-time head of the Hong Kong station, Burnside retorts that “the only thing you put at risk was your liver.”  This initial spat is merely the prelude for the main part of the episode, as we see Peele and Burnside once more cross swords.

Hamad (Peter Miles) is the Crown Prince of a small Middle Eastern nation.  He’s approached Wellingham and asked for his help in engineering a coup and thereby removing his father (a pro-Russian supporter) from power.  Wellingham is keen to assist, for various reasons.  “We help him get rid of his father, he turns the Sheikdom pro-West.  Buys British weapons, gets a British firm to build the new refinery.”

There’s no two ways about it – Peter Miles isn’t of Middle Eastern descent.  Sixties and Seventies television were full of British actors playing various nationalities (of varying believability) and The Sandbaggers was to be no differerent.  It’s difficult to take Peter Miles (especially when he’s slightly browned-up)  that seriously, which is a slight problem.  Also noticeable is the scene in Wellingham’s club, just after we’ve seen Hamad for the first time.  Roy Marsden’s face seems to be caked in orange make-up.  It’s very odd and doesn’t re-occur elsewhere during the story.

Anyway, back to the story.  Wellingham is keen to press ahead as quickly as possible, but Burnside is cautious.  He made his position clear in First Principles – a mission can only succeed when there’s clear and solid information.  At present, too much is unknown.  Most importantly, is it known for sure that Hamad would be sympathetic to the British government?  To overthrow a dictator and then put somebody worse in their place is far from desirable.

Burnside outlines some of the essential information he requires to Peele.  “How much support does Hamad have in the country, how well organised is it and how quickly can it be rallied?”  Burnside isn’t impressed by Peele’s statement that they should move ahead simply because Wellingham wants it to happen.  “To hell with Wellingham, he’s feathering his own nest as usual.”

In order to try and answer the question as to where Hamad’s sympathies lie, Burnside elects to find out by using Laura’s undeniable feminine charms.  But before this, they have a typically stormy meeting – Laura tells him she wants to leave the Sandbaggers at the earliest possible opportunity (mainly because he’s their boss).  Burnside responds by calling her a bitch once she’s exited the office.  Caine cheerfully tells Burnside that they’re clearly both in love with each other – they just don’t know it yet.

Laura makes an immediate impression on Hamad by rolling over her car in front of his.  They quickly begin a relationship and he seems besotted with her.  Peter Miles’ staccato delivery is oddly unnerving and the casual clothes that Hamad wears when they go bowling are interesting, shall we say.  Diane Keen does her best and it’s a memorable part of the story, but possibly not for the right reasons.

Much better is a scene between Burnside and Laura at his flat.  The fact she’s there at all is noteworthy – as you get the impression that not many people are invited around.  There’s some nice playing from both Marsden and Keen here.  Maybe Willie was right and there is a spark of attraction, but who will make the first move?

Burnside goes to make coffee and opens up a little.  “All of us have aspects of our lives with which it’s difficult to cope. In the office, I’ve learnt to survive. At home, I’m unprotected – from visitations, faces, eyes, voices.  Two more in the last few weeks.”

As the preparations for the proposed coup go ahead, Peele is dismayed to find the M.O.D. dragging their feet.  When he’s told it’s because Burnside refused to help them over the Karaganda, he promises to get it sorted, which he does – much to Burnside’s disgust.

Burnside’s slow and methodical information gathering regarding Hamad is proved to be the prudent course – eventually it’s proved that had the British intervened it would have been disastrous.  The Karaganda was discovered to have an underwater hatch as an outlet for divers, so according to Peele it’s shared honours.  “You were right about Hamad, I was right about the Karaganda.”  Burnside’s reply is cutting and it looks as if his frosty relationship with Peele isn’t going to thaw any time soon.

Always Glad To Help has some nice character touches for Burnside and an impressive car stunt (when Laura overturns her Mini in front of Hamad).  As I’ve said, Peter Miles is a bit of a weak link, but that’s more down to his miscasting then anything else.  Otherwise it’s typical Sandbaggers – the majority of the battles we see in the series aren’t fought overseas, but rather closer to home – and with words, not guns.

The Sandbaggers – The Most Suitable Person

suitable

There’s a lot going on in The Most Suitable Person.  Firstly, Des Yardley, a member of the Morocco station, is found murdered in Gibraltar.  He’s normally based in Tangier, so his presence in Gibraltar is a mystery – as is the reason for his death.  Burnside elects to send Willie Caine to investigate.  He knows that Caine isn’t the world’s best investigator, but he’s good at stirring things up – and this should enable him to flush out the murderer.

With Caine in Gibraltar, this makes finding replacements for Landy and Denison ever more pressing.  The problem is that Burnside has exacting standards and there doesn’t seem to be any trainees even remotely suitable.  Out of the current crop of active SIS agents, Caine knows that Colin Grove (Jonathan Coy) is very keen to join the special section, but Burnside is dismissive – he doesn’t think he’s even remotely suitable.  And when Bob Sherman tells him that Grove has been seeing a Hungarian psychiatrist, it raises the possibility that he’s a serious security risk – with both British and American secrets potentially passed over to a hostile power.

In addition to the mysterious death of Yardley and the investigation into Grove’s conduct we also have a third element to the story, the newest recruit to the Sandbaggers – Laura Dickens (Diane Keen).  Laura is by far the best of the new recruits, but Caine knows that the boss isn’t going to like it – because she’s a woman.

Laura Dickens (Diane Keen)
Laura Dickens (Diane Keen)

Burnside reluctantly agrees to see her (and there’s a nice moment when, just before she enters his office, he tidies up his desk and straightens his tie!).  He asks her if she’s interested in joining the special section and she tells him no, she’s not.  Her cool dismissal of a posting that most people would give almost anything to achieve, clearly intrigues him.  Laura explains the reasons why.

I’ve never been very good at playing Cowboys and Indians.  You see, I can’t help feeling that special sections exist because they create work for each other. You manipulate yours, so the other side manipulate theirs. It may keep everybody happy but what does it achieve in the long term?

It’s her belief that she’s wrong for the job than convinces Burnside that she’s exactly right.  “Volunteers for the special section usually see themselves as James Bond.  I’d rather have someone, male or female, who sees the job in perspective.  A while ago I tried to change the name, special section, into something less evocative.  As far as I’m concerned it’s only special because few people are right for it.”

Laura agrees to join the Sandbaggers on a temporary secondment – until Burnside can find permanent replacements for Sandbaggers Two and Three.  He then dispatches her to Tangier in order to discover what Yardley was working on.  Before she goes, he gives her his personal phone number and tells her she can use it to contact him anytime.  Professional or personal business?  The Burnside/Laura relationship begins here, and it’s something that will be a prime focus of the remaining series one episodes.

Meanwhile, Willie’s following up leads in Gibraltar (actually it’s filmed, like most of the foreign locations in the series, around the Manchester area!).  He gets to experience a bit of gunplay – although it’s clear that The Sandbaggers isn’t aiming at James Bond-style glamour and action.  When Caine returns a borrowed car to Detective Chief Inspector Gomez (Stephen Grief), he offers to clean it first – because he’s been sick in it (following the gun battle).  It’s a small character beat that helps to highlight that even the most experienced of agents are subject to normal stresses and strains.

The three plot-threads of this episode does mean that it feels a little fragmented and subsequently it’s not as compelling a drama as say, Is Your Journey Really Necessary?. Laura’s introduction is the obvious highlight and she quickly proves to be a more than capable officer – she uncovers the reason for Yardley’s trip to Gibraltar and this information helps to foil a terrorist attack on a passenger plane.

The truth about Grove is also established, which allows Burnside the satisfaction of getting one up on MI5.  He explains this to Peele at the end of the episode, thereby giving Jerome Willis a nice character moment.  Willis was absent from the previous episode, and is only on the periphery in this one, which is a shame as he was always a very watchable actor.  But the next episode does offer him a little more scope ….

The Sandbaggers – Is Your Journey Really Necessary?

journey

Is Your Journey Really Necessary? opens in the Ops Room, where Burnside, Caine and the others are following the progress of Operation Nightingale. Burnside mounted it as a favour for the CIA, but it ends in tragedy for the Sandbaggers.

Sandbagger Two, Jake Landy (David Glyder) is caught behind enemy lines with no possible means of escape. So Sandbagger Three, Alan Denison (Steven Grives) is ordered to shoot him, rather than let him fall into Russian hands.

Afterwards, “C” and Burnside have a postmortem meeting. “C” tells him that the mission was carried out without departmental or political clearance. Burnside is unabashed and also explains that Landy was killed on his orders. “To avoid giving the FCO and Number 10 the excuse they need to tie the other hand behind my back.”

When Denison returns, Caine offers him another reason why Landy had to die – if he’d been captured, then he would have been tortured, exhibited on a show-trial and executed. At least this way it was quick.

It’s interesting that there are only ever three Sandbaggers (agents trained to carry out “special” operations). With the whole of the globe to cover, this does mean that they are invariably spread very thin. The loss of Landy is therefore bad, but when Denison breaks the news he wants to quit, it throws Burnside into a tail-spin.

Denison wants to get married and doesn’t feel that he can carry on as a Sandbagger once he has a wife. Whilst Burnside is cordial to his face, behind his back he makes it quite clear to Caine they’re going to keep him, by whatever means necessary.

The obvious problem is Denison’s girlfriend, Sally Graham (Brenda Cavendish). She’s already been vetted, but Burnside wants her watched and he wants some dirt on her. The first couple of episodes have already demonstrated just how ruthless Burnside can be, but here it moves to a whole new level.

Caine follows Sally and photographs her enjoying a meal and staying the night with a male friend (whilst Denison is out of the country on a mission). At the same time, Burnside burgles her flat to look for anything incriminating. He’s happy with Caine’s pictures, as whilst Caine says they don’t prove anything, Burnside isn’t concerned with that. “I’m not interested in proof. Suspicion’ll do me.”

Burnside corners Sally, shows her the pictures and tells her to break off the relationship with Denison. Although Sally denies anything happened, Burnside brushes this off and then chillingly tells her “I can have you taken off the streets, drugged, stripped and into bed with a dozen different men. Then I can have you done for soliciting, shoplifting, breaking the Official Secrets Act.” And given what we’ve seen of him, it’s possible to believe this is no idle threat.

Events then take a tragic twist. Denison calls Sally to tell her he’s reconsidered and wants to stay with the Sandbaggers. Sally, still upset from her meeting with Burnside, doesn’t take the news at all well.  Shortly afterwards we learn that Denison is dead – he wasn’t killed on the mission, he was knocked down by a car in a simple accident. As Caine says, he obviously had things on his mind. And it’s interesting that we don’t even see this, as his death happens off-screen.

So in the course of one episode, two members of the Sandbaggers have died. First time viewers would probably have expected that both of these characters would be regulars, so their deaths are something of a jolt.  In the last episode we were told that the previous Sandbagger fatality happened three and a half years ago.  That was clearly a wrong-footing move to lull the audience into a false sense of security, as here we see just how dangerous the job of a Sandbagger can be.  Or are we meant to consider the culpability of Burnside?  He’s only been D-Ops for a short while, therefore both deaths occured on his watch.

Sally is also dead – from an overdose of sleeping pills. Although Burnside didn’t think he was too hard on her, it was obviously more than enough to push her over the edge. Had Burnside agreed to let Denison go, then they probably would have both still been alive. His decision to fight to keep him indirectly resulted in both of their deaths.

This is a bleak, bleak tale that brings into question the judgement of Neil Burnside. And it certainly won’t be the last time that he’ll have the deaths of colleagues on his conscience ….

The Sandbaggers – A Proper Function of Government

proper

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.

The Sandbaggers – First Principles

first

The Sandbaggers ran for three series, and twenty episodes, between 1978 and 1980.  Hailed by the New York Times as “the best spy series in television history” it’s a show that eschews the glamour of James Bond and instead is located at the more realist end of the genre, alongside the likes of Callan and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

The series was created, and largely written by, Ian Mackintosh.  Mackintosh, a former naval officer, penned all the episodes from the first two series as well as four from series three.  However, during production of the third series, the plane he was piloting went missing near Alaska and neither Mackintosh, or his girlfriend, were ever found.  The authenticity of The Sandbaggers has led many people to suppose that Mackintosh had previously worked for the intelligence services and some also believe that his disappearance was not a simple accident.

His loss meant that several other authors were drafted in to provide episodes for the third series, but without Mackintosh’s guiding hand it was clearly felt that the series had run its course.

Rewinding back to the first episode of series one, First Principles acts as a strong introduction to many of the main characters.  Neil Burnside (Roy Marsden) is always at the centre of the series.  Burnside is the Director of Operations (D-Ops) for the Secret Intelligence Services (SIS).  In order to carry out the numerous dirty jobs requested by his masters, he has three highly trained operatives, codenamed Sandbaggers.

Burnside is humourless, totally driven, somewhat arrogant and seems to exist only for his work.  His marriage, to Belinda, foundered some time ago – although he still keeps in contact with his former father-in-law, Sir Geoffrey Wellingham (Alan MacNaughtan), who is the Permanent Undersecretary of State.  They enjoy a sometimes cordial relationship which is rather frowned upon by Burnside’s immediate superior, Matthew Peele (Jerome Willis).

Peele is the deputy director of SIS and is clearly presented as a man who lacks field experience, which means he’ll often clash with Burnside over operational matters.  Burnside previously served as a Sandbagger, so at least he understands the implications of the jobs he asks his men to carry out.

Head of the SIS is Sir James Greenley, referred to as “C” (Richard Vernon).  “C” is a diplomat, and not from an intelligence background, so is initially viewed with suspicion by Burnside – although they do later form a good working relationship.

Jeff Ross (Bob Sherman) is head of the London Station of the CIA.  Ross and Burnside are friends, although they’ll sometimes find themselves on opposite sides as their masters manipulate events for their own benefit.

As for the Sandbaggers, it’s a high risk job, so some last longer than others.  The one who remains during all three series is Willie Caine (Ray Lonnen).  Caine can be blunt and outspoken and isn’t content to follow Burnside’s orders blindly (as seen in this episode).  Had the show ran to a fourth series, there were interesting hints as to how his character would have been developed, but sadly this came to nothing.

As the episode opens, we see Burnside walking through the streets of London.  He stops from time to time, looks in shop windows, and then carries on walking.  When he gets to the office he wonders exactly who was tailing him – whoever it was, they didn’t do a very good job.  Caine says that he was tailed too, which raises a faint alarm bell with Burnside.  He muses as to whether MI5 are using his men to train their recruits.

It turns out that the shadowers are from the fledgling Norwegian secret service.  Burnside demands an explanation from their chief, Torvik (Olaf Pooley).  Torvik apologies, but tells him that “you belong to the oldest and most respected secret service in the world. I have charge of a rather newer and less professional one.”

Torvik does have another motive though.  The Norwegians have lost a spy-plane, which went down between the border between Norway and Russia.  The plane and its occupants are now within the Russian border and Torvik wants the Sandbaggers to go in and rescue them.  Burnside refuses, since it’s an incredibly dangerous mission that’s of no benefit to the SIS.

But Whitehall are keen.  If the Sandbaggers mount the rescue, then the Norwegians will buy the British Nemesis missile.  If the British refuse to help, the Norwegians will approach the Americans and buy their missile, the Warbonnet, instead.

Burnside’s far from happy, but he has no room for manuovure – so he reluctantly agrees.  He doesn’t move quickly enough for Torvik though – and just as the Sandbaggers are due to parachute into Russia, Burnside is appalled to receive a message from Torvik requesting he abort the mission.

It’s far too late though, as they’re already on the ground.  Ross fills him in on the details.  Since Torvik believed that Burnside was dragging his feet, he approached the Americans – who set up their own operation to rescue the crew. This they managed to do, but they ran directly into a Russian patrol and were all captured – but at least it allows the Sandbaggers to creep away undetected to the border.

For Burnside, it’s a complete mess although Wellingham is able to look on the bright side – as it was the Americans who were caught and not the British, maybe the Norweigans would still be interested in the Nemesis missile.  As Wellingham says, that after all, was what the mission was all about.

Burnside has one piece of unfinished business to attend to, as he tells Torvik exactly what is required to mount a Special Operation and his speech stands as a mission statement for the series.

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.

Torvik suggests they have a drink, but Burnside tells him that “if I had a glass in my hand at the moment I’d shove it down your throat.”  Burnside is many things, but a diplomat he is not.

First Principles is a decent opening episode.  It’s true that the Russian/Norweigan border looks suspiciously like the English countryside, but you’ll have to get used to various foreign countries bearing a remarkable similarly to locations much closer to home (although they do manage foreign filming, in Malta, for a couple of episodes).