The Sandbaggers

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Name: The Sandbaggers
Creator: Ian Mackintosh
Date(s): 18 September 1978 – 28 July 1980
Medium: TV
Country of Origin: UK
External Links: at IMDb
at Wikipedia
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The Sandbaggers is a British spy drama television series about men and women on the front lines of the Cold War. Set contemporaneously with its original broadcast on ITV in 1978 and 1980, The Sandbaggers examines the effect of espionage on the personal and professional lives of British and American intelligence specialists. The series was produced by Yorkshire Television, based in Leeds.

The Canon

The show is about the political machinations of a small, elite group of British intelligence officers: the Special Operations Section, nicknamed the "Sandbaggers"; any given episode is likely to spend more time discussing a mission than showing the mission itself. And of course, the greatest opposition to the Sandbaggers often comes from the bureaucrats and politicians in their own country, not from the Soviets.

The show was created by Ian Mackintosh, a former Royal Navy lieutenant-commander, and probably a spy himself. It ended abruptly when his plane disappeared over the Gulf of Alaska before the final episode of 3rd season was finished writing.

A fan in 1994 wrote:

"The Sandbaggers" is a series of 20 episodes in three seasons (7-7-6) about the Special Operations Section of the British S.I.S. (which used to be referred to as MI-6, but up until recently was never admitted to exist by the government. It might now be admitted to, but I doubt it.) It takes place sometime between 1978 and 1981 as Jimmy Carter is President, and I think Margaret Thatcher is Prime Minister in at least part of the series, though the is definitely an unnamed male PM in some episodes.

S.I.S. is the organization high the fictional James Bond was drawn from as his creator, Ian Fleming, worked for MI-6. It is headed by "C" which has been the position title since the first Director, Mansfield Cumming. The appropriate Bond characters is "M."

The series deals with the trials and tribulations of one Neil Burnside, head of the Special Operations Section. Neil, a former Sandbagger (nickname for the agents in S.O. section) is a walking bundle of psychological problems. You think Avon is bad, he's a piker compared to Neil.

When the series opens, Neil is a heavy-smoking, non-drinker who is divorced from Belinda Wellingham. Neil has chronic insomnia and his only pleasure away from appears to be walking the streets of London between midnight and 6 am. Also, Coca Cola, lots and lots.

Neil is consumed by his job. The only important thing is to get the job done. To that end he will lie, cheat, steal, and murder. He has an ethical code, but he is in a war with the K.G.B. and it is a war Neil intends to win, even if his political masters don't seem much interested in victory.

The second main character is Sandbagger One--Willie Caine. Willie is a former S.A.S. sergeant who hates guns and violence and is a lousy investigator. He is underpaid and overworked. He is Neil's best friend, if Neil can be said to have any. Liking Neil is a tough thing to do. Willie also is very relaxed off the job and is quite the ladies man.

Neil works directly under Mathew Peale, who is Asst. Director of S.I.S. Peale is a conniving weasel of a man, who represents the worst of civil servants. Caring only for promotion and the coveted "honours" he in concerned less about getting any job done and more about looking good to his superiors.

Director of S.I.S. is Sir James Greenly ("C") a diplomat with no experience in intelligence work, just like Peale. Greenly, however, is willing to learn about his job and is quite intelligent.

Other main characters are Jeff Ross, the C.I.A. station chief in London. A close friend of Neil's, but not as dedicated. He is willing to bend rules that Neil prefers to break.

Sir Geoffrey Wellingham, Neil's former father-in-law and Permanent Undersecretary of the Foreign Office. If you have seen "Yes, Minister" his position is similar to Sir Humphrey Appelby's. Wellingham is a manipulative bastard and as he says in one episode, Neil's "mirror image." Wellingham prefers to exercise power from the shadows and you would be a fool to cross him.

These characters last throughout most of the series, well most of them do. Other characters have shorter appearance spans on the show, so don't get too attached.

"The Sandbaggers" is an attempt to portray covert intelligence operations in a realistic and dramatic manner. The former may have been successful, the latter certainly was. This is a fascinating series to watch. The characters, even one episode appearances, are complex individuals. The entire series exists in a constant state of suspense and you don't know from minute to minute who is going to do what or why. Once you have put a character in a particular slot, that character will immediately destroy that slot and the three on either side.

"The Sandbaggers" is violent, humourous, serious, sad, satirical, cynical, optimistic and stimulating. The characters are not particularly nice people, but they are not in a particularly nice occupation. Neil Burnside is a complete and utter bastard, but he is also the right man for the job. It may not be pretty, but it is good. [1]

The Characters

  • The central character is the Director of Operations (D.Ops) of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, Neil Burnside (played by Roy Marsden of Dalgliesh fame). He's ruthless, duplicitous, and usually absolutely convinced of his own rightness. He's also fascinating, definitely an antihero worthy of fannish attention.
  • Willie Caine -- Sandbagger One; steady right hand
  • Jeff Ross -- The head of the CIA's London station, Ross is one of Burnside's closest friends
  • Laura Dickens -- new Sandbagger, and Burnside love interest
  • Diane and Marianne -- Neil's long suffering secretaries
  • Sir Geoffrey Wellingham -- Burnside's former father-in-law, and boss -- menber of the Whitehall establishment
  • Mathew Peele -- Deputy Chief
  • Belinda, Burnside's ex-wife, daughter of Wellingham

The Fandom

In the eighties, two of the largest slash fandoms were imported from Britain: The Professionals, and Blake's 7; this led to an interest in other BritTV, and many fans saw at least some episodes of Sandbaggers.

Although some commentators consider that Sandbaggers did not particularly lend itself to slash (there is a canon het relationship between Neil Burnside and a female agent), the characters themselves describe Burnside's relationship with Willie Caine as that of 'an old married couple' who would be helpless apart. Throughout three series, Caine is shown as the most consistent presence in Burnside's life.

The darkness and the excellence of the writing definitely appealed to gen and bifictional fans, especially B7 fans. In fact, as a relatively small fandom of a show known for its excellent writing, some felt there was a certain eliteness about Sandbaggers fans, i.e., it wasn't a show/fandom for everyone -- most fans couldn't appreciate it. This appears to have been a minority view, however.

Was the show popular at the time? One fan comments:

Sorry to be a wet blanket, but the harsh reality is no. Most Britons that I met when I lived in London in 1993 (as an ex-pat American) had never even heard of the series. Ray Lonnen has reported that they never made a big splash even during the original run: "I think we made number 20 in the charts one week up in Scotland. That was our big ratings success." Critical response was mixed. The regular TIMES reviewer during the original run devoted only one paragraph to it when it ended, and most of that was just a disparaging remark about Marsden's hairpiece. However, the reviewer for the TIMES weekly entertainment guide in 1982 called it the second best espionage series ever (the best being "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy") when it reran during the afternoons in 1982. [2]

It's a great show to argue over. Burnsides' ethics, or lack of same, the cliff-hanger of the final episode (edited after the writer died -- is it canon or not?), etc., have been fought over for years.

Pat Nussman's defunct apa "A Sense of Occasion", reprinted as "Sandbagger Briefing Document", included a great deal of conversation about Sandbaggers.

Fan Community

A 1994-1999 mailing list is publicly archived here.

"Sandbaggers" (subtitled: James Bond does not work here) is a tiny LiveJournal community which states it is "for anything related to the British TV series "Sandbaggers". Discussion, fanfic, information about the actors, exchange of top secret documents, all are welcome here!"[3]. The community was founded on 27/06/2010 by mosellegreen who remains its moderator. As of January 2012 it has 14 members.

Fan Comments


I don't know of any SB slash. You say you haven't seen much, which implies that you have seen some — what? where?

In general, SB fanfic doesn't interest me much, because unlike most shows we build fandoms for, which hover around the B/B-level, SB was generally straight A. (With one regrettable exception toward the end, as I recall.) Sure, there are lots of complex nooks and crannies to the characters that we can explore, but there aren't holes, things that should have been addressed and were not. Fanfic would be so much worse written than the show that it leaves me less interested than I might be. With most tv there isn't so much of a gap. On the other hand, I have bought and read several issues of It Can't Happen Then/Now, and the circuit stories "Cities and Thrones and Powers" and "Gods of the Copybook Heading," partly just in case they did approach the show's level. [4]


There was one Sandbagger convention, Sandbagger One.


Fan Fiction

There is a little slash, mostly Neil Burnside/Willie Caine. There is a little het, mostly the doomed relationship of Neil Burnside/Laura Dickens. But most of what little fiction there is, is gen, based around Burnside. A guide to what fanfic exists and where it can be found is here.

Sandbaggers Zines

'Singleton' Fanfic

  • "The Rest"[5] by russian_blue as a Yuletide 2011 gift for ide_cyan – Crossover story with James Bond in which Marianne Straker becomes ‘M’
  • "On a Short Leash"[6] by fawatson as a Yuletide 2011 gift for ide_cyan - Set after the final episode in series three, the protagonist is Willie Caine who has become D.Int. and focuses on an illicit Op being conducted by Neil Burnside.
  • "The Wrong Side"[7] by russian_blue as a Yuletide 2012 gift for the_croupier – Told from Willie’s perspective it shows the future careers of Neil and Willie post-series.
  • "Something Different "[8] by fawatson as a Yuletide 2012 gift for Kainosite - Set after the final episode in series three, the story focuses on a mission to retrieve Lady Wellingham who narrowly escaped a hostage siege in East Africa.



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