First, a warning: If you’re more James Bond than John Le Carre, you’re probably not going to enjoy this. But if you like your spy thrillers with a touch of realism, then “The Sandbaggers” is the one for you. There’s almost no action in it, and most of it is political intrigue in the Westminster corridors of power and bureaucratic infighting, but it’s solid and thoughtful and an intersting glimpse into a period in British cold war history where Britain struggled to maintain its place in the world as a major power.
Made in 1978-80, it ran for three series in the UK, and stars Roy Marsden as Burnside, the head of MI6’s special operations section, a Coke drinking teetotaller who takes his CIA counterpart to McDonald’s for meetings and gets the bus home. There’s a fascinating context as to how reliant Britain is on the US for help, with MI6 so underresourced compared to the CIA (And KGB.) that one episode has Burnside fighting to stop budgets cuts forcing his agents to fly economy class!
The production values are shockingly dated (It makes Fair City look positively glamourous, and Leeds is used as a substitute for both Cyprus and Gibraltar. Yes, Leeds!) but once you become accustomed to the look, you can enjoy the acting and the plots, which are really top notch. And you’ll find yourself humming the theme tune to yourself.
A guilty indulgence, but well worth it.