Spies have all the fun. They go to exotic places, meet and sleep with beautiful women, and save the world. Except for The Sandbaggers.
The British show looked at the more mundane and realistic lives of British spies. "Sandbaggers" was the term for what would be double-0 agents in James Bond -- they did have a license to kill. But only if they got government approval, which was where much of the drama in the show came from.
Roy Marsden played Neil Burnside, head of the Sandbaggers, who had to deal with political interference, budget cuts, and all the things that James Bond wouldn't waste a moment worrying about. He's an independent sort, which causes problems with his superiors. Missions are botched, agents killed, and Burnside is often to blame. But he ultimately does the best job possible in the situation.
The show was fascinating. It got right into the details of spying, showing it to be a dirty, non-glamorous job. Sandbaggers get killed, and there is no replacement due to budget cuts. Then they have to seek out the right person (which, if you think about it, isn't an easy task). There's also some dramatic elements in the personal lives of the spies, like the female Sandbagger who ends up in an office romance that puts operations in jeopardy.
Marsden is brilliant as Burnside -- a man whose patriotism is unquestioned, but who can be bullheaded and devious and manipulative in order to get what he wants. One of my favorite scenes was a little one, where Burnside is undergoing a physical, and is tremendously uncomfortable until he can once again put on the three-piece suit he always wore. It's as though the suit was his armor and he couldn't live without it. He later went on to appear in a long and successful series of TV mysteries at Adam Dalgliesh, and recently showed up in Doctor Who.
There were three seasons of the show, which never was a big hit in the UK, and showed in the US only on a small number of PBS stations. A DVD is out, and it's well worth seeking out if you're interested in a darker take on the TV spy thriller.
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