Periscope Depth

I know the drill; got cells to burn

Sandbaggers: A delightful bit of late 70s British TV. Roy Marsden (of the Inspector Dalgilesh Mysteries) leads as Director of Ops Neil Burnside, a cold, cynical man who oversees the daily functions of Secret Intelligence. He also has operational command of a small – as in, three guys – unit of field operatives codenamed the “Sandbaggers.” But the show has very little to do with them. Most of the show depicts Burnside walking in and out of offices: talking to the Deputy Head of SIS, or to their boss “C”, or to the Permanent Undersecretary of State – Burnside’s ex-father-in-law – or to his friend Jeff Ross at the CIA. This show’s about politics, not sexy sexy danger.

In the first episode, the head of Norway’s fledgling intelligence agency asks Burnside for help in retrieving a crashed spy plane inside Russian territory. Burnside denies him, civilly but without much compassion: there is no demonstrated intelligence benefit for his Sandbaggers to risk their lives for a Norwegian foul-up. Then he’s told, by the Undersecretary, that he doesn’t have a choice: the Norwegian ambassador has already pressed the Prime Minister into helping. After protesting to “C,” Burnside has to coordinate with the CIA to make sure they don’t stray into the op, then with the RAF to use a spy plane. All the while, the Norwegian secret service is pressuring Burnside to hurry up.

Then, things get complicated.

It sounds boring from the way I’m describing it, but if you’re into high-stakes politics it’s fascinating. The Sandbaggers doesn’t have the virtue of a high budget, forcing its creators to rely on sharp dialogue and tight plotting to keep the tension high. Most of it takes place in Westminster offices. If you thought The Wire stinted on exposition, imagine how your mind will reel the first time someone answers a phone with, “P.A. to Dee Ops.” And the show doesn’t flinch from the toll that its depicted occupation – the secret intelligence of a Western power – takes on the lives of the people employed. It’s a John le Carre novel – one of the good ones – brought to the small screen.

Of course, it takes Marsden’s personality as Neil Burnside to make the whole thing work. Burnside is a quiet, cold man, infuriating in his belief that he’s the smartest person in the room. And he’s right. He’s not cocky – just cynical and calm. Burnside can be wrong, of course: “Is Your Journey Really Necessary?” shows him mistaking how far an agent can be pushed and the tragic consequences. He can also be deceitful, hypocritical and treacherous to his allies. He’s the likely inspiration for some of the better anti-heroes of 00s television: Al Swearengen, Tony Soprano, Walter White, Don Draper. Good thing he’s on your side.

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