Sandbaggers Episodes Ranked Worst to Best


Member: Rank 8
Possibly the best spy series of all time , or at the very least on a par with Callan. Here ranked by the ANORAK ZONE. I pretty much agree with most of the ranking here.

20 My Name
Is Anna
Wiseman (3.4)

Adding to the mystique and enduring legacy of the programme is creator Ian Mackintosh's disappearance. A former Royal Navy Officer, those closest to him, even family members, believed that he was involved in the spy services. (Indeed, a season two script was reputedly vetoed because it contravened the Official Secrets Act). In July 1979 a private plane that Mackintosh was flying with two friends disappeared, and the writer hasn't been seen since, presumed dead. However, in a series of events that could almost mirror one of the plots of the programme, the plane took deviations from its expected route, and rumours that all was not as it seemed still persist to this day.
      The impact this left on the series was that, with only four scripts of the final season finished, other writers were called upon to come up with scripts to complete it. With the series so heavily the work of one writer, it's almost an impossible task, and this first of two scripts by Gidley Wheeler comes in last place almost by default. Although there are serious attempts to tie it in to the continuity of the series, even referencing events of the previous episode, what harms the story is that the central plotline is, in effect, "external" to the main characters, with none of them in any immediate danger from proceedings. It perhaps doesn't help modern viewers that this is one of the most KGB-orientated episodes, causing it to be more of a television relic than other examples; the final minutes of a taped plea against the regime, running through the end credits, may be seen as either an innovation or overbearingly trite, depending on point of view.

19 Sometimes We
Play Dirty Too (3.5)

Sometimes We Play Dirty Too sees the Secret Service Director of Operations Neil Burnside (the outstanding Roy Marsden) send his main intelligence officer – or "Sandbagger" – out to investigate the death of a former spy in Prague. Sandbagger #1 Willie Caine (Ray Lonnen) discovers that there's more to events than are being disclosed.
     Arden Winch's sole script for the series presents a very pedestrian, standard spy plot and, while not quite as dreary as My Name Is Anna Wiseman, contains little to lift itself above the mundane. What's notable is a lack of continuity within the series – the labyrinthine political debates between Burnside and his superiors is absent, and his friend, cuddly CIA agent Jeff Ross (Bob Sherman) gets involved, despite him being on bad terms with the department in his previous appearance. Most crucially, the plot is again one with little impact or conflict for the main characters who, after three seasons, the viewer has become invested in.


Member: Rank 8

18 Unusual Approach (3.3)
One of two episodes (along with Operation Kingmaker) that attempted a more overtly comedic take on the series, Unusual Approach sees Burnside ordered to take a holiday after two years without leave. The unlikely upshot is that he's booked on a trip with two of his stuffy superiors, with the laughs being milked for their full value.
      In their absence, the remaining Sandbaggers are tricked into helping out the CIA, with Sandbagger #2 Mike Wallace (Michael Cashman, better known as Colin from Eastenders or, to cult TV fans, the pilot from Doctor Who's Time-Flight) sent on a dangerous mission through Russian borders. Although a more light-hearted episode is not unwelcome, and the low placing here is more a reflection of the quality of those above it, it does show that by the final season the programme was beginning to lose its bite, and Mackintosh's disappearance meant they were forced to quit while they were still ahead.

17 First Principles (1.1)
Many TV shows have opening episodes that are weaker than the rest of the series as they struggle to introduce the concept and all the cast. Although this first episode of The Sandbaggers rewards more on rewatching, it possesses the necessary exposition that can unfortunately make it seem more plodding than the rest of the programme. The revelation that this won't be a typical spy series but something more cerebral is summed up by Burnside in the closing minutes: "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." The indication that Burnside has more steel than this episode otherwise suggests is then met with his threat to a foreign agent proposing a drink: "If I had a glass in my hand at this moment I'd shove it down your throat."


Member: Rank 8

16 A Feasible
Solution (1.6)

The Sandbaggers is such a quality show that the concept of "worst to best" is almost redundant. The bottom four are perhaps warranted, and the same applies to the top four or five, but the entries here from Nos. 6-16 could almost be in any order, the consistency is that high.
     What places A Feasible Solution this far down in the rankings is that there are several events in the episode that don't quite ring true. Both Willie and Burnside get a "twisted romance", as Willie falls for a KGB agent, despite being aware that she is one, and Burnside gets caught by his new Sandbagger Laura Dickens (the beautiful Diane Keen) in possession of a framed photograph of her in his house. Astonishingly she's flattered and not freaked out by such an occurrence, and Burnside continues to woo her, despite the fact that it surely breaches several standards of professional etiquette, none of which is mentioned by any of his superiors or peers. Such events are necessary in order to push the first season towards an outstanding conclusion, but it's a rare instance of the programme's plot mechanics feeling contrived.

15 A Question
of Loyalty (2.4)

A decent enough episode that does, however, see the plots driving the characters rather than the reverse. Jeff Ross manipulating the SIS is a neat twist after he's been shown as a close ally in the programme, though his colleague Karen Milner (Jana Shelden, aka Catastophe Kate from Rentaghost) revealing the deception is perhaps a little harder to take.
     The secondary plot sees Mike under suspicion of not acting correctly on a mission, and subsequent attempts to discredit and disprove his conduct. While Cashman tried his best with the role, the part of the second Sandbagger was always underwritten and frequently overlooked, to the point where he never even received a credit in the opening titles. Wallace was brought on board as the "green" Sandbagger, but it was a situation that rarely changed, with the character seemingly undergoing little development throughout the thirteen episodes in which he appeared.


Member: Rank 8
14 Decision By
Committee (2.3)

For a spy series, viewers have to buy in to the fact that The Sandbaggers is more concerned with the political manoeuvring and Machiavellian scheming behind decisions rather than any action that might take place in the field. Produced on a budget, while the show looks fine, it is studio bound and talky, though with Mackintosh's superb scripts, this is a plus, not a failing.
      Decision By Committee bucks the trend by having Burnside powerless to help Willie and Karen on a hijacked plane, and having them escape certain death by engaging in a kung fu/shoot out action finale. It sits a little oddly with such a dialogue-orientated show, though Willie's mistaken faith in Burnside's ability to rescue him is a nice touch, particularly as Burnside never divulges that he was tied up in bureaucracy and had unwillingly left him to his fate.

13 Always Glad
To Help (1.5)

Although the final two seasons of The Sandbaggers aired in 1980, it was a programme produced during the 70s. Short ties, brown trousers and orange wallpaper are the order of the day. For a programme that's over 35 years old, then such examples of the time when it was made should be cherished, not regarded as a point of embarrassment.
     While generally free of the sexism that would take place in many other programmes of the period (though Willie telling the elderly PA that "even you'd do" is unlikely to charm her), what we have here is the most dated Sandbaggers episode, with Peter Miles in brownface as an Arab sheikh. Looked on as a charming relic, it has a certain kind of appeal... the memory that there was once a time when Caucasian actors playing other races wasn't regarded as unacceptable. Depending on mood, it can either be regarded as offensive, or kind of quaint, a reminder of a bygone age. What helps is that Miles doesn't denigrate the Arab race of which he's attempting to portray; indeed, his Prince Hamad is not only performed without any accent, but is rendered as a sweet and quite likeable individual. Elements such as this make Always Glad To Help an appealing episode, though not the initial one you'd show first-time viewers in 2016.


Member: Rank 8

12 It Couldn't
Happen Here (2.5)

There's a turning point in this episode where for the first time the viewers get to eavesdrop on a private conversation between Jeff Ross and Karen in their CIA headquarters. Previously, viewers had only been privy to conversations as The Sandbaggers heard them, making their perspective our perspective. Although Jeff's a very likeable and engaging character, opening up the series to include him takes away his "outsider" status and removes some of the mystery surrounding him.
     The story itself is a reasonably engaging affair involving a KGB agent who could one day be Prime Minister, and a US Senator who the Sandbaggers are guarding, his superiors not trusting of the CIA. Although some of the conspiracy theories presented in this one can be a little on-the-nose, as always with a Mackintosh script, the characterisation and pacing are compelling.

11 Who Needs
Enemies (3.6)

The last of three "fill in" scripts by other writers in Mackintosh's absence, this character-based effort by Gidley Wheeler is far more engrossing than his other entry in the series. Centring on Burnside's downfall, it can arguably feel a little contrived as karma repeatedly bites him during one horrible day: he can't even recreate a "you're never alone with a Strand" moment without teenage muggers beating him to the ground and leaving him with questionable make-up in a hospital ward. Despite this, and the feeling that the series was getting increasingly "safe" as it went on, this is another entertaining episode.
     While filmed in 1979, the second season was heavily held back before broadcast, a factor not only made clear by the scheduling of the last two seasons so closely together (airing in 1980, only three months separated them) but also due to the multiple references in season two to a male Prime Minister who was expected to be celebrating his "victory". As Margaret Thatcher had held the position since May 1979, it was an odd inclusion that made the second series seem out of place in the real world in which it purported to occupy. The changing political landscape is finally referenced here by Jeff, who claims "Your new lady at No.10 isn't exactly making herself popular with Moscow."


Member: Rank 8

10 The Most Suitable
Person (1.4)

Multiple plot strands of varying quality make up this instalment. Primarily, it's the episode to introduce Laura Dickens as the new "bird" Sandbagger, though also in evidence is Stephen Greif in what appears to be faint make-up and a wig, putting on a "Maltese" accent. In terms of how bizarre this seems in 2016, then it's not as out there as Peter Miles as an Arab sheikh, but it's close.
     The final plot thread sees Willie out to uncover terrorism in a job that Burnside's sent him on deliberately in the knowledge that Willie's a poor investigator and will draw attention to himself. Final scenes of a terrorist being held slowly at gunpoint while he aims a bazooka at a moving plane are perhaps a little far-fetched – it's hard to believe they wouldn't just shoot and not take the risk, for one thing – but it's an episode that still resonates today on some level.

9 To Hell With
Justice (3.2)

The series gets a rare trip abroad with some genuine overseas filming in Malta. Detailing the defection of the Director of Intelligence, what makes this one so compelling is the way in which the director decides to stop running and give in to the inevitable. It's a rare series that ends with two men calmly, yet sadly, discussing whether one will commit suicide in order to save the other the pain of assassinating him. It makes for gripping television as both struggle to hold back their emotions while the decision is made, two men who have spent their lives closing off feelings in favour of the job.
     In terms of trivia, then one curious element of the programme is the prominence with which Coca-Cola appears. Sometimes it's acceptable, in that Jeff Ross is the nominal American lead, Burnside is stated to be teetotal, and shots like the one shown above for the 12th entry are there as a shorthand to suggest UK filming is really America. But with elements like a close-up on a can of Coke in the final episode, or the many times the logo is turned towards the camera, you'd almost believe it was product placement, were such a thing not out of the ordinary in the time in which it was made, as well as a bizarre choice for so British a series. Mention is made here because this is the episode where Jeff visits Burnside's home with a peace offering... 24 cans of Coke.


Member: Rank 8

8 Opposite
Numbers (3.7)

The final episode of the series, which sees Burnside's arrogance spin almost completely out of control as he sets about undermining world events. With Mackintosh's cynical view of the KGB, it transpires that Burnside's instincts are correct, and that the peace conference he wishes to ruin is being sabotaged by the other side regardless.
      Although this article has tried to avoid spoilers as much as possible, the exciting last few minutes can't go without mention. After the explosive events of the first season, the lives of the Sandbaggers did become slightly more mundane, relatively speaking, and characters would see out the end credits without any mortal harm coming their way. Ray Lonnen has spoken of Ian Mackintosh's plans for a fourth season, alleging that Willie was to become the new, wheelchair-bound Director of Operations while Burnside got promoted. It's to the series' strength, perhaps, that it never got made: without a resolution to this episode's cliffhanger ending, viewers are left with the impression that a shot Willie might be dead, a suitably downbeat conclusion to a bleak programme.

7 Enough of
Ghosts (2.2)

One of the many highlights of the series is the complex relationship between Burnside and Sir Geoffrey Wellingham (Alan MacNaughtan), not only the Permanent Undersecretary of State at the Foreign Office, but also his ex-father-in-law. Their respect for each other can change from episode to episode, and even seems permanently damaged in the final story. Although not technically Burnside's boss, Wellingham ranks above him and has the ear of the Prime Minister, making him an ally that can give Burnside immeasurable help, or an enemy who will threaten to have him fired within 24 hours.
      Enough of Ghosts takes an interesting narrative turn in that Wellingham is kidnapped, with Burnside's affection for him rising to the fore, and causing him to mount a full scale search. The end result sees Wellingham's kidnapping being used as just a front for a wider political purpose, and the kidnappers releasing him without harm, the Sandbaggers unwitting pawns in somebody else's game.


Member: Rank 8

6 A Proper Function
of Government (1.2)

Like many programmes of this vintage, The Sandbaggers seems to respect the intelligence of its audience, and demands concentration on its wordy scripts. In an age when TV has a tendency to spoon-feed viewers, rewatching a series like The Sandbaggers reawakens what has become all too often a lost art: a TV show that insists you think while you watch it.
     A Proper Function Of Government features great lines, such as "I met him... he was a mourner at my wedding" and a very visual description of a former Sandbagger left to die atop an anthill. The various political wranglings, such as the presence of MI5 and whether Burnside should remarry his ex-wife for his career prospects keep a densely-plotted episode full of intrigue.

5 Is Your
Journey Really
Necessary? (1.3)

For most series of an archive nature there will be technical limitations or elements not seen today - the use of film stock for outside location shoots is much welcome, for example. However, The Sandbaggers has a relatively frequent habit of voices not being picked up on the boom mike when actors move out of range. Although a minor example here, look out for the scene around 38 minutes in where Ray Lonnen's movement causes his voice to dip on the soundtrack.
     The third episode, the story centres on one of the original Sandbaggers, Alan Denson (Steven Grives), and his desire to leave the service after having to shoot a fellow Sandbagger on a mission. To say more would be to give away too much of the plot, but what the programme does here is quickly establish that its lead character is anything but the likeable, morally unambiguous hero that a series of this nature might usually attempt.


Member: Rank 8

4 Operation
Kingmaker (2.6)

The Sandbaggers gets a deserved comedy episode and one of its finest hours, as the previous controller, or "C" - the superb Richard Vernon - has retired between episodes, causing a power vacuum in the department. Ever manipulative, Burnside sets about attempting to install his much-resented boss Matthew Peele (Jerome Willis) into the position under the notion of "better the Devil you know".
     For once an episode is given over entirely to internal rather than external politics, and it's to the immense credit of the show that, while light-hearted rather than a full-on "comedy", the performers still play their roles perfectly in character and with full conviction, rather than the "turns" some actors tend to do when given a script of this nature. The final revelation and Sir Geoffrey's involvement only serve to make a first-class episode all the greater.

3 All In A
Good Cause (3.1)

The first episode to suggest that Jeff Ross is not always what he seems, as he initiates a plan to set up the Secret Intelligence Service, manipulating them and playing them off against MI5. Seeing a trusted regular character exhibit a darker side is a satisfying turn of events that keeps things fresh in the show's third season, even though fans of Jeff may not enjoy this edgier side to his likeable character.
     Sure, the MI5 operative is a bit of an old-fashioned spiv character who details the plot in near-monologue, and Burnside's ability to piece together solutions from seemingly random conversations, Sherlock Holmes-style, is becoming a recurring trope. But this is a top quality episode that throws the framework of the series into doubt, keeping viewers guessing. It's also the first real sign of Burnside's right-of-centre politics, as he rages about "dole money for layabouts" in a rant over budget cuts.


Member: Rank 8

2 At All Costs (2.1)
Be warned - there's no way to discuss this particular episode without describing plot specifics, so spoilers abound. The season two opener, it introduces two new Sandbaggers in the form of Mike Wallace and Tom Elliot (David Beames). While Mike went on to be a regular, Tom doesn't fare so well - shot in the spine during a mission, he sets himself up in a bolthole behind the Iron Curtain, awaiting rescue. When Willie finds him, Tom is paralysed, and covered in his own urine and excrement. Realising that it won't be possible to move him, Burnside makes the decision to kill him, only to return to the bolthole to find that Tom has given him a way out by committing suicide. The Sandbaggers was always a very bleak series, and this may just be its darkest note.

1 Special
Relationship (1.7)

To post significant spoilers for two episodes in a row would be unforgivable, so let's just say that the various plot twists and turns that lead to a believably disturbing conclusion make this a true Sandbaggers standout. Perhaps the only downside of this episode is that afterwards the series went on to soften Burnside somewhat and perhaps never quite matched this level of cynical brutality again. For the last two seasons characters would exit the series due to retirement, or even go on to live another day, their removal from the Sandbaggers not initiated by their own director. Later episodes might even allow the indulgence of a joke into the end credits; the perfect season arc of its first run allowed no such comfort.
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Member: Rank 8
Definitely agree that Special Relationship is the best episode. Here is a nice review of it by Archive Musings.

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.