Miscalibrated Internet Receptor Stalks

Since io9 is looking at the spy genre, it would be remiss of me not to talk about one of the very best spy shows ever made, The Sandbaggers. It's unfortunate that it's not as well known as it should be, because it's also one of the most realistic spy shows ever made.

The Sandbaggers was a show that aired on ITV from 1978 to 1980. Once described as "men in cheap suits dying badly in Prague," the show took an extremely cynical look at the politics and pressures of being a spy in the SIS. Warren Ellis described it was "cold. Cold War. Cold calculations. Cold bodies."


The eponymous "Sandbaggers" are a Special Operations Unit of the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). However, the Sandbaggers (led by Sandbagger One, Willie Caine, played by Ray Lonnen) are not actually the principle character of the show.

No, the principle character of the show is the Director of Operations (D-Ops) of the SIS, Neil Burnside (played by Roy Marsden). Burnside is a manipulative son of a bitch who will do anything it takes in order to get the advantage over the KGB. He regularly lies to his superiors and resorts to blackmail and even assassination. But he does it all in the name of the SIS.

One of the biggest draws of The Sandbaggers was that most of the time, it wasn't about violence: most of the action took place within the halls of Westminster and Whitehall. Politics is what pushed the characters around and only rarely did they get to venture outside — and when they did, it often ended with one of them dead. Missions were planned out extensively beforehand and the characters noted just how unrealistic the "Bond-type" spy was. In the very first episode, Burnside tells his Norwegian counterpart:

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, and then think again. Our battles aren't fought at the end of a parachute. They're won and lost in drab, dreary corridors in Westminster, and hopefully in Oslo.

The show was created by Ian Mackintosh, a former Scottish naval officer, and it went on for three series. Unfortunately, when the third series was shooting, Mackintosh and his girlfriend went missing when their aircraft was declared lost at sea. Rather than go on without Mackintosh, the show was cancelled.


Years later, however, it would serve as the inspiration for another great spy series, this time a comic book: Queen & Country.


Queen & Country was written by Greg Rucka, co-creator of Gotham Central, and took a lot of its cues from The Sandbaggers: it was about a small group in the SIS called "Minders" who were given orders by the Director of Operations (D-Ops). However, Queen and Country took place during the modern day; it switched out the Cold War for the War on Terror. And rather than focus on the Burnside-character, the main character was Tara Chace, Minder Two, who frequently found herself in the crosshairs.

"There's a trick, they teach it to you at the School. When someone pulls a gun on you, they say...charge at him like a bloody lunatic... It's the last thing they expect and most of them can't hit water from a submarine anyway...and repeat to yourself over and over that you're doing this for Queen and Country."


Rucka has continued Queen & Country through a series of comic books and novels, the last of which (The Last Run) came out in 2011. I would recommend reading it because they are all seriously good.

And if you have a chance, go watch The Sandbaggers. It's one of the best spy shows out there.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter