Worst to Best
The Sandbaggers

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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.

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.

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.

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, Willie 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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