The Sandbaggers was a brilliant 1970’s British TV series that chronicled the inner workings of a fictitious government intelligence unit within the SIS. These spies spent more time doing paperwork and squabbling with politicians for the resources to do the job with which they were tasked than they spent in action. But when action happened, it was never glamorous. When people come to after being knocked unconscious, they puke. When someone’s immobilized for a few days, they spend that time lying in their own wastes. No theatrical license here.
Because of this, the show rang painfully true. Its creator, Ian Mackintosh, may have known very well what he was talking about: rumors he had been a spy were followed up by his freakish unexplained disappearance and presumed death, which happened in much the same manner as an incident referenced on the series.
As fascinating as all this is, and as much as I adore the series, that obviously isn’t why I’m writing about it. I’m writing about it because there was, for a time, a female Sandbagger. (Massive spoilers after the “Read More” link.)
Laura Dickens never wanted to be a Sandbagger. But after the unit lost two of its three operatives in a short period, Director of Ops Neil Burnside was desperate to find someone remotely qualified. Laura fit the bill and, after much persuasion from Neil, agreed to become a Sandbagger – but only until they found a permanent replacement.
She had a reputation for turning down dates, and was said to be a lesbian. But Neil quickly became infatuated with her and discovered she was also attracted to him, only – he suspects – she has a hang-up about sex.
Sounds like a terrible trope, doesn’t it? The sort of thing to be handled with closeups of awkward glances, wistful score music, and a thousand cheesy remarks about a man oh-so-generously refraining from pressuring a woman for sex on the first date.
Not on Sandbaggers. No, instead we learn how Neil – the guy who can lie, steal and kill for the greater good – approaches dating. He pressures Laura’s psychiatric screener for details about her issues with sex (traumatic childhood conditioning from domineering parents) and asks whether or not she can handle being asked out. He conspicuously replaces a picture of his ex-wife at his apartment with a (very unflattering) blown-up mug shot from Laura’s personnel file, then pretends he never meant for Laura to see it. Oh, and he doesn’t really look for a replacement Sandbagger like he promised her he would. This is Neil at his least sympathetic, even though he genuinely cares about her.
The one criticism I could make of Laura’s character is that she exists to reveal Neil. But it’s handled so artfully, with such awareness that she is a person, too, that I can’t begrudge it.
Laura has her own goals – to work at a foreign intelligence station. It’s never suggested her “hang-up” with sex is a life-stalling tragedy (all Sandbaggers have issues), nor is it suggested her burgeoning relationship with Neil will change either of them beyond the present. It simply is what it is. And Laura is competent in her assignments, well-adjusted compared to the men in the unit, and autonomous at every turn.
That’s when we come to the episode “Special Relationship.” A very dangerous assignment comes up; Laura is right for it. She goes to do the job but is captured in East Berlin. She’s been trained to withstand torture, but that only means she can hold out for about forty-eight hours before she’ll start telling them everything they want to know, including the details of a twenty-two year Hungarian operation that could get a lot of people killed. (American viewers: forget the tired trope of the G.I. who holds out for months and never tells the bastards his big secret. British TV takes the more realistic tack that the human mind, completely at the mercy of captors, can only take so much.)
This is all stuff that’s happened to male Sandbaggers before. There’s no hint she got captured because she’s a woman. There’s no salacious suggestion that she’ll be raped because she’s a woman. Neil and the rest of the SIS want to save her not because she’s a woman, but because she’s one of them.
Unfortunately it doesn’t work. Neil tries every trick in the book and then some – after three viewings, I still can’t come up with a single thing he missed, like I always could with 24 or Alias or Stargate. Neil finally arranges to trade a French captive for her, but the French demand that in return for the captive, Neil secretly funnel to them all the information he receives as part of his “special relationship”with the CIA. The SIS absolutely cannot afford to lose the CIA’s assistance, and there’s no way the CIA will fail to notice their information is reaching the French. In the end the CIA leaves Neil with only one option: set up the trade, and they will kill Laura before the trade is completed, thus negating the deal with the French but saving the Hungarian operation by removing Laura from her interrogators before she can tell them about it. Otherwise, the CIA won’t trust Neil anymore.
Of course, you don’t know this when they get to the trade scene. Like Willie, the other Sandbagger on the scene, you don’t understand what’s happening when Neil and the CIA agent trade uncomfortable nods. You’re stunned when Laura’s gunned down and left behind on the pavement, eyes wide open. Then, along with Willie, you realize Neil knew what was going to happen, and you want to kill him… until you hear his side and examine it from every angle and fail to come up with a better solution.
Laura does the same work as the guys; she faces the same risks and endures the same hardships; and in the end, she dies the sort of death that often befalls Sandbaggers. She changes Neil permanently, challenging his dedication to the SIS and especially to the ridiculous risks his political masters often want to take with Sandbaggers’ lives.
I’ve seen so many shows that purport to achieve the same results, but precious few that actually get it right. We’re not told Laura is a whole person; we’re shown it. We’re not told she’s affecting Neil deeply; we’re shown it. We’re not told she’s good at her job or smart; we’re shown it. We’re not told she’s courageous; we see it for ourselves.