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'The best spy series in television history',
This review is from: The Sandbaggers - Series 1  [DVD] (DVD)
While the causal spy fan might like 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy', doesn't the true devotee really prefer 'The Sandbaggers'? This isn't as preposterous as it might sound: the Le Carré adaptation mistook stilted Pinter-and-water dialogue for profundity, taxed Alec Guinness's ability to raise his eyebrows in a thousand suggestive ways and made a grievous error in casting Hywel Bennett to play Ricky Tarr. 'The Sandbaggers', on the other hand, featured strong plotting, crisp, even witty dialogue, and, among several cracking performances, a brilliantly multifaceted one by Roy Marsden. As Director of Operations, Neil Burnside, Marsden gives him just the right combination of paranoid ruthlessness and neurotic deviousness. Good enough, you might think, but he then manages to make Burnside sympathetic even when he is forced to make awful decisions, as in the breathtakingly heartless finale of this series. You're appalled by his logic, but feel he is shackled to it even if the cost to him is almost overwhelming. The memorable theme tune - the only television work of the great Roy Budd - captures this relentless march of his agents to their own disintegration.
As the production values were so low, the script had to work doubly hard to convince, but the writing carried the authentic weight of a screenwriter who really knew his world of spies. Apart from one atypical episode, there is little violence and often the tensest moments revolve around seemingly trivial incidents on the screen: Laura Dickens combing through documents alone in an embassy, Geoffrey Wellingham and Burnside walking side-by-side near Parliament, Willie Caine meeting a distinguished scientist in an Austrian park. And no firearm will ever carry as much menace as the line where Caine tells a possible defector: 'I do have alternative instructions'.
Needless to say 'The Sandbaggers' won no awards in its all too brief run while 'Tinker, Tailor' is revered as a classic. Nonetheless, the verdict of the 'New York Times' reviewer quoted above stands to this day, unchallenged by any number of series of the terrible 'Spooks'. You can Google for the impressive fan site 'The Ops Room'.