Thursday 14 November 2013

Ian Mackintosh, The Sandbaggers (TV Series and Novelisation, 1978), and the Writer's '60s Spy and Crime Thriller Novels

NB: Linked in Friday's Forgotten Books, 15/11/12.

Ian Mackintosh – or MacKintosh, depending on who you believe – is a name which excites a fair bit of interest in certain spy-obsessed circles, due in large part to his being the creator and writer of (most of) The Sandbaggers:

a cult television series which ran on ITV from 1978 to 1980, starring Roy Marsden as Neil Burnside, the head of a small team of troubleshooters – the eponymous "Sandbaggers" – within Britain's Special Intelligence Service – this being the Mackintosh-penned novelisation of a couple of episodes thereof, published in paperback by Corgi in 1978. I've only ever seen the odd clip of The Sandbaggers (a state of affairs I intend to rectify) and don't remember it being on telly when I was a kid (unlike another British TV spy series, Callan, which I wrote about the other week and do dimly recall) but I have been aware of it for a while due to Greg Rucka pointing to it as the chief inspiration for his fine espionage comic book (and novel) series Queen & Country in an essay in the first issue in 2001. And Rucka's not alone in his admiration either: earlier this year The Guardian ran a positive review of the three-season DVD box set of The Sandbaggers (written, incidentally, by an old mucker of mine from Mixmag days, Toby Manning) and there's an active dedicated fan site.

For espionage enthusiasts, a big part of the appeal of The Sandbaggers lies in the fascination with Ian Mackintosh's life. A career naval officer who was awarded an MBE upon his retirement in 1976, he created the hugely successful BBC drama Warship in 1973, embarking on a new career as a television writer and producer in its wake. And then in July 1979, halfway into the writing of the third season of The Sandbaggers (Mackintosh wrote all thirteen episodes of the preceding two seasons), the light aircraft Mackintosh was flying in with his girlfriend, Susan Insole, and his friend, Graham Barber – who was piloting the airplane – vanished over the Gulf of Alaska after sending out a distress signal. No survivors or wreckage were ever found, and this, along with Barber reportedly having failed to file a flight plan and the plane making an unscheduled stop at a disused World War II airfield, has led to much speculation about what actually happened, not least in Robert G. Folsom's biography The Life and Mysterious Death of Ian MacKintosh (Potomac Books, 2012).

Further fanning the flames of intrigue, fans of The Sandbaggers have long wondered whether Mackintosh was himself a spy, such was the apparent authenticity of the series. And reading Mackintosh's The Sandbaggers novelisation, the picture he paints of SIS does seem plausible: a grey, worn-out world of late nights, endless paperwork and office politics, and with the fug of cigarette smoke hanging heavy in the air, punctuated by all-too-rare and usually grubby missions where the odds of making it back alive are fifty-fifty. Small wonder, then, that Greg Rucka drew on the series so heavily for Queen & Country, right down to the overworked, irritable head of department – Burnside in The Sandbaggers, Paul Crocker in Queen & Country – and the M.O. of having two Sandbaggers – Minders in Rucka's comic book – on standby and referring to them as Sandbagger One and Two (or Minder One and Two).

Irrespective of its origins – not having seen the TV series I can't comment on how accurate an adaptation it is – The Sandbaggers novelisation is an effectively downbeat and latterly – during a climactic assault on a mountainous Cyprus stronghold by Sandbagger One (Willie Caine) and a female double-agent – nail-biting little spy thriller. (Randall Masteller at Spy Guys and Gals reckons so too, though he thinks less highly of the subsequent loose spin-off novel The Sandbaggers: Think of a Number, written by Donald Lancaster – an alias of Australian mystery novelist William Marshall – and published by Corgi in 1980.) It's also quite uncommon these days: it's been out of print for decades and there are a scant few copies available online. But even more scarce, and little-remarked upon – this Mystery*File review being (heretofore) practically the only online commentary – are the handful of novels Ian Mackintosh penned in the late-1960s before he embarked on his TV career – and it's these that kindled my particular interest in the writer.

From 1967 to 1970 Mackintosh published five crime and spy thrillers. Each received just the one printing – by Robert Hale in hardback in the UK – and each is so scarce that there isn't a single copy of any of them currently for sale online. Their titles in order are:

A Slaying in September (Hale, 1967)
Count Not the Cost (Hale, 1967)
A Drug Called Power (Hale, 1968)
The Man from Destiny (Hale, 1969)
The Brave Cannot Yield (Hale, 1970)

I blogged about one of them, Count Not the Cost, in passing a couple of months ago, as part of this Barbara and Eileen Walton cover gallery. I acquired that ex-library copy from fabled crime fiction book dealer Jamie Sturgeon last year, and since then have taken three other Mackintosh novels off his hands (the only one I'm now missing is A Drug Called Power). What's remarkable about them – aside from their scarcity – at least the two that I've read thus far (the first two), is how extraordinarily, deliciously bad they are: overwrought, hysterical, melodramatic and laced with the kind of painfully over-extended metaphors that cause editors to wake in the wee small hours bathed in sweat. Compare The Sandbaggers novelisation, with its pared-back prose and attempts at naturalistic dialogue, with A Slaying in September or Count Not the Cost and it's almost as if they're the work of a different writer, although in Burnside's romantic obsession with Sandbagger Two – the chilly, remote but beautiful Laura Dickens – there are admittedly hints of Mackintosh's earlier writing.

Indeed, so terrible are these books that they frequently teeter over into brilliance. Certainly they're compulsively readable, and part of me wonders whether they weren't Mackintosh's idea of an extended situationist prank (largely at the expense of Robert Hale, who never managed to sell paperback rights on any of the novels). (There's an inscription by Mackintosh in one of Jamie's own copies of the novels which suggests that might not be far from the truth.) Three of them – A Slaying in September, A Drug Called Power and The Brave Cannot Yield – star private investigator-turned-scourge of the drugs underworld Tim Blackgrove, but the (anti)heroes of the other two novels – Rod Holt (Count Not the Cost) and Danny Mason (The Man from Destiny) – are so similar to Blackgrove as to be almost indistinguishable: grey-eyed, pale, haunted loners prone to excessive violence who are nonetheless (reluctant) media celebrities.

As you may have gathered, I've become ever-so-slightly obsessed by these bloody awful but strangely beguiling books; so over the next few posts I'll be taking a closer look at them, starting with Mackintosh's debut, A Slaying in September.


  1. Yet another cool series I missed by virtue of being American.

  2. Really envy you getting some of the early novels Nick. I've raved about this show elsewhere but you have to see it - just the best spy series of the 70s (and yes, I include TINKER, TAILOT in that assessment). It has been released on DVD in the US Kelly (well, in Canada), but is easy to get on Amazon I think. The thirs series is less good - the ones not written by Mackintosh do stick out very noticeably - but, after a rather soft opening episode, the show really grips and is very, very dark.

  3. I did a post about "Persons Unknown" (another obscure cult TV series) and someone was kind enough in Comments to recommend The Sandbaggers to me. Since I couldn't get it any other way at the time, I turned to the Net (which was a long slog). It's an absolutely brilliant series that I also can't recommend enough. These novels that have surfaced sound like they need to be brought back in e. Thanks for writing about them!

  4. I picked up the 3-season DVD boxed set and watched all of The Sandbaggers last year, to find that it holds up brilliantly. If only all vintage TV could so well match our memories of it... the episodes are mastered from decently preserved tape, not telerecordings, and while the production values are standard for 70s studio-based drama, it's the writing and performances that give it real enduring quality.

    My first agent was the Transworld editor responsible for dealing with Mackintosh over the series' novelisations, and he'd told her that he himself was a former Sandbagger; this seemed to chime with stories of the scripts being sent for vetting by some shady government department before production. Personally I'm inclined not to disbelieve it; Mackintosh's depiction of a credible bureaucracy, and the way in which he invests it with urgent dramatic life, hardly seems like a fantasist's first choice of material.

    Long before the DVDs were available, I was in contact with a researcher from Kudos who was trying to track down VHS copies of Sandbaggers episodes. They served as part of the groundwork for the show Spooks (MI5 in the US).

  5. Thanks for those insights, Mr. G – seems there might well be something to those stories of Mackintosh's espionage past. And thank you to everyone for your comments!

  6. You can find it on Youtube.