Order of Battle
Dr. Philip H.J. Davies compares the Sandbaggers' organization to the real world.

Two of the most common opinions expressed about Ian Mackintosh’s The Sandbaggers are that it is the most realistic spy series ever filmed, and that it features almost no action in the Hollywood sense, just people sitting in offices having conversations (‘and sometimes heated arguments’ as one fan has observed). It has a low-keyed ambiance that says ‘this is what the real world of espionage is like’. Mackintosh even goes so far as to put the sentiment directly into Burnside’s mouth in the opening episode First Principles: ‘If you want James Bond, go to your library. But if you want special operations sit at your desk and think, then think again.’ Mackintosh makes his goal of dreary realism explicit from the outset.

Likewise, one of the most common queries about the series is how accurate Mackintosh’s portrayal of the workings and structure of the SIS and the UK intelligence community (IC) is. Similarly, a number of fans have at various times posted attempts to infer from the dialogue of The Sandbaggers how the SIS and UK IC are organised and how they work, at least in the context of the series. These usually end up in complete confusion, partly because most US viewers know very little about how Her Majesty’s Government (HMG) works. If one is familiar with HMG in general, and the UK IC in particular, The Sandbaggers is not only easier to understand, but a fascinating and puzzling combination of rigorous accuracy and ingenious narrative license. Many of the liberties Mackintosh takes with the real structure of the UK IC seem to make sense chiefly as routes to avoid subtleties and complexities of the real SIS that would be awkward or even prohibitively difficult to try and explain within the narrative flow of a television series.

As most people are chiefly interested in Burnside and the SIS, let me begin there and work outwards and upwards to the rest of the IC.

SIS in Fact and Fiction
The first thing that has to be said about Mackintosh’s SIS is that while it is definitely close to the real thing, a lot of the time he steers around direct accuracy, almost as if trying to consciously avoid it. In the late 1970s, of course, the D Notice system in which authors and publishers were liable to stern warnings if their work was liable to conravene the 1911 Official Secrets Act (OSA) carried more force than it does today. And, of course, we know from Ray Lonnen at least one episode was pulled when it got too close to the bone (about what we do not know, although I have a suspicion I’ll discuss below). The second thing is that the order of battle (OB) he gives the SIS is, in fact, closer to that of the US Central Intelligence Agency than the actual SIS. And that affects the portrayal of the SIS in some significant ways.

In the first novel (which I found in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, believe it or not) Mackintosh identifies SIS HQ as being called ‘Collingstone House’, and obviously intentional near miss on SIS actual headquarters at the time Century House on New Westminster Bridge Road. Oddly, however, Mackintosh places Collingstone House on the north bank of the Thames near the clubs of Pall Mall (hence Burnside’s solitary strolls along the Embankment), although Century House is one the south side of the Thames. Since SIS moved to its new headquarters at Vauxhall Cross (known colloquially as VX) near Vauxhall Bridge, still on the south bank of the Thames, Century House has belonged to Westminster City Council and currently stands vacant. So anyone wanting to do some SIS/Sandbagger sightseeing can freely walk around the grounds of the former SIS HQ, about a ten minute walk north from the Imperial War Museum, or less then five minutes due east from Elephant and Castle underground station.

The Directorship
The senior leadership in Mackintosh’s SIS consist of the Chief of Service or ‘C’, the Deputy Chief, the Director of Operations (D.Ops), the Director of Intelligence (D.Int) and the Director of Administrative Services (DAS). In point of fact, these designations conform more closely to the management structure of the CIA than the SIS. D.Ops is responsible for all SIS operations the world over, while the Intelligence Directorate performs intelligence analysis and issues assessments to the FCO and other Whitehall Departments. D.AS, of course, handles such administrative issues as recruitment, staffing and so forth.

The actual SIS management in the 1970s consisted of C, the Deputy Chief and Directors of Production (D/P), Requirements (D/R), Personnel and Administration (D/PA), Support Services (D/SS) and Counter-Intelligence and Security. While obviously Machintosh’s DAS is equivalent to D/PA, no mention is made of equivalents to D/SS or D/CIS. Technical resources are written off as ‘rubbish’ in ‘To Hell With Justic’ on the grounds that Mackintosh’s cash-strapped SIS couldn’t afford good kit. And counter-intelligence and security are ambiguous; the Malta station by-passes CI by going to Burnside, suggesting that CI is not under Ops (as it is in the CIA). Also, Burnside’s conversation Mickey (LNU[]), Head of Security (correctly titled and called H/Sec in the real world SIS) does not sound like a conversation with an immediate junior — as compared with, say, the Duty Ops Officer.

However, if Mackintosh was working to a CIA template, the massive and important Directorate of Science and Technology (DST) was omitted — perhaps not least because DST handles the CIA side of satellite imagery, and the UK has no satellites (we help pay for the American Keyhole and LaCrosse programmes and get to task the satellites in proportion with the UK contribution). Of course, the omitted directorates would never have featured particularly in any of the Sandbaggers stories and so Mackintosh would have had no need to work that side of his version of SIS out in detail (except, perhaps, in providing any backstory he needed to ensure consistency). The important issues in The Sandbaggers are to do with the relationships between operational necessity and political control, and between Operations Directorate and the Intelligence Directorate — and those are also the key relationships in the real SIS.

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