The Times

Memorial Service
A Celebration of the Life and Work of Bob Sherman
November 16th. Noon
The Actors' Church
St. Paul's Covent Garden

Bob Sherman rememebered
He passed away in London, this August. His memorial service takes place November 16th 2004. As a tribute, the OpsRoom reprints this In the early 1990s, Michael Macomber published the S.I.S. (Sandbaggers Information Service) newsletter. His interview with Bob Sherman (Jeff Ross in “The Sandbaggers”) appeared in the December 1992 issue. This interview was conducted by tape three times as the cassettes went missing in the post along the way.

Ray Lonnen mentioned that you had been doing some writing for television. What have you been working on and for whom?
I’ve just done a ten-part series that is now playing all over Europe. I rather doubt it’ll get to the States. It’s a thing called Zorc - No Limit, and it’s about a tough legionnaire who’s in jail in South Africa for a murder he didn’t commit, and he suddenly gets a one-way ticket to Berlin. So, he has no choice but to get on the plane and get up there. He’s met by a very beautiful journalist, and it turns out that he’s to be her bodyguard, because he in turn is being run by this mysterious figure who’s very big in politics, in industry, in commerce, everything.

Each episode is a self-contained story. The reason they hire this “Zorc” guy is because he’s deniable. He has no past, no present, no future, no passport, nothing. So, during the series you see that he is fairly “used” by this person. And the series basically exemplifies the high and low of life in Berlin, the intense degradation and economic privation of the East, and the very hollow, stainless steel kind of life of the Yuppie West.

Each story deals with some political thing of the day. One of them is about child pornography, another’s about defecting scientists who are trying to sell some nuclear triggers to Iraq. It’s all that sort of stuff.

Are you planning to do more writing? Do you see this as a possible second career?
Well, actually, at the moment it is a second career, because I certainly haven’t done much acting. Over the last six months I’ve only done one thing for the BBC, and so I am doing quite a bit more writing. In fact, I’m going to Los Angeles to talk about two scripts that have been optioned out there. One of them is with Susan DePasse, who is the producer of Lonesome Dove and that Jackson Five miniseries that just came on. So, I’m pretty excited about that script. That looks like it could be a goer. And there are a couple of other things too. So, I’ll be out there. I’m leaving in a couple of days.

Is writing something you’ve gotten into recently, or is this something you’ve been doing all along?

Well, I’ve been doing it, actually, for the last ten years. I wrote a script about the Kennedy assassination. Oddly enough, much of the research covered the same ground as the Oliver Stone film, JFK, although my emphasis wasn’t Jim Garrison. It was more exclusively centered on the Mafia and a rogue element of the CIA actually running the assassination. But, I tell ya, when I wrote it ten years ago, I couldn’t get arrested with it. The closest I got to anything was with Paramount. They looked at it, and it looked like it could happen — Ridley Scott even got involved for about ten minutes. Then it just died. I couldn’t even get it off on television anywhere. Then suddenly this JFK thing with Oliver Stone comes up, and now I think because of that, it’s totally dead!

You left law school to pursue acting. What led to that decision?
Well, I met a girl who was an actress and wanted to go to New York, and I was hating the first year of law school, so I just bailed out of California, and we drove to New York together. We lived together and auditioned for a couple of things and I got lucky and got the Stratford job — Stratford, Connecticut. So, I was there for about four seasons. I started as an apprentice, which means carrying a spear for a season, and then eventually ended up playing some pretty decent parts, including Romeo in Romeo and Juliet the last season I was there.

What made you decide to move to Europe and pursue your acting career there?
Again, it was a total accident. I came to Europe just on a vacation and I had made some money in television, I had some money, and I saw this thirty-foot ketch down in Villfranche Harbor. This French peinard was wanting to sell it. And so I got a good deal on it and I went sailing for three years. That’s how I stayed more in Europe than I should have.

In the course of that I used to play guitar and sing in these cafés. That’s how I made my living. I’d just pull into a port, play the guitar, and pass the hat. Then I met this French woman in Saint Tropez. We got together, went up to London, and I ended up living with her. I then auditioned for the takeover of Promises Promises. Tony Roberts played it over here for three months. It was quite a big musical. I got the part and played in for a year, and that’s how I started my career in England.

Have you noticed any significant differences between the entertainment industry in England and the entertainment industry in America?
Yes. It would seem to me that America is much more film- and television-oriented. England, I think, is much more grounded in the stage. What happens over there is that people use showcase theatre — in Los Angeles, anyway — to get noticed, to get an agent and then possibly get some television. The whole thing there is to get on television and get into films, whereas here it’s quite the other way around. Although I must say it is changing somewhat. We have quite a few very good English actors who move over to Los Angeles because they’re seduced by the sunshine and the good money.

But the vast cadre of actors stay here, and basically they start in theatre and get their grounding and training in theatre. They almost without exception go to an accredited drama school, where after two or three years they graduate, at least with a certificate, and then they get forty weeks in a rep company understudying and stage managing before they get their Equity card. So, they have quite a lot of experience. Sometimes in these rep companies you do a play every three weeks, so it’s pretty good. You really make your name on stage.

Over here, for instance, before I did any television or film, I had established myself pretty solidly as a stage actor. I’d done ten shows in the West End, and the Royal Court, and the Old Vic, before I actually got lucky on television.

You’ve worked on stage, in film, and on television. Are there any differences in your approach to each?
Well, the obvious difference is, on the stage you have to have a technique to get it out there, to communicate what you’re saying. In films and on television you pretty well let the camera do the talking for you, in a sense. Part of what you do is you of course obviously scale down a performance — being the intimate media that it is, film and telly, you naturally have to.

I guess the main difference between films and television is you probably get better parts more consistently on television, because lots of times you get a chance to do plays on television. It’s not just episodic cops-and-robbers over here. For instance, I did a Somerset Maugham series, I got a chance to play John Dean with Nicol Williamson in The Watergate Tapes, I did Oppenheimer. Things like that were really very interesting television projects, which I certainly wouldn’t have pulled off on film. I doubt very much if they’d have given me those parts on film.

I would also think too that there are market differences — with films you’ve got an awful lot more time and much more preparation. Television you pretty much have to go out there and get it done in the first take. They just don’t have a lot of time to hang about.

Of all the things you’ve done, do you have any particular favorites?
Well, let’s see. I guess the things I’m most proud of, actually, are the things I’ve done on stage. I produced and starred in Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been, for which I won a Best Production award that year, and I was nominated as Best Actor. So, there were a lot of kudos going for that one. And I love the way it started. I mean, I got ahold of these transcripts and I made it pretty much my show. I called up twelve American actors that I knew over here and I said, “Look, we’re going to put this thing on in a basement. Bring your father’s suit, ’cause it all takes place in the ’80s, and have a go.” So, we put it on in this little theatre — they used to call it the Bush Theatre, in Shepherd’s Bush. It’s a tiny little theatre that seats about ninety people; and when we opened, for some reason the critics didn’t have anything to do that night, so we had all the first-string critics sitting there in the first row, and they actually ate it up. We went from a four-week run at the Bush Theatre to the Mayfair Theatre, which was a West End Theatre, and that happened largely because Diana Rigg brought her husband, who’s a producer, to the show. She’d seen it a couple of times, she fell in love with it, and her husband and I then co-produced it in the West End. We had a nice run. We had a run there for about ten months.

I’ll never forget the kindness of Harold Pinter during that particular time. When we opened in the West End at lhe Mayfair Theatre — I don’t know if you remember this or heard about it, but in 1978 there were quite a lot of industrial problems here, principally a miners’ strike, and we had an awful lot of blackouts in the West End. You’d be in the middle of doing a show and suddenly the lights would go out — and if you didn’t have a generator, which only the richest companies could afford at the time, you had to cancel the show. Of course, that didn’t do much for business, did it?

So we went through a couple of those, and it almost looked as if we were going to be on the floor. We just couldn’t get anybody to come to the West End. Then Harold Pinter saw it and he said, “My God, why are so few people attending? This is a great show.” So, we mentioned the miners’ strike and a couple of other things, but I also said what we really needed was to be re-reviewed, because we’d already had our best crits at the Bush Theatre, Shepherd’s Bush. So he said, “Leave it to me,” and a couple of nights later the Sunday Times critic showed up and the Observer critic showed up, and they re-reviewed us and we got going. That ran us through to ten months, so I really owe him one.

Turning to The Sandbaggers, what did you think of the role of Jeff Ross?
Well, I liked it. I loved playing Jeff. It was my first major television series. And he was an interesting character. Manipulative. He was a many-faceted guy. Fairly manipulative, as I said.

Jeff was the primary American on the show. Did you ever feel he was written stereotypically American, or that you were given direction to do something stereotypically American?
Oh God, yeah. All of the above. I mean, he was written stereotypically American, and I was always receiving direction to do something stereotypically American. I try to fight this all the time. But in fact, that’s one of the reasons I started writing, because I started re-doing a lot of the dialog scenes, sometimes on the spot, just to try to make it my own and to make it more comfortable. That was kind of interesting sometimes. I thought, “Well, why am I going to all this trouble? I should write my own scripts.” And that’s how I started writing. So, actually, The Sandbaggers started me on that.

Jeff and Neil had an interesting relationship. Sometimes it seemed like a straightforward professional relationship, and other times there appeared to be a note of genuine friendship there. How would you characterize their relationship?
Well, I think both of them were definitely obsessed with their work. Both were workaholics, both believed in the sanctity of the CIA and the SIS respectively. I think they had a mutual respect for one another, within that sort of inter-intelligence rivalry. I think they put their companies and the work first, but within that they definitely respected each other professionally.

I think there’s no question that the SIS is the finest intelligence service in the world. Even though the Americans had all the resources, certainly all the financial resources, their network of agents wasn’t all that great, and they were very, very accident-prone. Quite a few of them ended up getting caught and a lot of the cells that they ran were busted, with subsequent executions.

But within that, you see, there was a great mistrust. The Americans — certainly on Jeff’s part, or the part of the CIA — the Americans never ever totally trusted the SIS after the Philby, Burgess and Maclean spy revelations. The special relationship really suffered as a result, and it never really recovered. Even though Britain was a principal ally, because of the intrusion of the moles and the intelligence screwups that had happened in the SIS, the Americans were very guarded about giving away their best information. So it always had to be played off against something very tangible, something else, and it was constantly that kind of analysis that was going on.

I’m going to a dinner, I’m lucky enough to be invited to a dinner with Oleg Gordievsky, who was the KGB Head of Station in London, and was actually working as a double agent for the British. It’s going to be very interesting to talk to him and see what his assessments of American and British intelligence are. I would suspect he would say that they certainly won the intelligence war, because very, very few Russian agents were ever caught. They really had an amazing network. It seemed that certainly in the ’60s the SIS and the CIA lost an enormous number of people. I mean, there were the occasional great coups — like I said, Philby, Burgess, and Maclean, and Gordievsky himself, and also Penkovsky, who was a KGB colonel feeding information to Alexis Davison, the doctor at the American Embassy — who, by the way, it turns out, was also peripherally connected to Lee Harvey Oswald.

That could be very interesting as well, to find out what the KGB connection was with Lee Harvey Oswald. I know there’s an Oswald file that the KGB had, which they have either not turned over to the Americans as part of perestroika, or they have suppressed. I have a feeling it was turned over to the Americans and the CIA suppressed it. My own theory about that is I think that Lee Harvey Oswald was working at a very low level for the CIA, because there were just too many connections with him. One, as I said, is Alexis Davison. There’s no reason in the world why Alexis Davison would be in touch with Lee Harvey Oswald. Secondly, there was the fact that Lee Harvey Oswald had a top secret security clearance, working at the Marine base in Atsugi, Japan, where they were flying all of the major reconnaissance flights — high-level reconnaissance flights, U2 flights over Russia in fact. To let someone as unstable as Lee Harvey Oswald in that position was rather curious. Also, he used to get leaves at rather strange times, and for no very good reason either. There’s a sort of sense that he was meeting people. But the most interesting thing is that Lee Harvey Oswald made two phone calls before he was killed, finally, by Ruby. One was to John Abt, the civil liberties lawyer, who happened to be out skiing, so he missed his “date with destiny.” The second call he placed, which has now just become declassified, was to Nags Head, North Carolina. Nags Head, North Carolina has nothing at all there, except a CIA fake defectors program. So, I’m going to try to pin that one down with Gordievsky if I can.

That was a hell of a digression! I forget even where we were...

Some fans have noted that Jeff was just as manipulative as Neil, but he often took people off-guard with his honest, boyish demeanor. Do you think this was true?
Well, if it works, it works! Sure, he was as manipulative as Neil. These guys weren’t selling insurance. They were out there doing it. There’s a reason why Jeff was Head of Station for the CIA. He was tough, bright, manipulative — as Neil was. That’s what I found was very interesting. I mean, even though they came from opposite sides of the world, they certainly had a lot in common. And I think that was reflected in their relationship. Now, if Jeff could get his way with his honest, boyish demeanor, if that’s what came across and that’s what was working for him, well, sure, he used it. So, yeah, I guess that was true.
If The Sandbaggers went back into production, would you return to the role of Jeff Ross?
Sure I would. I’d love to. I’d love to do Ross again. In fact, it is at the moment very much in the talking stages, but there is a movement afoot to do a Sandbaggers II, which would reflect what is going on in these people’s lives twelve years on. I can’t tell you any more about that at the moment, because as I said it’s still in the talking stages, but we could be on the road to another one. OK? So, that’d be fun, wouldn’t it?

Here’s an off-the-wall question: If you could have played any other character in The Sandbaggers, which one would it have been?
Well, I think if I could, I’d want to play Sir Geoffrey Wellingham. He had a great part. He was just this great silver-haired spider. Smooth as silk and twice as duplicitous. To me he was the absolute paradigm of the Foreign Office. I mean, he is why they should have a Freedom of Information Act in this country. They never will, of course. The English are absolute past masters at sliding over and slithering by scandal.

We’ve got our own “Irangate” going on over here at the moment. You’ve probably been following it somewhat in the newspapers. And of course the senior civil servants are going to get off. But really what happened is that to hold onto power the Prime Minister and four of his cabinet were willing to watch three innocent guys go to jail for seven years. Now, that could never happen in the United States without the most thoroughgoing Congressional investigation and it’d be in the newspapers every day. It’s an absolute outrage. Our society is far freer than the society over here, I promise you. But, I think these guys are going to get away with it, though the three guys are not going to jail. At least they aborted that one. But the ministers will remain unscathed and it’s going to be business as usual.

Do you have a favorite episode of The Sandbaggers?
Well, I really liked quite a few of them. I guess the one I liked the best was the one where Neil’s out of the country at a conference somewhere, and the office is virtually empty except for Willie Caine. Jeff comes in and gets Willie to help him get our CIA guy out of Russia. That was one of my favorites.

What do you do with your free time?
God, what free time? Well, I’ve got a four-year-old daughter, so she takes up some of it. When I can get away, I like to go skiing, if I can, play tennis, just the usual. I don’t sail much anymore. So, just the usual — you sit around with friends, play cards.

Sometimes I get together with Ray Lonnen and Marsden — we don’t see Michael Cashman much, unfortunately — and Elizabeth Bennett. We have drinks together and talk about the good old days. I think I should tell you that — I don’t know if Ray told you this, but — all of us who worked on The Sandbaggers, it was our favorite television series. We’ve all worked on a lot of things before and since, but The Sandbaggers for all of us is probably the high point of our careers. We were such a very, tight family, and that kind of experience is almost impossible to duplicate. So, we’ll always look back on The Sandbaggers as “prime time” for all of us.

Do you watch your own performances on television and in films? Do you think anything can be learned from watching yourself?
God, I hate to watch myself on television and in films. I hardly ever do, if I can avoid it. I’ve never gotten any better, I guess [laughs]. But I guess you can learn from watching your own performance. I think if you’re connected, if you’re really connected to the character and the scene in the right way, it’s pretty hard to go wrong. And if you are going wrong, then lots of times the director will say, “Look, I think you’d better see the rushes,” or, “I think you’d better have a look at this.” So, usually it’s a bad sign if a director wants you to look at your performance. But there are a couple of things I’ve seen that I like myself in — usually, though, it’s an unpleasant experience.

What are your ambitions?
Well, just to get work — to get the best work I possibly can. I’m employed as a writer as a sort of “hired gun” to write episodic television, like I’ve just been doing. But the reality is, the scripts that I would really love to have happen are the scripts that I’ve written on spec, and those are the ones that probably never will. They’re fairly political, most of them.
I had a wonderful experience with my own play, Hotel Arusha. That went on and was quite a big success over here. It didn’t get into the West End, because the principal backer was a guy called Alan Bond — who you probably heard about. He was the Australian billionaire who went bust. And so we didn’t come into the West End, because he went down the pan, and took all the money with him.

But I’d like to get Hotel Arusha on again in London. Actually, I’d like to get it on in America. It’s never been done over there. Let me know if you know any theatres over there. I’ll send it over. I’d like to write another play, I suppose, if I can, if I’ve got the time. I’d like to write some more things, that’s for sure.

Looking back on the time you spent with The Sandbaggers, is there any particular event or moment that stands out in your mind?
Yeah, well, once, Ray, Elizabeth Bennett and I were in a scene, and I’m sitting there with Elizabeth Bennett talking, and Ray has just been talking to Neil Burnside, and he wants to record it. So I have one of these portable recording machines, like I’m talking into now, and I’m showing Liz Bennett how it works. Ray comes in and he says, “Listen, can I use your dictaphone?” and I throw it to him and he goes in and talks to Neil. So, we were setting up the take, it was all set, we’d rehearsed it a couple of times, this was the “money take,” Ray comes in and he says, “Hey, Ross, can I use your dictaphone?” I said, “Why don’t you use your finger like everybody else?” Well, everybody just collapsed with laughter. I mean, Ray just fell on the floor, Elizabeth Bennett fell off her chair, the guy who was on the boom mike, he couldn’t get himself together at all. The whole set was destroyed for about ten minutes. The producer, I might add, was not amused. We tried to do the scene two or three more times, and we just kept cracking up. We couldn’t get through it. So finally David Cunliffe came down and said, “Well, I know you think this is all very amusing, but we’re cutting the scene.” So the scene never got out! [Laughs] I guess that’s the one event that I remember the most.

What do you think of the fact that The Sandbaggers is starting to generate a fandom here in the United States?
Well, I must say I’m surprised. I had no idea that the Americans would take to it, really. I mean, since most of the dialog is in acronyms, and they’re very demanding plots, for the most part, it just didn’t seem to me the kind of stuff that would go down well. But I’m delighted to see that it has. I’m delighted to see that there is a fan club like yours. It’s terrific. And it’s very gratifying to see that The Sandbaggers has run on so many television channels. Ray said it had a kind of cult following over there. Well, that’s terrific. That’s wonderful to hear. I’m very grateful for the fact that through the fan club you, Michael, and everybody over there is behind it, and getting out the good word.

Though I might add, by the way, that none of us received one cent from all those repeats. It was quite a scandal, really, because what happened is that they sold the whole series to somebody, who then put it into a private company, and then said it went bankrupt, and then it was passed on to another company, and so as a result it was such an involved and labyrinthine paper chase that none of us could ever track down who owned it to send them the bill. So we never really got anywhere with that. I know Ray and Roy tried.

But anyway, even though we’re doing it for free, in a sense, over there, it’s gratifying at least from one point of view that it’s appreciated and that there is a following. So, we thank you very much for starting it, and for keeping it going!

Thanks to OpsRoom founder Roy B for digging up the interview.