I think I first came across it thanks to the Network DVD releases which started in 2006 or thereabouts, and I still turn to the 3 series even now; it's top late night, moody and reflective fayre!
The Sanbaggers in question is the name of a Special Operations Executive department of elite SIS officers who attend global hotspots at short notice., escorting defectors, rescuing operatives behind the Iron Curtain or carrying out assassinations. Needless to say, the pension isn't that great, life expectancy is very very short.
The Director of Operations is Neil Burnside played by Roy Marsden, a hardbitten, ruthless and rather charmless manipulator who nevertheless we are 100% behind at all times. He's not a hero, but he's all we've got and he's damn good.
His Number One Sandbagger is also not what we expect. For one, he hates violence despite an exceptional talent for it. He is former paratrooper, Willie Caine played by Ray Lonnen
Unlike Spooks, The Sanbaggers is far from glamourous. It's downright dirty, the stress and sweat palpable. More importantly it feels real; probably helped by the fact that there's a lot of rumours that the show's writer and creator, Ian McIntosh, a former Royal Navy Lt Commander, was involved in the intelligence community. The fact that he and his girlfriend disappeared in their single engine aircraft somewhere over the ocean Alaska in 1980 only continues the conspiracies.
Life and death decisions of global importance are made over cups of tea and dry biscuits in the back rooms of Whitehall, actually more like bartered for, as, the SIS like any other civil service department is depicted as one in which budget and manpower always seems to be a key issue. As such Burnside is forced to bang heads and fight tooth and claw for everything with SIS chief 'C' (Richard Vernon), his ex father in law and Permanent Under Secretary Sir Geoffrey Wellingham (Alan MacNaughtan) and officious Deputy Head of SIS Matthew Peele (Jerome Willis). Routinely the series depicts that our SIS seem to be the poor relation not just to the US (represented by laconic CIA agent in residence Joe Ross played by Bob Sherman) but to our enemies too. The department never truly win, more like it loses by a scratch or loses, badly and you feel that's the best option available. One imagines that is what it is really like.
If you're looking for corny one liners, plenty of sex, gadgets and action, a'la James Bond, then look away because this isn't the place for you. Indeed for a show that focuses on a group of men who do the stuff our Establishment would rather not think about, there's very little action, concentrating more on the battle with red tape than the battle with red communism.
The episodes are as tight as a drum and consist of conversations or arguments to and from those grey drab Whitehall offices and the atmospheric Ops Room which oversees missions with little more than a giant map, a bank of telephones and an endless supply of nicotine and strong coffee.
There is wit, but it's a mordant, dark and dry affair in keeping with the gritty realism on display. Whereas the only gadgets on display are service revolvers or rifles with telescopic lenses. Sex is non existent. As such it is far closer in spirit to the novels of John Le Carre or Len Deighton or that previous ITV espionage drama, Callan, starring Edward Woodward.
If you haven't seen this and you think Spooks is good or realistic then I urge you to pick this up. It will blow your mind.
It's influence is still felt today as the graphic novelist Greg Rucka based his excellent comic series Queen and Country upon it, which focused on his heroine Tara Chance.
I'll leave you with the show's opening titles, with a theme by the great Roy Budd...