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TELEVISION REVIEW : Agents Who've Come in From Cold Storage

March 22, 1994|RICK VANDERKNYFF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Spy fans: End of the Cold War got you down?

Even though recent scandals confirm that snooping still goes on between East and West, the fictional spy game has lost some of its zip since the Soviet Union's demise. John le Carre turned to international arms dealers in his most recent book; others have found substitute villains in drug cartels and terrorists.

For those who prefer the good old days when the Evil Empire reigned as the free world's chief nemesis, KOCE Channel 50 is offering some solace in the form of a vintage British series premiering tonight for a 20-week run.

"The Sandbaggers," which started production in 1979, is many things American network television is not: talky and relatively action-free, low in fancy production values but high in plot complexity, and starring characters who aren't likable in the traditional TV way.

This is behind-the-scenes stuff, with all the requisite politicking and back-stabbing. As series star Roy Marsden, who plays agent Neil Burnside, lectures a foreign counterpart in tonight's episode: "If you want James Bond, go to the library. . . . Our battles aren't fought at the end of a parachute. They're won and lost in drab, dreary corridors in Westminster."

Burnside is director of special operations for the Secret Intelligence Service. He's the acerbic but brilliant type, with no qualms about circumventing the chain of command when it suits his purposes, or battling his superiors when necessary.

His three agents are called Sandbaggers, led by Willie Caine (Ray Lonnen), whose easy charm plays well against Burnside's gruff determination. The cast includes Richard Vernon as "C," chief of SIS and Burnside's not-always-effective buffer against political pressures, and Jerome Willis as Matthew Peele, Burnside's fence-sitting immediate superior.

Contrary to the bit of sermonizing quoted earlier, the dialogue is generally gritty and full of bite, and though it is sometimes heavy on jargon, it shouldn't be beyond comprehension for attentive and spy-savvy viewers.

The emphasis in the first two episodes is on backstage machinations, with Burnside battling career-conscious bureaucrats and political interests in London as much--or more--than he fights the Soviets, or the other adversaries in the field.

In tonight's episode, "First Principles," a Norwegian spy plane crashes in Soviet territory and Burnside is forced against his judgment to send agents in to help rescue the crew--because the Norwegians have promised to buy some British-made missiles in return.

Episode two finds Burnside coordinating the surveillance of a possible defector and also pushing for the assassination of a fictional African despot. Burnside pulls some strings to get the job himself, apparently for personal glory--political killings don't come along often.

According to press materials, potential love interests will later join the cast, but the first two episodes are free of romantic entanglements (unless you count Burnside's regular digs at his ex-wife, whom we never meet, but is the daughter of a high-ranking Foreign Office official).

"The Sandbaggers" is absorbing drama in the British tradition, harmed only by a dated look--That hair! Those clothes!--and a few too many shots of men walking grimly around London. The most refreshing aspect is that the makers trust the viewer to follow along without excessive hand-holding.

Accents and terminology can be confusing at times, but don't fret: Burnside gives regular updates to his superiors, which help the viewer to catch up as well.

Marsden is a spiky but intriguing presence as Burnside, whose perpetual sense of certainty would seem arrogant if he weren't right so often. The character shifts somewhat from the first to the second episode, but presumably it will become better defined as the series progresses.

For spy fans in withdrawal, Burnside could become a deserving addition to the hall of espionage heroes, one in the no-nonsense, damn-the-bureaucrats mold.

* "The Sandbaggers" will air tonight at 9:30 p.m. on KOCE Channel 50. The series continues Tuesdays in the same time slot.

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