Saturday, February 13, 2010


It’s always a bit of a jolt to look up some venerable public figure and discover that they are younger than I am. Roy Marsden, who plays cops mostly, was born in 1941 -- two years after me. I just watched him in “The Sandbaggers,” a classic BBC spy series from 1978-80. His earliest appearance, according to, was 1964, a one-episode part. He has not lacked for work, but “Sandbaggers” was a good fit, not least because he rather looks like Ian Mackintosh, the creator and writer of the series. The series ended abruptly when Mackintosh, who really WAS a spy, was lost in a plane crash under mysterious circumstances off the coast of Alaska in 1979.

This series confronted the moral dilemmas of playing individual lives against planetary cold war politics and is the precursor of much more elaborate and impressively equipped spy series. So far I haven’t seen one that was up-to-date enough to include Asian spies. Marsden, in his role as Burnside, must play off his semi-competent direct superior against the politically astute next man up (Richard Vernon) who, this being England, has a title but goes by a letter of the alphabet “C,” and another well-connected higher-up who, in a little complicating loop, is Burnside’s father-in-law. Since the couple are estranged, the question is whether Burnside married her to get his job and how much his father-in-law can force or tempt him back into the marriage. Burnside is of a lower class and has no fortune. This little set of interplaying family forces are a miniature version of the larger politics.

In those days it was Russia who was the direct adversary and the U.S. who was an ambiguous ally, sometimes in competition. Then there were the many insurgencies, dictators, undergrounds and illegal commercial enterprises, esp. those dealing in weapons. Bob Sherman, the CIA man, is an interesting American actor who played American parts in English movies and plays. (He died in 2004.) He looks like Robert Redford’s rougher cousin. The plots of this series don’t often depict a lot of action, but rather are discussions of strategy, often while walking around parks and streets so that the scenery is one of the rewards. Marsden is very tall so there’s a kind of Mutt & Jeff quality to the shots. It’s never warm weather.

Women are a sly layer, not so much plot as complication and sometimes comic relief. The indispensable secretary is, of course, tall, efficient and a match-maker with no life of her own. An intriguing character is a female Soviet spy who manages to get hired as a sandbagger and proves to be VERY useful and a ruthless character who kills as though she were checking off a list, which she is. Then there is the character who is reluctant to be a sandbagger -- she wants to be a diplomat rather than a spy and though she’s delectably beautiful, her gifts are as a polymath. It has been established early on that a sandbagger who is captured and likely to be tortured, will be killed by a sniper. We see a man shot. Now you know the series ending. And you know how far Burnside, standing in for all spy managers, will go. He was in love with this woman, so far as he was capable.

Much as I enjoy Marsden, the moral issues of the Cold War seem remote compared to those faced by Michael Kitchen, my all-time favorite, who is a policeman in WWII, his morality up against expediency that would not trouble Burnside. As one reviewer puts it, “['Foyle's War' is a compelling and oddly comforting drama.” Foyle is the father we all wish we had: patient, consistent, gruff but tender. Shot between 2002-2008, the film is supposed to be in Hastings, which for the English is significant since it is the location of the last invasion of England in 1066. Thank goodness the script writers never confront him with the choice of saving the country or killing one of his own people, though his aviator son is a victim of war.

I got started with all this BBC stuff when I first signed up for Netflix and almost accidentally ordered “Cracker.” Far more extravagant and flawed than either Burnside or Foyle, and written by Jimmy McGovern for airplay from 1993-96, this series has no particular reference to politics but is concerned with criminal psychology, like “Wire in the Blood,” Robson Green’s series. Until “Cracker,” I’d mostly seen far milder series like Poirot or Cadfael, but I had loved “Prime Suspect.”

Robbie Coltrane, who played the “Cracker,” went on to be the gentle giant in “Harry Potter.” Though the actor did contribute to the charisma of “Fitz,” it was always clear that he was indebted to the imagination of McGovern. This seems to be the key secret. McGovern’s most recent production, “Collision,” is about a car crash and its consequences but has no central figure. McGovern’s bitter Irish cynicism must not have had an actor with Coltrane’s warmth and forgiveness -- it’s the combination that works.

It’s said that Michael Kitchen and Robson Green contribute to the plots of their series. Kitchen has pressed to let Foyle convey with his gaze what he’s thinking while letting his chatterbox helper (who is NOT a secretary but rather a driver with vicars for uncles) do all the obvious moral exploring. Somehow Robson Green manages to leaven the insanely extreme tortures of Val McDermid plots with some kind of comprehension and forgiveness, to the point where McDermid book fans and Green film fans part company. Both are formidably popular.

The series written by men and acted by women (Miss Marple) never quite hit the same market, except for “Prime Suspect.” Most of these strong charismatic male “centerpoles” in the tent of mystery have had long histories of repertory stage work and minor films, so when they’re cast in a television series, the American critics are all amazed at their sudden appearance and even more astonished by the resourcefulness of their skills. In the US, one does not have an apprenticeship so the dependence on good writing is stronger. Unfortunately, US productions tend to be “packaged” rather than developed. The difference in quality is no mystery.

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