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Marissa Lingen

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The Angst of Nel Gurgle [Mar. 15th, 2012|12:36 pm]
Marissa Lingen

So the title of this post is an obscure sort of series of jokes: my friend elisem has a friend she sometimes refers to on lj as Nel Gurgle because of a journal entry he once made, and I think of him that way because it helps for me to have a way to separate out the Exceedingly Public Famous Person and the person who is friends with some of my friends, even though I don't actually know either of them personally. So the name Nel Gurgle is sort of in my head for when I am feeling silly anyway.

Anyway. I have been watching Sandbaggers as part of the Ongoing Mrissa Spy Fiction Experience. It was kindly lent me by carbonel, and I am finding it quite useful for reminding me of spy things I do and do not want to be doing.

But oh lordy. What I am not doing is emotionally engaging with it.

Sandbaggers is a British show thirty years old, and this shows in various ways. The seasons are short--six or seven 45-minute episodes long--and filled to the brim with white men. There is some action but a lot of the politics and logistics of the spy game.

The main character is Neil Burnside, but I call him Nel Gurgle, because he has a Conspicuous Cool Black Leather Spy Coat (so does the real-life Nel Gurgle!) that he only wears when he is in Bulgaria doing spy things and not when he is home in the SAS office managing Swedish flight attendants--wait, I seem to have gotten that slightly wrong. Not when he is at home in the SIS office managing men spies. There was a woman spy once in a few episodes and he got her killed, and now he can never have a woman spy again. He has also gotten some men spies killed. Logically, this is why the department consists entirely of a cat, an iguana, and a one-legged budgie called Larry.

Sandbagger One: Actually I'm here to tell you Larry's gotten killed. Nel Gurgle: I am so torn up about Larry I will now stare at the Thames or other convenient body of water. Sandbagger One: I am considering resigning over Larry. Nel Gurgle: Damn. I won't stop you. Sandbagger One: Well, I won't resign until you can train Larry's replacement. Nel Gurgle: There won't be anybody qualified. Also I will expect you to emotionally invest in the replacement even though they will get killed in twenty minutes. Sandbagger One: I will promptly do so, and notify his parents of his death personally. [His parents swim around in a bowl, being goldfish, that being the only category of being left that Nel Gurgle has not gotten killed]

Seriously, it's as though they expected to spend half of every episode with us watching Kirk, Picard, or whoever getting all torn up about Ensign Redshirt. You can kill a dude every episode. Or you can spend all your time on Teh Grief 'N' Woez. But not both, Nel Gurgle! Not both!

Also, there is a completely loathsome series of exchanges between Nel Gurgle and his former father-in-law ("I object to people reminding me that he is my former father-in-law! Now I will use this relationship to my own ends!") wherein the former father-in-law is like, "Can't you at least meet my daughter for drinks? Because she wants to get back together, and she's driving me bazoo. And I will totally bribe you with foreign policy objectives just to get my obnoxious child out of my hair." And Nel Gurgle is like, "No way, dude, she is just too obnoxious even for foreign policy objectives." And dad-in-law is like, "Yeah, she is pretty obnoxious, due to the wanting you to do stuff outside work and craziness like that. Too bad she is my blood kin and I am stuck with her and could not, like, have raised her better and stuff!" And I watch these, and I think, "Run like the wind, ex-wife-slash-daughter! Run like the wind, British government! Obtain hobbies and/or civil servants who have the gumption to tell their relatives to get hobbies!"

And yet I appreciate the willingness to kill at least some named characters, which too much modern filmed spy fiction just does not have, and I appreciate moments where one obscure European spy group engages in kidnapping and skullduggery to pressure a random other European government to their own ends, and...yeah, there are definitely moments. But oh, Nel Gurgle...sometimes you need a good kicking, and angst is not the same.


[User Picture]From: carbonel
2012-03-15 05:45 pm (UTC)
I also have issues with the accent of the CIA agent. I've been assured he's really played by an American actor, but that is no southern accent I've ever heard.
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[User Picture]From: akirlu
2012-03-15 05:58 pm (UTC)
'Americans' in UK dramas of the period, and even later, all seem to have dodgy accents -- the 'American' newspaper publisher in House of Cards is similarly awful -- though some of the problem is inevitably that their dialog is supplied by British writers and so their word choice / phrasing is off. And I imagine they were stuck with American actors who had been working in the UK so long as to have gone a bit native. But also, as far as I can tell, there seems to have been a Great Leap Forward in accent coaching technology in the last decade or two. Certainly it's amazing how well Hugh Laurie manages to sound plausibly American these days compared to when he was doing "A Bit of Fry and Laurie," and it's almost alarming how many American characters are being played by Aussies, Kiwis, and Brits any more.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-03-15 07:06 pm (UTC)
I didn't interpret it as "Jeff is meant to be Southern." I interpreted it as "Jeff is meant to be American, and we have heard that they use words like y'all, which we do not."
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[User Picture]From: wshaffer
2012-03-15 09:12 pm (UTC)
I haven't seen Sandbaggers, but that would be very typical of British shows of the period. Another thing I've noticed is that one of the things the Brits find most distinctive about American accents is our use of long open vowels. Actors in British shows of that period seemed to emphasize those vowels in a way that sounds quasi-Southern to our ears, but was probably just supposed to convey 'American'.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-03-16 12:07 pm (UTC)
I sometimes make up accent origin stories for the "British" characters in US things. "She's really an Australian who worked as a washerwoman in Siberia for two years and is claiming to be from London because she thinks it sounds more respectable...."
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[User Picture]From: akirlu
2012-03-15 06:46 pm (UTC)
Hmmm. It's been a while since I watched my way through The Sandbaggers so I could be misremembering, but I could swear that Neil's responsibility for the female agent's death was a good deal more direct than anybody who dies subsequently, so you'd expect him to have a stronger visceral guilt response, and in a man presumably born in the '30s or '40s, attaching some of that guilt to the putative greater vulnerability and preciousness of female persons isn't exactly weird.

Also, when it comes to bringing in new agents, isn't that female agent also quite a lot less field experienced than some of the other Sandbaggers? In that case I'd expect his sense of reluctance to try again to stem from the same instinct that makes him very nearly equally reluctant to take on male newbies he regards as 'unqualified'. Yes, there's absolutely a Catch-22 in Neil's thinking -- how can anybody become 'qualified' if he won't take them on to let them try? -- but that seems to me illustrative of the untenable position Neil is in more generally. The Sandbaggers are expected to do Rolls-Royce spy work with less than a Ford Cortina budget, with masters who deliberately and almost systematically undermine the work, and with remarkably small technical and human resources to draw on. The show makes the job look nigh on to impossible.

That's in fact what I found most refreshing about the series: the way it serves as a deflating antidote to the James Bond mythos, particularly the James Bond films, of the same time period. In The Sandbaggers, the business of international spying is portrayed as not at all glamorous, as under-funded, subject to undermining by unrelated political and bureaucratic brangles at home, and as definitely not always successful. This portrayal runs completely counter to the vision of an aging Roger Moore or Sean Connery swanning about in a tuxedo with a supermodel on one arm and a rocket launcher in the other. Instead the offices are ugly and understaffed, the carpet is threadbare, the furniture dated, and the biggest issue of the day is not locating the secret underwater hide-out of the international criminal mastermind, but justifying the cost of commercial flights to get your agents where you need them in the field.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-03-15 07:05 pm (UTC)
He has her shot to protect what she knows. Directly and deliberately. But this is not out of line with how he behaves towards other agents, and she is exactly as inexperienced as pretty much all the other new agents. And when she dies, nobody blames it on her inexperience--nobody blames her behavior at all. Willie's tirade at Neil is about how it could have been him and when it Neil going to have him killed--which it wouldn't have been if he thought that Laura's inexperience had screwed things up.

So yes, he's in a catch-22 with "nobody is good enough or can ever get good enough," and that part is both more interesting and more sympathetic than, "Look, an accurate portrayal of one of the many factors leading to men of that era making excuses for standing in the way of women of that era and patting themselves on the back for it."
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[User Picture]From: dichroic
2012-03-15 08:03 pm (UTC)
It occurs to me that there are about three people (two of whom I've met once in person, one is an old friend) via whom I am probably 3 handshakes or less from the great majority of American fantasy and SF writers. elisem is one of those. It just seems like an oddly small group of people to be connected to so many. (I'd guess you are 1-2 handshakes from most of those writers, but you have met many more people in the SFF community directly.)
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[User Picture]From: dd_b
2012-03-15 08:42 pm (UTC)
The SF community is small and tightly bound, always has been.

The "handshake" is a very tenuous connection, anyway. I was two handshakes from both Chairman Mao AND Chiang Kai Shek (or whatever the preferred transliterations are), and I've never studied Chinese language or history (just their cooking, and that not formally). ("Was" since everybody involved except me is dead).
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[User Picture]From: dichroic
2012-03-16 07:41 am (UTC)
No more tenuous than the degrees of Kevin Bacon thing; I just picked up the "handshake" expression from Steven Jay Gould. I suspect I am about 3 degrees from Chiang Kai Shek, by virtue of having lived in Taiwan, but probably farther from Mao (come to think of it, I guess it could only be one degree farther, since they met each other).
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-03-15 09:53 pm (UTC)
Right; it's far more common for people to know others in their own profession than in the kind of books they like to read.
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