Back in the mid 1960’s, Russian spymaster Andrei Zorin (Michael Gough) sent two Soviet moles to Britain. As “sleeper” agents, their mission was to assimilate themselves into British society and await further orders. But those orders never came ….
Fast-forward twenty five years and the two agents, Sergei Rublev (Nigel Havers) and Vladimir Zelenski (Warren Clarke), have gone native so successfully that they’re now indistinguishable from the real thing. Both have flourished in the capitalist West – Rublev, today known as Jeremy Coward, is a successful investment banker whilst Zelenski, now going under the name of Albert Robinson, is a happily married man with three children, holding down a job in a Manchester brewery.
The last thing they want to be reminded of is their murky Soviet past, but when Albert’s secret Soviet radio suddenly starts transmitting it seems to spell the end of their British adventure. Albert contacts Jeremy (the pair hadn’t met since parting shortly after their arrival in the UK) and together they ponder their next move. But the arrival of the hardline Major Nina Grishina (Joanna Kanska) spells further trouble for our two hapless heroes …
Broadcast across four episodes during April and May 1991, Sleepers is a fondly remembered comedy drama by John Flanagan and Andrew McCullough. Flanagan and McCullough continue today to hold down dual jobs as actors and writers (both took the opportunity to act in Sleepers). Their first joint writing credit was the 1980 Doctor Who story Meglos and they would go on to contribute to a number of popular series such as Robin of Sherwood, Boon, Pie in the Sky and Peak Practice..
Much of the appeal of Sleepers rests upon the performances of Nigel Havers and Warren Clarke. Havers (b. 1949) had built up a solid list of credits throughout the 1970’s, but it would be during the 1980’s – with films such as Chariots of Fire and diverse television series like Don’t Wait Up and The Charmer – that he’d really become established as a leading actor.
Clarke (1947 – 2014) was incredibly busy during the 1970’s and 1980’s, racking up an impressive list of appearances in both films and television series (A Clockwork Orange, The Sweeney, The Onedin Line, Minder, Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, Reilly: Ace of Spies, The Jewel in the Crown, etc etc) without ever really becoming a leading man – that would come later with Dalziel and Pascoe (1996 – 2007).
It’s the contrast between Rublev/Coward and Zelenski/Robinson which really appeals. One was sent up North and the other established himself in the South. There’s the lovely possibility that if Jeremy had gone to Manchester then he’d be speaking like Albert now and vice-versa. That might have been interesting to hear, but it was probably safer that both actors played to type!
Back in 1991, the Cold War was definitely thawing, which meant that many spy stories began to look backwards to the good old days of the 1960’s and 1970’s. This sense of past glories is touched upon in the opening episode, The Awakening, after a secret room beneath the Kremlin is found to contain a replica of an English town. Covered in cobwebs, it’s a perfect time capsule of the mid sixties. As the power is restored, a record player springs back into life with She Loves You by The Beatles playing, whilst Adam Adamant Lives! flickers into life on a tiny black and white television.
Such a construction may seem far-fetched, but there’s evidence to suggest that such places existed and were invaluable in training agents (plenty of examples can be found in fiction, from the Danger Man episode Colony Three to the Jack Higgins novel Confessional).
Quite how this ghost town was suddenly discovered or why Nina and Oleg PetrovskI (Christopher Rozycki) are so interested in it is a bit of a mystery. If it was a training ground for an operation decades ago, why should it be important now? Nina visits Zorin, but he’s nothing more than the shell of a man – babbling about 1960’s popular culture (quoting from A Hard Day’s Night and the Billy Cotton Band Show).
The gorgeous Joanna Kanska is suitably intimidating as the ice-cold KGB Major Nina Grishina . Arriving in Britain, she heads off to speak to Victor Chekhov (David Calder), their man in London. Calder essays a fairly broad performance as possibly not the most convincing Russian ever. For some reason he seems to have more of an American accent than a Russian one.
Nina and Victor couldn’t be more different. Victor considers that the Cold War is well and truly over and so asks both the CIA and MI5 for their assistance. Nina is horrified (to her, both are still the enemy) but involving both the Americans and British helps to ramp up the comedy. This is particularly evident with the cash-strapped MI5, where even fairly low-key expenses (a meal at Burger King) are examined very closely. In future the agent is advised to “stick to coffee. I want a bit less of these flame-grilled Whoppers.”
Once Albert and Jeremy meet up, the story can really start. Albert doesn’t want to return to Russia since he can’t bear the thought of being parted from his wife and children. Jeremy might not be married but he’s got plenty of good reasons to want to stay as well. “I’m on 300 grand a year. I’ve got a flat in town, a cottage in the country, a string of girlfriends and half a bloody racehorse. Think I’m going to give it all up for a bowl of red cabbage and a bedsit in Vladivostok?”
It’s undeniable that the plot is a little contrived in places, this is never more evident than when Albert and Jeremy decide to chuck the radio transmitter in the river and then do a Cossack dance to celebrate. After they’re arrested by the police, Jeremy tells the constable that they’re the Moscow State Circus (!). It’s difficult to believe that two trained (albiet very rusty) agents would behave so rashly, especially by mentioning Russia.
Sleepers sets up various mysteries, such as why Albert and Jeremy were in the crowd at the 1966 World Cup final. It’s amusing that the Russian archive film shows the disputed England goal at quite a different angle, something which Chekhov decides he can turn to his advantage. But British Intelligence, who are monitoring him, get quite the wrong end of the stick and decide that it’s all part of a Moscow plan to destabilise British society with the help of football hooligans!
As might be expected with a spy story, not everything in Sleepers is quite as it first appears, something which becomes very apparent in the closing episodes, whilst various running gags – such as Boris, a toy monkey owned by Albert’s daughter – also help to enliven proceedings. And whilst the serial may have a comic feel, there’s also various dramatic beats scattered throughout the four episodes – these are used to break down the facades that Albert and Jeremy have built around themselves.
Ironically, Albert’s not good at keeping secrets. His wife instantly senses that something is wrong, although she jumps to the conclusion that he’s having an affair. Clarke is excellent as the conflicted Albert, as is Havers as the apparently more confident Jeremy. But Jeremy too is racked by doubts as his past returns to haunt him.
Sleepers is a confident comedy thriller which features British, American and Russian intelligence agents all chasing different agendas, some of which are completly illusionary. With the luxury of four episodes it has the time to develop character and incident at a leisurely pace, although it never feels drawn out.
Sleepers is released by Simply Media on the 24th of October 2016. RRP £19.99.