Sleepers (1991)

Mini-Series 4 Episodes
Country: United Kingdom
Created by John Flanagan, Andrew McCulloch Nigel Havers, Warren Clarke, Michael Gough, David Calder, Joanna Kanska, Richard Huw, Christopher Rozycki Music by David Dundas and Rick Wentworth

Sleepers is a comedic BBC mini-series made after the fall of communism in Russia. At the time of it’s initial showing, the idea of presenting the culture clash as the agents on both sides come to terms with the new dynamic would have been fresh and at times, quite funny. But here we are, closing in on twenty years later, and the themes contained in this series just don’t hold as much water as they used to. That’s not to say that this series is bad. No, no – far from it – but some of its more biting observations have been dimmed by time and repetition in other shows.
The series opens in a mental hospital in Russia. A patient, Andrei Zorin (Michael Gough) is wandering around at night, ranting and raving. This will not be tolerated and two male nurses contain him and then strap him to a table. What has sent this man over the edge?

The titles then roll, and we are shown a montage of images from the sixties, including scenes of the weapons build up in Russia intercut with scenes of The Rolling Stones and the Beatles.
After the titles, we are in Moscow. We are told it is ‘Now’ – so around 1991. A secret room, that has been bricked in since the 1960’s is found in the Kremlin. A Russian Officer, Oleg Petrovski (Christopher Rozycki) walks into the dusty darkened room with a flashlight. As the light flickers around the room he discovers an artificial street with shopfronts, footpaths, cars, crossings, mailboxes and even mannequins standing in for the people. Albeit covered in dust and spiderwebs, it looks like a 3-D snapshot of swinging’ sixties Piccadilly Circus. At first the Russians surmise that the elaborate setup may have been for an Anti-British propaganda film, but this is soon dismissed. Why would they seal up a film set?

The room was in fact set up as a training ground for two KGB sleeper agents, Vladimir Zemenski and Sergei Rublev. In the room, they were to familiarise themselves with every aspect of swinging sixties British culture. But that was twenty-five years ago. What happened to the sleepers? Well now, one is Albert Robinson (Warren Clarke). He has a job at Braithwaite Brewery, and at home he has a wife and three kids. He is living your average working class life, but he is happy with his lot. The other sleeper is Jeremy Coward (Nigel Havers). Coward is a hotshot financier who pulls in 300,000 a year, drives a sportscar and is part owner in a race horse. Needless to say he is very happy with his adopted life.

The Russians first try to make contact by using old radios that the sleepers had been originally given when they were planted. Coward tossed his radio years ago. But Robinson still keeps his in the attic. He is quite dismayed; when after all these years the radio suddenly comes to life. He does not answer but decides to contact Coward.

Vladimir Zemenski and Sergei Rublev as they were once known, have not seen each other since they first arrived in the country, and when Robinson first arranges a meeting with Coward, Coward is quite annoyed to see his old comrade. His first reaction is a rather selfish one – but since he’s on a good wicket, why not? – he intends to kill Robinson and then leave the country. In the end though, Coward discovers that Robinson has no more desire to go back home than he does. After twenty-five years of the good life, why go back to a tiny concrete box in bitterly cold Russia? They decide to ignore the signals and requests and go back to their normal lives.

Unfortunately for Robinson and Coward, the Russians are adamant that they want their agents back and send Major Nina Grishina (Joanna Kanksa) to England to uncover the undercover agents and bring them back for debriefing. Instead, the two men choose to go on the run. This seems easier said than done, because not only are the men wanted by the Russians, but the attention they have received also puts them under the scrutiny of the C.I.A and M.I.6. With all sides chasing them it’s a mad and at times amusing scramble across the country.

Ah, but who is Andrei Zorin; the madman in the mental asylum? Well he’s the madman who put the sleeper plan into operation, without authorisation in the first place. And naturally, he knows more than he is telling.

In the end, Sleepers is an entertaining diversion. In it’s day, it was considered one of the better mini-series productions. Although not intentional, now it is an interesting time capsule looking back at the late eighties and early nineties. As with all things, over time attitudes and ideas change – not to mention fashion. Despite all this, the show succeeds on the strength of the performances by Nigel Havers and Warren Clarke.

Apparently Sleepers is available on DVD for those seeking it out, but apparently it has had to be modified from its original broadcast form for copyright reasons. I am guessing (I haven’t seen the new DVD) that this is because the use of some Beatles music in the opening scenes – much the same as the Beatles tunes were removed from the recent Billion Dollar Brain DVD. I don’t think the changes would diminish any viewing pleasure that this series is likely to bring.

Thanks to Mick

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