Newton's laws of television


An overview by Matthew Newton

One of the most significant developments in British television in the 1980s was the emergence of the independent production company, first encouraged by the creation of Channel Four. One company that made an impression during the early 90s was Cinema Verity, created by Verity Lambert, one time secretary at ABC Television, first producer of Doctor Who and guiding light of Euston Films. Amongst Cinema Verity's productions have been the excellent and very successful comedy May To December, the not so excellent Boys From The Bush and Eldorado, which they were only partly involved with, for the BBC and the Peter Howitt vehicle Coasting on ITV. But probably the most ambitious project they produced was the one that concerns us here - a seemingly big budget comedy drama serial called Sleepers.

The first of four episodes premiered on 10th April 1991 on BBC2, when after a montage title sequence of shots from the 1960s; Bobby Moore lifting the World Cup, a Mini Cooper and Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull amongst other; we are treated to a very intriguing opening when a hidden room is discovered beneath the Kremlin in Moscow. The room is a complete recreation of 1960s Britain, with mock up streets and houses, all populated by mannequins. Power is turned on to the room and we get a very eerie scene as a record player starts playing a Beatles track as a mystified Russian officer wanders around the cob-webbed mock-ups. There is even place for a subtle in-joke as a television turns on, showing the title sequence to the 60s BBC series Adam Adamant Lives!, which was produced by one Verity Lambert and featured a littoral sleeper in the form of a 19th century adventurer who is frozen in time only to awake in the 1960s.

This scene is the key to the series, and through the investigations of the KGB in Moscow we learn the basic plot of the serial. In 1966, a mission was inaugurated by an official named Zorin where two KGB agents were to be placed in Britain as normal British citizens, one in the industrial north and the other in the commercial south, but due to circumstances they have been forgotten about for the last 25 years. In that time, the agents have changed a lot and are now as British as the British themselves; one is now living as Albert Robinson, a Union official at a factory in Eccles, happily married with three children, the other is now Jeremy Coward, a high flying yuppie in the financial world in London.

When one of Albert's children accidentally activates his long forgotten radio in his attic, Albert hears a Russian voice calling him. This is a moment that is to change the lives of Albert and his family for some time. Panicked by this communication, Albert makes contact with Jeremy, who is somewhat surprised to hear from him. They arrange to meet. In Moscow, the KGB decide that it is time to bring in these sleeping agents, and Major Nina Grishina flies to London, to join the local KGB agents in trying to find them. The arrival of a top ranking official intrigues both CIA and MI5.

The remainder of the plot is basically a run around, with Albert and Jeremy being pursued by Major Grishina, who in turn is being followed by the local security services, trying to work out what is going on. As such, the plot is not terribly original, but it is the light touch that is brought to everything that makes the serial such a delight. An example of this is a wonderful running joke that follows the series; it is established that Albert's young daughter is very attached to a toy monkey called Morris, who inadvertently ends up in her father's car when he goes to meet Jeremy. Morris then remains with the two agents throughout the four episodes, as Albert tries to find time to send him back home and he gets quite upset when he thinks that the monkey has been left behind somewhere. As such, Morris becomes a symbol of the series, and is present in many scenes, if only lurking in the background.

Another well done part of the scripting is the wonderful deliberate stereotyping of the security services. The CIA are loud mouthed Americans who swear a lot and drive round in huge black cars, whereas MI5 drive Metros and are forever getting totally the wrong idea about what Major Grishina is up to. It is really the KGB who come off best, and actually become quite likable characters, with even the seemingly ruthless Major Grishina showing a softer side in the last episode.

The serial was written by John Flanagan and Andrew McCulloch, known to Doctor Who fans for creating a talking cactus called Meglos, and who had written Coasting for Cinema Verity. Sleepers is surely the best thing that they have written, achieving perfectly the careful balancing act between the seriousness and lightheartedness of the plot. Both writers actually appear in the series; Flanagan is a private detective hired by Albert's wife to try and find him, not believing her mother's claims that he's run off with another woman, and McCulloch is a friend of Jeremy Coward, a city drop-out now running island tours in north Scotland and who betrays the agents to the KGB.

The series was originally developed for a company called Flickers Productions. However, this company went bankrupt before production could commence so Flangan and Mulloch took the completed scripts to Verity Lambert at Cinema Verity.

Stars of the serial are Nigel Havers and Warren Clarke as the two agents, both perfect for the parts. Havers' Jeremy Coward is an unlikable sort for much of the story, and a complete contrast to Clarke, who makes Albert likable and caring throughout. Pursuing them is Polish actress Joanna Kanska as Nina Grishina, known for her parts in A Very Peculiar Practice and Capital City. The UK based KGB agents are played by David Calder, a respected stage actor who had starred in Star Cops, and Richard Huw, who earlier in the same year had had the pleasure of playing a character called Wim in a revival of Van Der Valk. Also appearing is Michael Gough, in another of the strange old men roles that he made his own prior to becoming Batman's butler. He played Andrei Zorin, the man behind the scheme back in 1966, who has been assigned to a Soviet version of a mental hospital where he talks incessantly in British television phrases from the sixties.

The serial maintains its standards up until the last episode, when the two agents are finally caught by the KGB and shipped back to the Soviet Union. Here they are given the opportunity to work for the State, as their experiences would be useful. But both refuse; they are now no longer KGB agents; they are British and want to return home. As a result they are sent for execution, and it does appear that our two heroes have been killed, until it is revealed that this was just a plan engineered by Zorin, now out of hospital and in charge of the operation, to kill off their Soviet identities allowing them to return back to Britain. So we get the anticipated happy ending, with Albert returning to his worried wife and finally returning Morris to his daughter, and Jeremy returning to his office, determined to make things up with Alison, a colleague with whom he shares more than a working relationship.

So after four very entertaining episodes Sleepers drew to a close. The serial was hidden away on the BBC's second channel, where it drew only around 3 million viewers. As such, it was something of a hidden gem that is not often remembered today.

Thanks to Neil Richards, script editor of the series.

Episode List
1 The Awakening 10 April 1991
2 The Net Tightens 17 April 1991
3 On The Run 24 April 1991
4 Welcome Home 1 May 1991

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Copyright MJ Newton 2003. All rights reserved.
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