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
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.
||10 April 1991|
||The Net Tightens
||17 April 1991|
||On The Run
||24 April 1991|
||1 May 1991|