Director: Geoffrey Sax
Screenplay: John Flanagan, Andrew McCulloch
Producers: Caroline Gold
Starring: Nigel Havers, Warren Clarke, Michael Gough, Joanna Kanska
BBFC Certification: 12
Duration: 147 mins
Like the two forgotten KGB agents at the centre of its farcical storyline, Sleepers has been laying dormant and forgotten for many years. Like so many half-remembered mini-series, Sleepers was screened to positive responses in 1991 but rarely repeated since. Although this has resulted in it fading from most people’s memories, a handful of viewers who have spent the last couple of decades wishing they’d set their video recorders will be delighted by Simply Media’s new DVD release of this 4 part comedy-drama.
Sleepers begins with a fascinating sequence in which the KGB discover an old training facility filled with artefacts relating to 1960s London. With its dusty policeman mannequins and old record players that judder to life to the sound of The Beatles She Loves You, this sequence is the sort of vivid, bizarre opening that not only grabs the viewer immediately but that lingers in the brain long after, ensuring the cult status of Sleepers among those who saw it first time round. For the first of its four hour-long episodes, the series maintains this cryptic, unsettling atmosphere as we are introduced to two characters of whose significance we are unsure. Jeremy Coward (Nigel Havers) is a successful, sleazy big city financier while Albert Robinson (Warren Clarke) is a working class trade unionist with a council house and a family. It is hard to imagine what links these two characters and how their diverse lives fit in with the Russian training facility. Episode one drip feeds us information, slowly unspooling its premise in a manner that demonstrates just how entrenched in British life these two forgotten agents have become. When a communication on a transmitter in Albert’s attic sends the pair into a panic at the prospect of returning to their old lives and leaving behind what they’ve come to accept as their true identities, Jeremy and Albert at first try to make themselves invisible and, when that fails, go on the run together.
By the end of episode one, once the two leads have been reunited, Sleepers begins to take on a more standard comedy thriller style but, for all the farcical entanglements that emerge from the investigations of the KGB, CIA and MI5, not to mention the involvement of a liberal vicar and an apparently insane asylum inmate who speaks in quotations, Sleepers rises above its kind by combining broad gags with an underlying melancholy as Albert is forced to leave his family after trying everything to protect them from the perceived threat on the horizon. A symbol of this constant burden, as well as an indicator of Jeremy’s gradual thawing, is a stuffed monkey that belongs to one of Albert’s children and which the pair can’t seem to get rid of as Albert repeatedly tries and fails to send it safely back to its owner. It’s the sort of apparently superfluous plot wrinkle that elevates great drama above the ordinary. The monkey could easily be removed from the story but a healthy dose of its unique character would disappear as a result.
For the majority of episode three, the tone of the series has become primarily comic, with Havers and Clarke doing an odd couple routine as their various pursuers tie themselves in knots. Only the coldly determined Nina Grishna, an obsessive KGB agent played with gleeful severity by Joanna Kanska, shows any signs of actually making headway in her mission to catch the agents. But during the course of her investigation, her priorities begin to shift and she comes to question her work and the effect it is having on her personal life. Plot strands like Nina’s help Sleepers maintain some of the complexity it threatens to lose as the tone broadens, although there is a sense that a greater writer like Alan Bleasdale may have been able to explore the psychological implications more intriguingly without diminishing the entertaining comedic elements. Nevertheless, despite a rather disappointing ending which veers into some rather unearned, grandiose displays of sentimentality, John Flanagan and Andrew McCulloch have done a great job with the script which feels like something of a pet project amidst their jobbing submissions for shows such as Heartbeat, Pie in the Sky and Boon. In an era that saw some of the best British TV drama ever produced, Sleepers may not be in the upper echelons but it is certainly a cut above the more mundane series TV that replaced TV plays in the 90s. I join the hopefully swelling ranks of people who are very glad this entertaining series has finally been woken up.
Sleepers is released on DVD by Simply Media on 24 October 2016.