By Jerry Chandler
It was 1991. The Cold War was over, the era of glasnost was upon us, and the common wisdom coming from some corners was that the age of the contemporary Cold War spy story was over. Of course, that wasn’t true, and it certainly wasn’t true when the concept was handed over to clever writers for satire. One such result of that formula was Sleepers.
Sleepers opens in the (then) present day in a Russian mental hospital with a mental patient (Michael Gough) singing popular 1960’s English pop hits before getting dragged away by the attendants. It seems an odd introduction to the story, and it’s one that is quickly forgotten as the opening credits roll and the story moves on to more interesting and mysterious events.
The KGB is called to investigate an unusual occurrence. An old building being renovated has turned out to be more than what it seemed. The workers have discovered a large, hidden room. What makes the room so unusual and interesting is what’s inside it- 1960’s London.
The room is filled with recreations of scenes from London, ranging from streets and storefronts to mockups of the inside of the “typical” British home. Record players and a sound system recreate the sounds of London to go with the sights, and the world inside the room is populated with mannequins dressed up to be everything from children playing to Bobbies working the intersections. It’s quickly determined that the room was obviously some sort of training facility, but there are no records of its existence. Enter Maj. Nina Grishina (Joanna Kanska) to try and figure it out.
Even more troublesome for the KGB, when they actually discover records and files in the room, they only make the situation worse. The files indicated that it was indeed a training facility, but for what isn’t immediately clear. An immediate red flag to Grishina is the name Andrei Zorin (Michael Gough’s character briefly seen in the mental hospital in the opening act) listed as the head of the program. Zorin was a bit of a renegade in his day, and anything with his name on it could mean great trouble. More vexing to Grishina is the discovery of records for two young KGB agents- Sergei Rublev (Nigel Havers) and Vladimir Zelenski (Warren Clarke) -who don’t seem to exist in any Russian records after the 1960s.
The story switches to England, and we meet Albert Robinson. Robinson is a lager loving, blue collar, working class family man with a knack for handling disputes between management and the workers. He typically keeps a low profile, preferring to enjoy darts while watching the matches with mates and spending time with his family. He also happens to be Vladimir Zelenski.
In another part of England, we’re introduced to Jeremy Coward. Coward is a major player in investments, part of a firm that handles deals on a multinational level, and is a lover of the finer things that life among the most upper crust has to offer- from the fastest cars and finest foods all the way up to a string of girlfriends at his beck and call. He also happens to be Sergei Rublev.
Back in Russia, Grishina has begun to work out what Zorin’s operation was about. Rublev and Zelenski were trained to be long-term sleeper agents. They were trained to infiltrate England and await the signal to activate. The problem Grishina faces is that they can’t figure out what they were supposed to do when activated. Then they find information on a radio frequency.
Okay… This video you HAVE to watch. Feel free to look up the info he discusses. Too crazy sounding to seem to be true, but it largely is.
The decision is made to try and make contact with the long lost sleeper agents. They manage to make contact with Zelenski as he’s kept his radio in his attic for years. The contact is brief and incomplete, but it’s enough to send Zelenski out to make contact with Rublev.
Back in Russia, there’s absolute panic. They fear that they have in the time of glasnost activated two agents programmed in a far more adversarial era. It’s decided that Grishina will go to England and make contact with agents who now work there openly in order to find Zelenski and Rublev. However, they obviously don’t want British intelligence to know what’s going on. So, of course, their man in England, Victor Chekhov (David Calder), tells MI5 that they need a little help, maybe just a heads up on if they were captured or rubbed out years ago, on finding a couple of agents that they kind of, sort of “misplaced” for over twenty years and are only just now noticing that they’ve lost.
MI5, of course, doesn’t believe a word of it. They can find no record of either Zelenski and Rublev having ever been encountered or even having ever existed. Besides, the story is too farfetched. They’ve determined that this is obviously a scheme by the Russians to get intelligence on… something. But they’ll play along until they can figure out what the game is.
In the meantime, the CIA has decided that the sudden uptick in activity by both the KGB and MI5 is suspicious. Not having an actual clue what’s going on, they decide to involve themselves in whatever is happening. It’s a recipe that is guaranteed to make the Keystone Cops look competent.
Elsewhere, Zelenski finds Rublev and the two of them start planning how they’re going to hook up with the KGB to properly report in. Well, Zelenski does. Rublev has other ideas. He has no intention of giving up his high rolling life, and he’s fine with having to put a bullet in the back of Zelenski’s head to keep it. Except that standing by a river in a relatively isolated area- Rublev with gun in hand, Zelenski with his back to Rublev -Zelenski tells him to kill him. He doesn’t want to go back. The discovery that neither man wants to return to Russia, to lose everything they have, leads to them dumping the radio in the river and spending the evening getting blind drunk and then arrested for being blind drunk.
After being released, they go their separate ways. But Zelenski becomes aware that intelligence agents are now hunting them, and he gets back together with Rublev so the two of them can flee. This starts a madcap chase where no one involved, neither the many pursuers from all three intelligence agencies or the pursued, actually know just what the hell is going on or why. It’s a chase that starts in working class England and ultimately finds its way to Russia for revelations that are well worth the wait.
The writing is extremely well done. The characters work amazing well as individuals and when interacting with one another. The comedy can be both broad and on the sly, and the story also delivers some moving emotional moments as well. The cast- Nigel Havers, Warren Clarke, David Calder, Michael Gough, Joanna Kanska, Christopher Rozycki, Richard Huw, Angus MacInnes, Ricco Ross, Annie Hulley, and others -are all top notch and all make their characters come to life.
As far as stories of spies and spying go, this is a gem that- despite having a strong cult following -has been criminally overlooked by many. Well written, funny, moving, and an interesting and entertaining bit of parody looking at spy agencies trying to figure out their place in a world that has suddenly (from their perspective) turned upside down.
The DVD has gone out of print, but it can be found. It’s worth tracking down. Oh, and beyond all that, I just miss Alistair Cooke. He’s not on the DVD, but, hey…
Yup... You know this is the truth.
Jerry Chandler is a serious horror geek with a lifelong love of trying to find books and movies that can scare the spit out of him. When not watching and reading horror, he can sometimes be found helping to make horror with his filmmaking family in NC. He loves Halloween slightly more than Christmas, and almost as much as Dragon Con. When not writing here, he can be found at his other homes on the web by looking at his own blog, his Twitter, and his Facebook.