In a headline-making interview given in March to Britain's Radio Times magazine, Stephen Fry, the British actor-writer best known in the U.S. for playing Jeeves to Hugh Laurie's Wooster in the "Jeeves and Wooster" comedies, exposed what he sees as a dirty little secret in the Anglo-American special relationship in film, TV and theater. "I shouldn't be saying this -– high treason really -- but I sometimes wonder if Americans aren't fooled by our accent into detecting a brilliance that may not really be there," Fry said, no doubt in his plummiest Oxbridge tones. "I mean, would they notice if Jeremy Irons or Judi Dench gave a bad performance?"
It's a valid question, and one that comes to mind big-time, albeit for a different reason, when watching "Sleepers." In this 1991 BBC miniseries about lingering intrigue at the end of the Cold War, some fine British actors portray Russians and Americans and employ some of the sorriest, most groan-inducing accents since the movies could talk. There's a long, inglorious history of Britons doing awful "American," from Benny Hill to "Monty Python's Flying Circus" to various ugly Americans in "Fawlty Towers" and, more recently, Mark Addy in the CBS sitcom "Still Standing" and Hugh Laurie in Fox's "House." Sorry, Laurie fans, but no creature on earth, let alone New Jersey, where "House" is set, speaks like this. (On the other hand, actors from Down Under, women especially, seem able to fool anyone into believing they're Yanks: Nicole Kidman, Naomi Watts, Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Jacinda Barrett, Melanie Lynskey, Portia de Rossi, Rose Byrne, and on and on.)
The chief oral offender in "Sleepers" is David Calder, who plays an old Soviet agent who has long been stationed in London, working under the cover of an American trade businessman. His Victor Chekhov ("no relation," he jokes when introducing himself) wears a Red Sox T-shirt while watching Boston games on TV and speaks, against all rules of baseball fandom, with some sort of Noo Yawk accent. Victor's young assistant, Igor Kostov, is played by Richard Huw, who sticks to plain old Slavic clichés.
They enter the story when they receive a surprise visit from a hard-line female agent from Moscow, Nina Grishina, who wants their help in finding two former Soviet agents whose apparent defection to England 25 years earlier has just been discovered. (Nina is played by a Polish actress, Joanna Kanska, so her over-the-top Russian-accented English is more forgivable.)
The accent problem is a shame, since the comedy-drama has an intriguing setup. The two ex-agents, suspected of being "sleepers" awaiting orders from either the Kremlin or Britain's MI-5, are Sergei Rublev, now called Jeremy Coward (played by Nigel Havers), a very successful and suave investment banker, and Vladimir Zelenski, a soft-hearted Manchester brewery foreman now known as Albert Robinson (played by Warren Clarke).
The two haven't seen each other since blending into English society in 1966, a year after leaving the USSR. But when the Soviet-issued radio transmitter Albert long ago stored in his attic starts sending messages out of the blue, the married father of three panics and phones Jeremy. The two meet and form a plan to remain safely in England, but they unwisely toss the radio transmitter in a canal and get themselves arrested, which eventually gets the attention of the determined Nina. Meanwhile, agents in London from both MI-5 and the CIA note the Russian spies' sudden activity in Britain, and before long, everyone is spying on everyone else as Jeremy and Albert try to elude them all. (The handsome Havers and the sad-sack Clarke, aside from a few brief exchanges in Russian, employ their own authentic if dissimilar English accents.)
The Cold War and the emotional toll it took on those who fought it has long been the domain of the great novelist John le Carre ("The Spy Who Came in From the Cold," "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," etc.), and "Sleepers," from an original teleplay by John Flanagan and actor-writer Andrew McCulloch, treads similar terrain, albeit with less complexity and more humor. (A running gag, such as it is, involves Albert's little daughter's stuffed monkey, which Albert has inadvertently taken with him when he leaves his family without explanation. He makes various attempts to send the fuzzy thing back to his girl but is repeatedly foiled.)
The focus of the world's concern has shifted substantially since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, with Cold War intrigues now seeming almost quaint. Despite its skillful storytelling and its compelling lead performances, "Sleepers," which was shown on "Masterpiece Theatre" in late 1991, can't quite overcome being, as the Brits say, past its sell-by date.
Acorn Media has done fine work in simply bringing British miniseries (especially those shown on "Masterpiece Theatre") to DVD, even if they offer few extras. The "Sleepers" DVD set is no exception. The two single-sided discs each contain two 50-some-minute episodes, presented in 4:3 full screen, with basic stereo sound and five chapter stops per installment. The transfer is decent and debris-free if unremarkable looking. The lone extras are filmographies of the lead actors; no subtitles, no closed captioning. The paperwork amounts to one sheet listing episode and chapter titles.
This well-plotted post-Cold War comedy-drama has solid performances by Nigel Havers and Warren Clarke as ex-Soviet agents whose well-established lives in England are threatened when their true identities are uncovered by Russian agents after 25 years. The miniseries is a must for "Masterpiece Theatre" collectors and Cold War history buffs, but its drawbacks -- chiefly some distracting attempts at American and Russian accents by the mostly British cast -- are not easily overlooked. For most viewers, it's a rental.