Political satire is a genre best left to the British, as this weekend's new "Masterpiece Theatre" demonstrates once again.
Whether it's a lack of nerve in Hollywood, our incessant need to put everything in its proper drama-or-comedy category, or perhaps the inability of Americans to put aside their political passions for the purposes of entertainment, the closest we get to this art form is usually the odd episode of "The Simpsons." And they get away with it only because it's a cartoon.
But as "Sleepers," the four-part, four-hour production that begins Sunday night at 9 o'clock on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67, shows once again, the British love taking politics and putting it on a long skewer so it can be held over the coals until it turns red with embarrassment.
In this case, it's post-glasnost international relations that come under scrutiny. The opening scenes provide a mish-mash of images that take about 20 minutes to come together into a wonderfully clever premise.
You see a delirious man wandering about the bleak hallways of a mental institution; an earnest working-class Englishman worried about a strike at the brewery where he works; an odd discovery in a sealed-off basement of a Soviet government installation, a cobwebbed time capsule of full-scale scenes from Britain in the mid-1960s; a high-rolling investment banker making another killing for his London firm.
Soon enough you learn that the brewery worker and the investment banker are really Soviet spies who were sent to infiltrate the country on a long-term basis. They are what John LeCarre called moles; here, as Alistair Cooke explains in his introduction, they're called sleepers.
They were trained in that long-abandoned basement that replicated the England they would enter, complete with Beatles
records, mini-skirts and pictures of what many consider the high point of British civilization, winning soccer's World Cup in 1966.
The man in the mental institution turns out to have been the KGB officer who sent them. When he lost out in some power play or another, the two agents were forgotten about, left like Japanese soldiers on deserted Pacific islands after World War II, abandoned to the world of capitalism.
But instead of making their way back to the motherland, the two did quite well in their adopted homeland, thank you very much. Nigel Havers plays Jeremy Coward, previously known as Sergei Rublev, now an entrenched member of Britain's yuppie class that prospered in the Thatcher years. The world of finance has provided him with a Ferrari, a flat in London, a house in the country and several hundred thousand pounds a year.
Warren Clarke plays Albert Robinson, a.k.a. Vladimir Zelenek. He fell in love, married, fathered a couple of kids, works hard and is well-respected at the brewery. When, in the wake of the discovery of the abandoned '60s basement, the old radio in Robinson's attic briefly squawks into life, he fears that his dream is over and gets in contact with his former comrade.
Though they pretend otherwise for a few moments, Coward has no intention of trading in his Ferrari for a Lada, and Robinson wants to stay at home with his wife and kids.
This unlikely duo ends up on the road together, chased by a beautiful, no-nonsense KGB agent, Major Nina Grishina -- played by Joanna Kanska -- who has come to London to track them down. She finds her local Soviet contacts to be totally westernized, completely uninterested in her task, that is, until her search of the archives turns up a piece of film that decides once and for all whether England's disputed second goal in the 1966 World Cup final against West Germany actually crossed the line.
In any case, the presence of a KGB major attracts the attention of both Britain's M-1 intelligence outfit and the American CIA. They start chasing the chaser. What results is virtually a Keystone Cops caper as everyone involved time and again misinterprets information and stumbles their various ways to ridiculous conclusions and actions.
As "Sleepers" remains consistently amusing, it provides commentary on, among other things, the British class system, family fealty, the nouveau riche, all the intelligence agencies and their collective national personalities, and, perhaps most importantly, on the inability of people to shift their mindsets to fit a fast-changing world.
If "Sleepers" had been made in America, the targets of its satire would be more familiar, the accents would be easier to understand, and you would get all the in jokes. But, considering our track record with political satire, it also probably wouldn't be very good.