That grating sound you hear with increasing volume on Sunday nights is Masterpiece Theatre scraping the bottom of the barrel: Sleepers, its latest BBC offering, is a pleasant bit of whimsy made intolerable by being stretched out to four hour-long episodes.
Sleepers commences with a sitcom premise: Two Russian spies (Warren Clarke and Chariots of Fire's Nigel Havers) have been living in England since 1965. Sent in as ''sleepers'' (spy slang for long-term information gatherers), this duo has managed to remain so undercover that their own government has forgotten about them, and the spies couldn't be happier. Clarke's Albert Robinson is raising a family and working as a labor leader in a brewery; Havers' Jeremy Coward has hit it big as a London investment banker.
But in 1990, the existence of the two delinquent agents comes to the attention of the KGB by accident, and a huffy major played by Joanna Kanska is sent to drag them back home. Both our CIA and England's M15 become aware that something odd is up, and pretty soon these two innocent spies provoke international hugger-mugger a threat to post-Cold War glasnost.
Once the premise is set in place during the opening hour, it's just a matter of time before the two sleepers are caught by one or another of their pursuers, but writers John Flanagan and Andrew McCulloch drag out the minimal plot developments. Havers makes a beguiling British-Russian yuppie, and Clarke is amiably gruff, but nearly everyone else mugs and grimaces as if they were acting in one of those old Carry On movies. Too broad and too tedious, Sleepers is sleep-inducing. C-