Saturday, February 9, 2008

Sleepers, Moles, and The Piglet Files: British Spy Comedies on U.S. DVD

In America, TV spy comedies have not always been a rich barrel of laughs. Of course, the bar was set very high in 1965 with Get Smart!, the standard by which everything since has been measured. We got the forgotten Double Life of Henry Phyfe and occasionally short-lived offerings like the Canadian produced Adderly. Mostly, we got a plethora of children’s shows from Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp to The Adventures of Dynamo Duck. Not until Seth MacFarlane’s 2005 animated American Dad! did U.S. viewers get another long-running half-hour satire of the espionage genre. In the main, TV spy humor has been an ingredient in cliché ridden hour-long “dram-odies” of varying quality as in NBC’s 2007 recycling of old premises—Chuck-- and USA’s clever summer series, Burn Notice.

Not so in England. Of course, they’ve created the lion’s share of the best spy dramas ever aired from Danger Man to The Sandbaggers to Reilly, Ace of Spies. They’ve given us the templates for the best in escapist fare from The Avengers to Department S to The Saint. Along the way, U.K. studios have produced nuggets few Yanks have seen or even heard of beyond the devoted followers of cult TV. How about Jason King or The Top Secret Life of Edgar Briggs? In Britain, they’ve enjoyed DVD releases of many of their homegrown favorites like Man in a Suitcase and The Ghost Squad. They even beat Hollywood to the punch, issuing The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movies still not available on this side of the pond.

But, of late, some notable comic DVD nuggets have come out suitable for region 1 players, available for purchase or rental via Netflix. Here are two offerings worthy of any lover of witty yarns and satirical digs into the ribs of British—and American—intelligence.

The Piglet Files

For decades, PBS stations have thrived on Saturday and Sunday evenings re-broadcasting classic British sit-coms. Monty Python, Good Neighbors, To the Manor Born, and Keeping up Appearances have all enjoyed long shelf-lives and been the focus of many an annoying pledge drive. But public broadcasting missed a good bet by not offering The Piglet Files.

Originally broadcast from Sept. 7, 1990 to May 10, 1992, 21 half-hour episodes were produced by London Weekend Television. For three years, ITV aired 7 of these satires each season centered on gawky gadget expert Peter "Piglet" Chapman (Nicholas Lyndhurst). Chapman was drawn into the world of espionage at a time when the Cold War was winding down and Britain’s professional spies were falling behind in technical competence.

Billed as “A spy in search of a clue,” Chapman was not the only secret agent worthy of this description. In the pilot, “A Question of Intelligence,” aristocratic MI5 chief Major Maurice Drummond (Clive Francis) became exasperated with his agents’ ineptitude in surveillance missions. When asked to monitor one suspected home of a Russian spy, for example, they discover they are not only watching the wrong house, they are watching it from inside the very house supposed to be under surveillance. When asked to place a bug inside the wall of another home, his agents mortar in the receiver instead of the microphone.

In scripts by Brian Leveson and Paul Minett, Drummond decided to solve these problems by having local university professor Chapman fired from his job so he has no choice but to agree to become a technological trainer for the agency. Delighted to become a spy of sorts, Chapman insists on a code-name, even though no one else is using one. MI5 finds the last available designation—the embarrassing “Piglet.” Chapman would quickly rue the day he accepted that moniker.

Modest and average in intelligence, Chapman was smarter than most of his co-workers, but only by degrees. They included Major Andrew Maxwell (John Ringham) and the buffoonish Dexter (Michael Percival). Piglet’s wife, Sarah (Serena Evans), was convinced her husband was having affairs as he tried to keep his secret life hidden from her. Throughout the series, she found herself screaming in frustration when she can’t get simple answers to simple questions, even when she is kidnapped and no one will tell her why.

Outside of Get Smart!, not many spy shows have a laugh track—or deserve one. But with a mix of witty dialogue, Unusual scenarios, and characters that turn the realm of John Le Carre on its head, it’s hard not to join in with the taped audience response. Perhaps the post-Cold War scripts are a bit dated, but only by a degree or two.

The major quibble I had with the May 2003 DVD release of the first season from Bfs Entertainment is that, for some reason, each disc only has three or four episodes. Why not all 21 episodes in a full box set? Despite this strange packaging, The Piglet Files is well worth exploring and adding to your espionage collection.

Trivia notes: The original Music for the series was provided by Rod Argent, a former hitmaker with the groups The Zombies and Argent. An accomplished caricaturist, Clive Francis’s humorous drawings of himself and Lyndhurst can be seen in the show's credits.


In the case of Sleepers, PBS didn’t miss the boat. From Oct. 27 to Nov. 17, 1991, this high-quality miniseries was aired on Masterpiece Theatre after it was broadcast on the BBC in the spring of that year. In a far different vein from Piglet, the satirical plot of Sleepers is more like a well-done adaptation of a well-written novel. Still, like Piglet, it satirizes the post-Cold War intelligence realm in which international spy agencies don’t
seem to know exactly what the adversary is doing—or why.

In the first episode, “”The Awakening,” an opening montage use stock footage from the 1960s (showing then Prime Minister Harold Wilson, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev among others) to evoke the year 1966. Then, 25 years later, a hidden room is discovered beneath the Kremlin, revealing a complete recreation of a 1960s British town.

In the script by writers John Flanagan and Andrew McCulloch, the puzzled Reds investigate the room and uncovered a long-forgotten plot by Andrei Zorin (Michael Gough) to place two sleeper agents in Britain, one in the industrial north, the other in the commercial South. From the point of this discovery, a chain of events spins out in many comic directions involving the Russian secret services, the American CIA, and the British MI-5. All of them are uncertain of what is happening with many misinterpretations of what they’re finding.

At the center of the storm are the two agents who, after 25 years, have become British in every way and have no desire to be KGB agents. Vladimir Zelenski is now Albert Robinson (Warren Clarke), a Union official at a factory in Eccles, happily married with three children. Sergei Rublev has become Jeremy Coward (Nigel Havers), a great capitalist success in London. Meanwhile, Zoran has been living in an insane asylum and still carries his secrets.

Then, one of Robinson’s children accidentally activated his antique radio in his attic, and the sleeper was surprised to hear a Russian voice commanding him to reactivate his life as a spy. He ran to meet with his old contact, and the pair learn Major Nina Grishina (Joanna Kanska) is flying to London to bring them home. Her arrival prompted both the CIA and MI5 to investigate what the KGB is after. Things just don’t add up. Why would two ordinary Brits do a Cossack dance on a dam after throwing an old radio into the water? Why is Robinson determined that he keep track of his daughter’s toy monkey, “Morris,” which was left on his car seat when he left home? Why is a top security KGB agent poking around sleepy English hamlets and why does the CIA care? This is no place for spoilers—suffice it to say Acorn Media released the mini-series on DVD and it’s a genuine nugget.

For trivia buffs: Warren Clarke’s other espionage roles included work for The Avengers, Callan, and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.


The Piglet Files

According to

The Piglet Files is currently out of stock. However, I can attest that

has the series for rent. Another favorable review is posted at: -


Amazon has both used and new copies for sale:

And Netflix has the two discs for rent.

For other reviews of TV, literary, film, and even radio spies—check out—