Entertaining and sumptuously bizarre look at upper-middle-class English life from Stephen Poliakoff, seen through the eyes of minor Soviet official Alexei Varyov (Ian Holm). Living quietly by himself in a west London compound with other Russian journalists and civil servants, Alexei’s rather humdrum life of typing up Time Out-style articles for the Soviet press, with a side-line in posting videotapes of British TV to Russian broadcasters made from the twin VCRs in his flat, is livened up with a hefty dose of Cold War paranoia.
While sending some tapes of Top of the Pops abroad on an Aeroflot charter flight, he’s accosted at Heathrow by upper crust, impetuous foreign office agent Harman (Nigel Havers) who, after a rather showy demonstration of the reasons he was, entirely coincidentally, at the airport, drags Alexei off in his car to the early Sunday morning remains of a party at a Hampstead flat, where two young women Frances (Celia Gregory) and Celia (Helen Mirren), as well as assorted hangers-on including Rupert Everett, regard the nervous Russian with a mixture of suspicion and condescension.
After a greasy spoon breakfast, Alexei ends up offering the girls a lift to a Sussex wedding in a huge Russian-built car from the compound, at which he proceeds to get drunk, and stumbles away from the party to his car, where Celia just happens to be there, asking for a lift back. Driving drunkenly home, and convinced he’s being followed, Alexei blacks out for a second and crashes the car. No-one’s badly hurt, and Ceila, oddly, doesn’t seem to mind.
Back at his office, he explains to her his certainty that the foreign office are hounding him in an attempt to get him sent back home, an outcome he’s actually quite keen on, and his intention to play along with the game by behaving slightly recklessly (tearing up parking tickets etc.) so he’ll get kicked out before his posting is up. Then follows a strange encounter with Celia’s mother (who appears not to be as close to her daughter as one would expect) and a row at Frances’ flat (which stops the minute they think he’s left the room). Alexei finds Celia in the grim-facaded Cunard hotel, where he’s amazed to find out she works as a waitress. He takes her back to the compound and, after a rather awkward scene in the common room where the other occupants badger them, assuming she’s a Russian air stewardess, they sleep together. They agree to meet at a café the next week, but Celia doesn’t show, and when Alexei tries to contact the flat, he gets an answer phone message – which only seems to start up after a pregnant pause to confirm his identity.
Eventually he gets into the flat, and is confronted by a hateful Frances, who claims ignorance of any part in a ‘conspiracy’, as does a visibly agitated Harman when Alexei bursts into his Whitehall office. Finally, two agents (one of them Chris Langham) pick up Alexei in a cinema queue, and he settles down in their office for his triumphant interrogation – only it turns out they’ve got the wrong man. Worse, he discovers to his horror that he’s ‘of no importance’ to the foreign office. His requests for dismissal in the past were only denied because the Whitehall lads found him a useful source of taped TV programmes.
His comforting conspiracy shattered, he finally finds Celia in hospital – feeling adrift and alone amongst the chattering classes to which she didn’t really belong, she tried to kill herself. Noting the paltriness of his own silly sense of alienation compared to her far more serious case (‘To be alone and a stranger in a foreign city is bad, but to feel a stranger in your own city must be very frightening’) he walks off into the night with Celia’s distressed mother.
Poliakoff and director Charles Sturridge give this human take on Cold War paranoia an amazing, woozily odd feel, by showing the most mundane of locations – an airport backroom, café, half-furnished office etc. – as they appear to Alexei – foreign, exotic, and charge with a thrilling sense of menace, a suspicion that everything going on is being staged for him. There are moments of high comedy, too – Alexei is accosted by various curious and clueless guests at the wedding (including a daffy Thorley Walters: ‘Never met a live Russian before. They allow you out, do they? Extraordinary.’) and a dream sequence where an FO official (appropriately enough, Desmond ‘Q’ Llewellyn) interrogates Alexei with a stuffed armadillo on his desk, and then asks the ‘brilliant author’ if he would like to sign a few dozen of his books for his Whitehall fans.