November 19, 1990 12:00 PM

PBS (Fri., Nov. 16, 9 P.M. ET)


One format that is conspicuously absent from the American airwaves is parody, a curious void when you consider how ripe TV should be for making fun of itself.

Our cousins across the pond, on the other hand, are wicked wizards at the art, as this British biographical spoof for Masterpiece Theatre reminds us. It is a scabrously funny, mock-reverent look at the life and career of a venerable old actor.

You see a senile Sir Norbert doddering around his country estate, hacking up his shrubbery with shears, pulling forgotten cups of tea out of his medicine cabinet and offering up warped memories. A cavalcade of wonderful clips makes it clear that he was in even worse shape in his prime.

Sir Norbert appeared in everything from Shakespeare to Westerns, played everyone from Mozart to Nelson Mandela, butchering all with the same glorious ineptitude. Various old friends turn up to make uncomplimentary statements, and even the narrator turns on him at times. For instance, when Smith begins hitting the bottle, the voice-over notes, “Like many actors, Sir Norbert had always had a problem of not knowing who he was, but now he also had the problem of not knowing where he was, how he got there, or why there were two of everything.”

Comedian Harry Enfield plays Smith, and, in a nice nudge, the interview is conducted by Melvyn Bragg, who anchored the solemn Laurence Olivier: A Life in 1985. You don’t have to get that in-joke to appreciate this marvelous jape.

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