In "Flickers," the six-part "Masterpiece Theater" comedy premiering Sunday at 8 p.m. on Channels 26, 32 and other PBS stations, the central character is a shifty, crafty, slightly sleazy small-time operator named Arnie Cole who is trying to cash in on England's latest craze in the year 1910: primitive, and literally flickering, motion pictures.

"Cheeky blighter!" a waiter says of Arnie at one point; this is the least of it. Arnold at 40 has proven himself a master of the fast buck and the quick exit, a shameless but resourceful opportunist, a bounder, a scoundrel. Now the interesting, or maybe just curious, thing about this is, we have the direct spiritual descendants of Arnie running rampant right now in this country. They are known as cable TV operators and home video dealers.

These people are trying to cash in on a craze just as Arnie did, but that doesn't mean they're deplorable or dishonest. Just adept manipulators. Any new high-tech toy, especially one founded on an optical illusion, brings the schemers, mavericks and pirates out of the woodwork. It could be they are a necessary if distasteful part of the scenario of progress. They do the dirty work. And they are certainly cut out for it.

"Oh you're so uncouth. I find you utterly charmless," a haughty dowager named Maud tells Arnie upon meeting him in Part One. She later marries him, but only because she is pregnant as the result of a dalliance with a gigolo. Arnie has no redeeming moral value, but he has redeeming practical value--to this woman, and to the baby industry of which he is a conniving and totally selfish founding father.

Arnie's adventures make amusing, bemusing television, and touching human comedy. The first episode does not start off too promisingly; Roy Clarke's script seems to assemble a large number of unpleasant people who do nothing but snarl at each other. But Cyril Coke's sensitive direction softens much of the coarse cynicism, and the program truly comes to life with the entrance of Maud, who is played by an actress with the silent-movie real name of Frances de la Tour.

She's a regally homely tower of strength who looks a bit like, oh, Carol Burnett on a bad day and would be perfectly cast as a young Eleanor Roosevelt. And she gives the character of Maud profound dignity and poignance. "Over the years, I've been taught by my mirror that for me, the romantic would always have an element of farce," she says in Part One.

Host Alistair Cooke describes Maud, in his introduction to Part Two, as "intensely proper and intensely plain." When her new husband Arnie falls asleep at their wedding breakfast, she notes with resignation, "He promised me his name, not his attention." Arnie is played by Bob Hoskins, currently being acclaimed for his gangster portrayal in the theatrical film "The Long Good Friday," and this too is a masterfully consistent piece of work.

Other performances serve as illuminating details, including Joanna Foster as Clara Brewer, whose parents--a desperate father and a dithery, cotton-candy mother--are trying with a vengeance to make their own killing on the movies, chiefly through the deployment of another daughter (Tersa Coddling) as an over-aged tyke. Dickie Arnold plays the fast-fading Corky Brown, a comic actor whose monocle is painted onto his face, and Maxine Audley is wonderful, in later chapters, as a grand dame of the theater for whom the movies are an embarrassing step into the gutter, but also a desperately craved Last Chance for a tattered old doper.

Arnie, who wears his bowler even while shaving in the bathtub, is not precisely a crook; he lacks the magnitude of vision for that. But he is the conniving, pandering essence of show business, especially motion pictures--then and now--and the movies' successor as mass entertainer, television, including all its latest refinements. "Exploitation," after all, is not considered a dirty word in the movie business; in TV, they just call it "promotion." Arnie is a born exploiter. When, in Chapter One, an entire department store burns down because Arnie's highly flammable film stock had burst into flames, Arnie's only morning-after remorse is, "If we'd had a camera, we could have filmed that fire last night."

When, in the concluding sixth chapter (to be seen Sunday, June 27), a beloved though drunken old movie comedian dies, Arnie takes footage of the funeral and rushes it to London so it can play in the local cinemas. But then, this bit of enterprise catches the eye of an investor, and he helps put Arnie on the road to true prosperity. The death served a purpose of which even the clown might have approved.

"Flickers" is really about the way people and institutions exploit one another's vulnerabilities and fallibilities and how, though this may seem tawdry on the surface, good can come of it. In some Darwinian sense of the word, it may even be fair. Arnie qualifies as more of an expert on human nature than any philosopher (he may be kin to Alfred P. Doolittle, well-known layabout town); he not only seizes on the weaknesses of others, he helps them put those weaknesses to use.

Arnie knows that the worst in people can be as productively exploited as the best, and there does seem to be a lot more of the worst around.

This captivating, bittersweet comedy also has something to say about the nature of movies and the way they capitalize on the fears, hopes and gullibility of their exceedingly willing victims. Near the final moment of the film, a fledgling director tries to inspire actors engaged in make-believe swordplay on a phony set, telling them through his megaphone that even though what they're doing may appear ridiculous, "There's an audience out there waiting to believe in it, wanting to believe in it--the biggest audience the world has ever known!" That audiences is still there, waiting and wanting, and eager to be bamboozled.

"Frills and giggles--they can't get enough of 'em," says Arnie. The world will never lack for Arnie Coles.