"An Englishman Abroad," airing under the oppressive "Great Performances" banner on PBS tonight, is a glib anecdote, nothing more, but at times piquant enough to be affecting. Some sort of history has been made by the broadcast, because it is, to quote the publicity, "the first-ever cable/public television joint premiere," having been seen on cable's Arts & Entertainment Network Tuesday prior to its showing at 9 tonight on Channel 26.
Alan Bennett's slim, mock-whimsical script is based on an encounter in 1958 between actress Coral Browne, who plays herself (and played boozy Vera Charles in the film version of "Auntie Mame"), and the notorious defector and spy Guy Burgess, played by Alan Bates. Considerably chubbed up for the part, Bates looks dumpily dissipated and behaves a bit like Hugh Herbert, the old Warner Bros. character actor who used to put the fingers of both hands together and go "whoo whoo" and "Oh my gracious." The point of the piece appears to be to offer an insight on A Life in Hiding, on the sweet agony of the utter outcast.
Sort of, "The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Traitor."
Writer Bennett and director John Schlesinger (who, after directing "Midnight Cowboy" and "Sunday, Bloody Sunday," fell on such hard times as "The Day of the Locust" and "Honky Tonk Freeway") certainly don't rush us into the story, but then there's little to be rushed into. As it opens, Burgess is falling asleep at a performance of "Hamlet" by a visiting British troupe in Moscow. Later he vomits in Browne's dressing room and steals her toiletries, thereby endearing himself to her forever, because, well, theater folk are so witty.
She treks out into the country to have lunch with him, the camera following every step of the way. There's about as much walking footage in this film as there is driving footage in your average American TV car hop. After lunch, she agrees to order him some suits in London. This shopping spree is also dramatized, and the film ends touchingly and even grandly with shots of Burgess in his new attire and an extremely appropriate musical commentary by way of Gilbert and Sullivan.
"I can't say that I love my country; I don't know what that means," Burgess tells Browne in his grubby Russian flat. They don't discuss his espionage at great length. Mostly they just have a civilized chat, the British putting such stock in civilized chats. "An Englishman Abroad," PBS notes, won a slew of awards when seen in its native country, which is really rather baffling, but absolutely insatiable Anglophiles may find it amusing nevertheless. There'll always be an England, yes, and there'll always be sex and spy scandals to keep the English titillated.