Weekend brings 3 fine shows from Britain


November 29, 1991|By Michael Hill

You can tell the November sweeps month is over -- there are no gruesome stories of intra-family murder on the tube this weekend. Instead, December begins with a surprising amount of good television.

Actually, the first dose of welcome post-sweeps fare is on the last day of November as NBC's "Dame Edna's Hollywood" will be on Channel 2 (WMAR) tomorrow night at 10 o'clock.

Dame Edna is something of a phenomenon in Britain where everybody who is anybody just has to be on her talk show, or, as they call it on that side of the Atlantic, chat show. But Dame Edna's version of this television staple is something between Johnny Carson and Second City, a combination celebrity interview/improvisational comedy routine.

Dame Edna, you see, is actually a 57-year-old Australian man named Barry Humphries, who puts on an outlandish dress, an astounding pair of eyeglasses and the airs of superstar aristocracy before taking on the rich and famous.

The results are positively Pythonesque. At its base, this is pure British burlesque -- it's a man in drag, after all. But constructed on that farcical foundation is a brilliant analysis of the upper-class attitude that appears to be self-effacing but actually is self-aggrandizing, and mean, to boot.

Dame Edna pulls this off with a rapier wit, a penchant for the exceedingly clever double entendre, and a marvelous sense of the absurd that Humphries must have developed during his years as a champion of Dada art.

The first 10 minutes of tomorrow's program are stunningly hilarious; after that, it's merely very good. Cher is the featured guest, sticking around for the entire hour during briefer appearances by Mel Gibson, Bea Arthur, Jack Palance and Larry Hagman.

Two programs on Sunday night are worthy of note. Hallmark Hall of Fame shows up on CBS with "One Against the Wind," a two-hour movie that will be on Channel 11 (WBAL) at 9 o'clock.

This is the based-on-fact story of Mary Lindell, a British-born woman who married into French aristocracy and found herself in Paris after it was taken over by the Nazis at the beginning of World War II.

Acting on impulse one day, she saves an escaped British soldier from certain detection by the Germans and finds herself the engineer on an underground railway that took downed Allied fliers south through Vichy France and into Spain.

"One Against the Wind" then follows her suspenseful story of intrigue, imprisonment, her own escape to Britain and voluntary return to France, and, finally, her second capture and journey to Auschwitz.

The film has a bit of trouble as it tries to balance its biographical needs (you never do really learn who her husband was or how she ended up in France), its suspense story (for a while you don't know if she's sneaking people over the border to Vichy France or Spain) and its personal tales (her daughter's romance with a --ing German officer comes and goes as the plot requires).

But, more than keeping your interest throughout is the smashing performance of Judy Davis in the lead role, the always-dependable Sam Neill as the pilot she first frees and who then monitors her progress, and attractive location filming in Luxembourg, which does a fine job of substituting for Paris and the other French locales.

Davis projects Lindell's independent-minded character from the first moment you see her on the screen. Throughout the two hours, you never see this woman as some supercilious do-gooder, but rather as one tough human being who does what she thinks is right no matter what others might think is appropriate behavior.

Also at 9 o'clock is a marvelous one-part Masterpiece Theatre, "She's Been Away," the last filmed work of the late Dame Peggy Ashcroft. Unfortunately, Maryland Public Television has opted to pre-empt this excellent two-hour movie -- and an eight minute tribute to Ashcroft -- for yet another rerun of "Anne of Green Gables." But it is available on Channel 26 (WETA) out of Washington, which is on area cable systems.

Ashcroft plays Lillian, a woman whose off-kilter exuberance got her sent to an asylum in Victorian times. Now nearly catatonic, she is being taken out 60 years later by her totally yuppified nephew and his social mannequin of a wife.

It turns out that Lillian and that wife, wonderfully portrayed by Geraldine James, face similar social barricades, eventually embarking on their own crazed "Thelma and Louise"-like journey.

All three of these top-notch shows have a common thread -- Britain, which supplied stars, actors, production companies, whatever. That tells you one thing; they probably don't have sweeps months in England.

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