Great Performances pokes fun with the parody 'Sir Norbert'


"Sir Norbert Smith: A Life" sounds like just the sort of self-important biography of an upper crust British actor you'd expect to find on PBS' Great Performances, which is exactly where it will air at 10 o'clock tonight on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67.

But there is no Sir Norbert. This hour is a parody. Not only has Great Performances taken the highly unusual step of putting on something funny, it's actually poking fun at itself.

As conceived by Harry Enfield, who produced this for the BBC's Channel 4 and plays the title character, Sir Norbert never did anything worthwhile in his long career, but managed to be popular and well-known in spite of it.

He's now a dottering old picture of knighted senility, still much-beloved by his adoring England as he putters about his expansive house, unable to remember virtually anything about his life.

Though not every bit works, this is a clever and creative hour that is positively Pythonesque at moments.

Sir Norbert's version of Hamlet with additional dialogue by Noel Coward is also something of a landmark, as is the depiction of Michael Caine's first screen role, playing a dog.

Great Performances is one of those venerable PBS series that has remained laudable, but seemed content with its loyal audience. This season, it started out with a show about a capella music, and now a comedy. It's doing what PBS series have to do to survive, reaching out for new viewers, not by pandering, but by realizing that even old gems can have new facets.

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