TV Reviews : The Scandal in 1880s That Rocked 'Parnell'

He was a hypnotic Irish leader, ice-cold and arrogant, blazing a path toward Irish independence. She was a vivacious aristocratic Englishwoman. Their illicit liaison in stuffy Victorian England scandalized the British Empire and, say historians, directly led to the "troubles" in Northern Ireland today.

Charles Stewart Parnell and his paramour, Katherine O'Shea, are the fascinating subject of "Parnell and the Englishwoman," a four-part Masterpiece Theater drama that debuts Sunday night (on KCET Channel 28 at 9), with subsequent episodes airing on consecutive Sundays.

The British production, co-starring Trevor Eve as the all-too-human Parnell and Francesca Annis as his adulterous lover, is redolent of Victorian splendor, of soft green rolling fields and country and seaside manors. But coursing through that serene world is the hurly-burly of political intrigue and the unquenched passions of a secret affair that brought down the man often called "the uncrowned king of Ireland."

We're in the 1880s, William Gladstone is the British prime minister, Irish Home Rule is in the air, and the Irish and the English are setting the table for future decades of strife. As you watch Parnell's bristling temper and forceful style provoke the British and unify and then split the Irish, it doesn't take much of a leap of the imagination to substitute Parnell with Boris N. Yeltsin or any other charismatic leader.

Throw in the Muse-like attractions of a beautiful (and even better yet) married Englishwoman who invites the dashing "king" home to dinner, and you have the stuff of a ripe novel.

What make Eve and Annis vital characters is not merely their "secret" but their chemistry together. Their liaisons, even lolling around the drawing room, convey the suggestion of some lightening bolt. Their downfall and the story's delicious moral, as Parnell finally concedes to his wide-eyed Cleopatra, is their violation of "the Eleventh Commandment: Thou shall not be found out."

When the Englishwoman's husband names Parnell as a co-respondent in a divorce suit, the Catholic Church in Ireland comes down on Parnell with a wrath. Gladestone parlays his chips too. It's all over for Parnell.

Written by Hugh Leonard and directed by John Bruce, the show also features a wonderfully vain, callow performance by the Englishwoman's cuckold husband (David Robb).

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