About 25 years ago, a drunken Englishman stumbled into Coral Browne's dressing room in the Moscow theater where she was playing Gertrude in the Old Vic production of ''Hamlet.'' He threw up in her sink, stole her soap and her cigarettes, then proceeded to groom himself with her powder. Later she discovered he was the diplomat-traitor Guy Burgess.
When he invited her to his ''pigsty'' of an apartment for lunch, she learned that he wanted her to take his measurements so that she could visit his tailor in London and order him new clothes.
This true encounter has been turned into an hour of sparkling tragicomedy presented by ''Great Performances'': An Englishman Abroad (Arts & Entertainment Channel on cable, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 9-10 p.m.; PBS, Friday, Nov. 2, 9-10 p.m.). It is the first-ever cable/PBS joint premiere.
Guy Burgess, as played with impeccable eccentricity by Alan Bates, is a pitiful yet amusing character, overflowing with the quixotic idiosyncrasies of his class, his type. Miss Browne's encounters with British Embassy personnel (she plays herself brilliantly) are almost as devastating as her meeting with Burgess in his slovenly apartment. She finds him charming but sad and lets him know she pities him in no uncertain terms. There is some very explicit language in this drama, but it is used with pithy precision.
Written by Alan Bennett, directed by John Schlessinger, this BBC Television production is tautly crafted yet still poignant in a chin-up British kind of way.
To the ironic strains of Gilbert & Sullivan's ''He remains an Englishman,'' the final scene sums up the dilemma of an exceedingly improper Englishman, determined to remain English at any cost. This is a unique exploration of the private world of a public disgrace - the awful truth told with cold perception mixed with warm humor and sensitivity.