"Masterpiece Theatre" recently marked its 15th anniversary on public television, but its latest presentation, "By the Sword Divided," is nothing to celebrate.
It's sort of the British equivalent of "North and South," about a family with divided loyalties during the English civil war of the 1640s. Although more refined than ABC's miniseries about the U.S. Civil War that aired earlier this season, this nine-part production from the BBC is excessively talky and only intermittently engaging.
The second installment, in which the war begins, will be seen Sunday at 8 p.m. on Channels 50 and 24, and at 9 p.m. on Channels 28 and 15. (If you missed the first episode last week, it repeats Sunday at 11 a.m. on Channels 28 and 15.)
The first episode, set in May, 1640, introduced viewers to the castle and estate of Sir Martin Lacey (Julian Glover) and his three children: Tom (Timothy Bentinck), Lucinda (Lucy Aston), and Anne (Sharon Mughan), who was wed to a lawyer, John Fletcher (Rob Edwards). That puts her on a collision course with the rest of the family when war breaks out a year later in Part 2, with the Fletchers siding with Parliament and the Laceys with King Charles I.
Future episodes chronicle, at intervals of as much as a year at a time, how the various family members and their servants are involved in and affected by the prolonged conflict.
In Part 4, for example, which takes place in June, 1644, John Fletcher must lead a military party to the Lacey castle to search for silver. In Part 5, a year later, Tom returns a pregnant Anne to the castle against her will to protect her while John is away.
Based on a book by Molly Hardwick, "By the Sword Divided" was developed for TV by executive producer John Hawkesworth, who oversaw "Upstairs, Downstairs." This miniseries bears some similarities to the earlier one, with its mixture of classes, its evolution of characters over many years and its use of taped episodes that are essentially complete in themselves.
What's missing are the rich characters and compelling stories that made the Bellamy household so fascinating a place to visit. Sir Martin and his clan try to compensate with occasional bursts of sword play, but it just isn't the same thing.
Here are other weekend programs.
TODAY: Blindness is the subject on "Teen Talk," 8 a.m. (9). . . . It's also involved in the story on "The Golden Girls," with Polly Holliday appearing as Betty White's sightless sister, 9 p.m. (4)(36)(39). . . .
For the kids, there's "Raccoons on Ice" at 7 p.m. (2), and "First Easter Rabbit" at 8:30 p.m. (11). . . .
You've seen the Oscars; now it's time for the Black Gold Awards, saluting rhythm and blues music. Lou Rawls, Melba Moore and Rebbie Jackson host at 9 p.m. (11).
"Te Maori: A Celebration of the People and Their Art," about the Maori people of New Zealand, will be seen at 9 p.m. (28)(50). . . .
Billy Crystal, Robin Williams and Whoopi Goldberg host "Comic Relief," a comedy extravaganza to raise money for the country's homeless, 9 p.m., Home Box Office and some basic cable channels.
SUNDAY: The 66th annual Easter sunrise services at the Hollywood Bowl will be broadcast live at 4:30 a.m. on Channels 9 and 56, and seen on tape at 8:30 p.m. on Channel 56. . . . ABC will present an hourlong religious special, "Holy Week With Pope John Paul II" at 12:30 p.m. (7)(3)(42). . . .
"Channel 4 News Conference" features a debate on whether California State Supreme Court Justice Rose Bird should be retained in office, 8:30 a.m. (4). . . .
It's time for Easter Parades: CBS covers festivities in New York and at Disney World, 9 a.m. (2)(8), and KTTV telecasts the 1948 film "Easter Parade," with Judy Garland and Fred Astaire, at 4 p.m. and 9 p.m. (11). . . .
"Meet the Press" focuses on President Reagan's foreign policy, 9:30 a.m. (4)(36)(39). . . .
Aid for Nicaraguan contras will be discussed on "This Week With David Brinkley" at 11:30 a.m. (7)(3)(10)(42). . . .
A production by the Opera Company of Philadelphia of "Berlioz' Damnation of Faust" will be broadcast at 1 p.m. (28). . . .
President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua will be interviewed on "Face the Nation," 3 p.m. (2) and 4:30 p.m. (8). . . .
Two history professors at UCLA--Afaf Marsot and Yosef Olnert--will discuss U.S. relations with Libya and other Mideast nations on "Newsmakers," 3:30 p.m. (2). . . .
"At Issue/With David Garcia" focuses on the campaign to win wages for doing housework, 4 p.m. (2). . . .
"60 Minutes" profiles TV animation mogul Joe Barbera of Hanna-Barbera Productions, examines the career of lawyer Roy Cohn and looks into the controversy surrounding laws in 26 states that allow juveniles to be executed for capital crimes, 7 p.m. (2)(8). . . .
For the kids, NBC offers "Smurfily Ever After" at 7 p.m. and "Kissyfur" at 7:30 p.m. (4)(36)(39), while KTTV dusts off the "Fat Albert Easter Special" at 8:30 p.m. (11). . . ."
Tom Bradley of Los Angeles and Andrew Young of Atlanta are among the municipal officials profiled in "The Making of the Black Mayors," 8 p.m. (5). . . .
Katharine Hepburn stars in "Mrs. Delafield Wants to Marry," a new TV movie screening at 9 p.m. (2)(8). . . .
"Pride of Place: Building the American Dream," a new series about U.S. architecture, debuts at 10 p.m. (28).