BBC's ladylike peek at 18th-century English family life

As the commercial networks attempt to salvage prime-time hours with bawdy satirical soap opera like "Dallas," Masterpiece Theater turns to its own kind of soap opera -- tea-and-crumpets soap opera, that is.

"Pride and Prejudice" (PBS, Sundays, starting Oct. 26 and continuing for four succeeding Sundays, 9-10 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats) is , however, exquisite soap opera, filled with Jane Austen's unique kind of gentle satire, so soft-spoken that its poison-tipped barbs can easily be mistaken for resigned compliance with the social customs of 18th-century England.

Instead, it is a pithy yet ladylike peek through the keyhole of what constitutes a microcosm of family life and social customs among the turn-of-the- 18th-century equivalent of the middle classes and the uppercrust.

"Pride and Prejudice" concentrates on the place of women, especially unmarried ones, in that period when spinsters were supposed to believe that "happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance; thus it is best not to know too much about potential bridegrooms. . . ." This film-and-video, studio-and-location comes from BBC/Time-Life TV production, and strangely also by way of Australian TV, and also through the auspices of Boston's WGBH. It was adapted by Fay Weldon and stars a gaggle of delightful actresses, headed by Elizabeth Garvie as Elizabeth Bennett. David Rintoul plays the insolent Mr. Darcy with overwhelmingly proper impudence, which is eventually revealed to be double-edged arrogance. The book, published originally in 1813 although written much earlier by Jane Austen as an entertainment for her own family, has since become such a literary, film, and theatrical classic that it seems redundant to outline the plot -- a tale of five lively search for suitors within the strictly structured social frame-work of rural England and London. First impressions are constantly discarded for indepth perception, acquired almost too late . . . but just in time. Local customs and taboos are inevitably genteely discarded in the name of proper expedience.

It is apparent that Jane Austen (like her heroine, Elizabeth) was wise beyond her years, beyond her era. In its own way "P and P" was early women's liberation. It is full of the wisdom and perspective which results from the personal observation of a brilliant and witty mind. As one views this superb production, it becomes clear that Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women" was merely a shallow echo of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice."

"In nine cases out of ten, a women must show more affection than she feels," is something Jane Austen women may say among themselves, but, in actuality, disregard when the proper moment arrives. And the statement that "marriage is the only honorable provision for a girl of small fortune" is spoken with tongue-in-cheek reservation. Host Alistair Cooke, as usual, adds his wit and perception to prologues and epilogues, making the series even more of a gem, moving at its own slow-moving but still light-footed speed toward thoroughly enlightening entertainment.

One warning: Although "Pride And Prejudice" certainly will not "grab" you like "Dallas" grabs some, I guarantee that you'll gain more insight into the ways of real human beings from one segment of this story of Elizabeth Bennet and her family than you will from five full seasons of J. R. Ewing's "Dallas." Archives of Ebla

"The Royal Archives of Ebla" (PBS, Monday, 10-11 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats) almost manages to turn one of the most exciting archaeological finds of the decade into a bore. But in the end the subject matter completely outclasses the production and wins out as an extraordinarily fasicating hour of educational enlightenment . . . if not entertainment.

The discovery in northwestern Syria of 17,000 cuneiform tablets dating back 4 ,500 years can have an overwhelming effect upon our understanding of ancient civilization. The Royal Palace of Third Millennium Ebla, which contained the tablets in its archive rooms is visited by the film crews of producer/co-director Mildred Freed Alberg.

They somehow managed to film the "can't miss" fascinating discoveries of the University of Rome archaeological expedition at Tell Mardikh-Ebla so unimaginatively that they turned vividly exciting information and authentic artifacts into an often dull series of pictures and recitations of events. Some extraneous travelogue-type footage proved to be just as exciting.

See "Ebla" -- Especially, if you can't go there yourself. The Plumber

"The Plumber" (PBS, Wednesday, 8-9:30 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats) is a unique television phenomenon -- a superb psychological thriller debuting on Public Broadcasting Service rather than on network TV or in movie houses.

Written and directed for Australian TV by Australian director Peter Weir, also responsible for the recent unusual theatrical films, "The Last Wave" and "Picnic At Hanging Rock," this Pinteresque film about a housewife tormented by irrational anxiety and civilized isolation turns against the house plumber who somehow comes to symbolize all her fears and uncertainties.

It is certainly not for the kiddies -- and may not even be for nervous housewives -- but for those enjoying a good puzzle and willing to risk 90 minutes with a literate, offbeat thriller, I recommend "The Plumber." If nothing else, it'll show you that Australian TV is at least utilizing some of its best cinematic talent to produce original television drama.

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