A gem of the season

Take Olivia Walton (Michael Learned) of "The Waltons" and co-star her with Professor Kingsley (John Houseman) of "Paper Chase." Then throw in large doses of Handel's "Messiah" for good measure.

What you should get is a film overflowing with gentle, sometimes biting, but always loving inspiration -- as long as you also have John Korty ("The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman") writing and directing. How can you miss with this Christmas combination?

Well, the fact is that you canm miss, because successful TV dramas are so nebulous, depending upon so many umpredictable factors. But despite all the potential sugarcoated obstacles, "A Christmas Without Snow" (CBS, Tuesday, 9-11 p.m., check local listings) lives up to all the expectations its cast and production credits would lead you to anticipate. It is the little gem of the season -- that special, sensitive, unheralded kind of show which everybody -- network and audience alike --but not saccharine, charming and uplifting but still not overly goody-goody.

This delicate, almost diaphanous show has been guided with loving and skillful hands to the airwaves by executive producer Frank Konigsberg ("Breaking Away"). It is a show you can -- and should --from here on in. If they don't schedule it -- demand it.

CBS's made-for-TV movie division has been turning out its share of potboilers and scandal-of-the-week dramas, but tucked in among the time-filling audience-winners have been some fine films such as "Playing For Time," "Children of An Lac," and "Little Lord Fauntleroy," which would make their mark in any medium. They certianly prove that the made-for-TV movie category is really coming of age. "A Christmas Without Snow" is one of the best products.

It concerns the members of a San Francisco church choir and their taskmaster choir director, played, of course, by Prof. John Houseman at his lovably caustic best. It is marvelous to hear him explain the meaning of amateurism to his volunteer singers ("he or she who does a thing for the love of it" and "thus, you are all pure amateurs")

Mama Learned plays the part of a divorcee from Omaha who leaves her young son behind in her mother's care while she tries to start a new life in San Francisco. It turns out they don't need teachers, only office temps, and her chances of finding an eligible husband prove to be slim.

If you insist upon criticism, I can give you some -- many of the members of the choir are stereotypical characters, acting out their problems in rather simplistic ways. The black youngster talks black street talk, even though he is a well-educated student. The minister and his wife are, of course, long-suffering and noble while their son is naturally rebellious -- so rebellious that he vandalizes the church organ and the congregation has to replace it with an electronic model which picks up police messages. When the choir regulars secretly repair the old organ and surprise the old curmudgeon choirmaster with it, his only comment, naturally, is: "And I was just getting used to the police calls. . . ."

So what if most of the problems and solutions of the interwoven lives of the choir members are predictable? The script is so skillfully well intentioned and the acting so skillfully accomplished that most viewers

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