Two compassionate tales of racial prejudice in widely separated countries make a unique pair of dramatic specials on PBS this week. One takes place in the pre-Civil War American South and the other in Victorian England, but both take strong moral positions in quietly passionate ways.
Pudd'nhead Wilson (PBS, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 9-10:30 p.m. check local listings), based upon the Mark Twain classic, is the second in the new ''American Playhouse'' series. The Sailor's Return (PBS, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 9-10:30 p.m., check local listings) is based on a 1924 English best seller by David Garnett.
''Pudd'nhead'' concerns a case of switched identity - a mulatto slave substitutes her own white-skinned baby for that of the slave owner, with the officially black child eventually becoming the heir to a large estate. The story of his misdeeds and his mistreatment of his mother is complicated by murder and thievery. These somehow get straightened out with the help of a nonconformist, palm-reading lawyer who calls himself ''Pudd'nhead'' so nobody will expect too much of him.
Pudd'nhead is likably underplayed by Ken Howard, but the show is stolen from him by a superb performance by Lise Hilboldt in the role of Roxy, the mulatto mother.
''Pudd'nhead,'' directed by Alan Bridges, scripted by Philip Reisman Jr., has been produced under the aegis of William Perry, who is also responsible for four other PBS Mark Twain adaptations. This one is the best.
''Pudd'nhead Wilson'' is a skillful re-creation of a period in American history marked by ambivalence, overflowing with the sad ironies of racism. A pathetic story well told.
'The Sailor's Return'
A former sea captain returns from Dahomey, Africa, to his native village in Dorset, England, with his wife, Tulip, the daughter of an African king. She is young, innocent . . . and black.
The story of how they and their son adjust to running a local inn and how the ''kindly'' villagers stand by when ''foreigners'' from a distant village attack the interracial relationship constitutes most of the plot of this perceptive, pathetic tale of racial hypocrisy. The culminating tragedy and the resolution for Tulip are frustratingly accurate depictions of the ways of racism in Victorian England.
''The Sailor's Return'' boasts fine performances by Tom Bell as the captain and Shope Shodeinde as Tulip. Jack Gold directed with sensitivity and restraint. So much restraint that some of the action may seem a bit vague at first.
''The Sailor's Return'' offers the exciting reward of near-perfect re-creation of a period, a place, and a society. As does ''Pudd'nhead Wilson.'' Taken together, these 19th-century dramas cause one to wonder just how much racial attitudes have changed in the 20th century. 'The John Evans Story'
One school of thought holds that the way to turn a bad boy good is to scare the devil out of him. That approach underlies the first program in a new series of ''CBS Schoolbreak Specials'' for and about adolescents.
Parents and children alike are bound to be shocked by Dead Wrong: the John Evans Story (CBS, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 4:30-5:30 p.m., check local listings).
Fact: At the age of 33, John Evans was executed on April 22, 1982, for the 1977 murder of a pawnbroker in the presence of the victim's two young children. Four days before his execution, a repentant Evans requested that he be allowed to videotape a message that would be his legacy to adolescents.
He hoped his message would dissuade them from a life of crime such as his. In the 30-minute videotape he exhorts young people not to emulate his criminal career, especially not to allow themselves to be influenced by peer pressure.
Evans stipulated that the videotape not be exhibited in any manner until after his execution so as to avoid the suspicion that it was a ploy to escape the electric chair.
Now, nine months after his execution, CBS is presenting excerpts from the tape as part of a dramatization of his life. Effective as the drama is, it would have been more effective simply to air the tape itself - without the embellishment of phony dramatization. The simple story of a seemingly ''average'' boy in an ''average'' American family turning to a life of crime is horrible enough.
''Dead Wrong'' is a true horror story, complete with all the repugnant preparations for the death chamber. Some may think it is as much an indictment of the death penalty as it is a plea to adolescent criminals to stop while there is still time. In either case, it may shock a lot of people who stumble upon it on CBS, nestled among afternoon soap operas and game shows.