`Space': everything soap fans could wish for

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That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind'' has been turned into 13 mammoth hours for CBS television. Space (Sunday, April 14, 8-11 p.m.; Monday, 9-11 p.m.; Tuesday, 8-11 p.m.; Wednesday, 9-11 p.m.; Thursday 8-11 p.m.) is not a mere miniseries, it is a maxiseries; it is not a docu-drama, it is a drama-drama. Based upon James Michener's best-selling novel about the space program, this wide-ranging social panorama of American space politics from the end of World War II till the moonwalk constitutes an enormously impressive public relations job for NASA.

``Space'' has just about everything required for mass-appeal TV popularity. First there are stars -- James Garner, Michael York, Blair Brown, Susan Anspach, Beau Bridges, Harry Hamlin, Bruce Dern, Ralph Bellamy, Martin Balsam, and Roscoe Lee Browne. How did they manage to leave out Liz Taylor and Ava Gardner?

Then there is plot -- so much plot that you may have to keep a score card in the beginning to remember from night to night who is escaping the Germans and who is hoping to get into West Point.

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Then there is the business of getting German rocket scientists out of the country while the war is still on and bringing them to the US. And there are the intertwining lives of typical Americans in politics, West Point, pray-TV -- all interspersed with varied forms of sexual promiscuity. Throw in enough raw action, inspiring heroes, and dastardly villains -- all of this in overlapping relationships -- and you have a maxiseries to satisfy the most committed ``Dynasty'' and ``Dallas'' buffs.

But there is much more: a kind of ``Winds of War'' pseudo-authenticity, the skillful interjection of marvelous NASA shots of blastoffs, moonwalks, and headquarters tension, with authentic newsreel footage of the major events of the 1945-69 period (the original Arthur Godfrey radio coverage of FDR's funeral cortege is somehow squeezed into the story line).

All the while, the solemn voice of narrator Laurence Luckinbill is intoning ``Meaningful Original Thoughts'' such as ``So many of man's achievements have their roots in the instruments of destruction.'' ``Space'' isn't a bit embarrassed to try every means, including adultery, to win you over to the need for higher appropriations for NASA.

Like the Michener novel on which it is based, the script by Sterling Silliphant (you remember his ``Pearl'' miniseries) and executive producer Dick Berg often creeps to the edge of absurdity, narrowly missing camp but always managing to come through with a kind of winningly innocent patriotism. ``Space'' is the equivalent of six 1940s wartime movies strung together, using every clich'ed situation and all the familiar lovelorn dialogue. ``Space'' reality is bigger than real life, broader than real life, and perhaps even more interesting for 13 hours than real life. If you give in to the pull of ``Space,'' make sure you have lots of popcorn and bonbons to see you through. You might as well feel sated on every level when it's all over. `L'Elegance'

Despite the almost unremitting excellence of PBS's ``Masterpiece Theatre,'' not all British television is superb.

One only has to visit England for a few days and sample the range of programming to realize that, like the girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead, when British TV is good it is very very good, but when it is bad it is horrid.

Luckily, the British are shrewd enough to export only the best to us -- or is it that Americans like WGBH's Joan Wilson and Mobil's Herb Schmertz, who choose to import foreign TV, are all too aware that we already have an excess of the horrid stuff here? In any event, most Americans are spared the knowledge that bad British TV is often ``badder'' than bad American TV. By the same token, good British TV is almost inevitably better than good American TV.

Next week's sequence on Masterpiece Theatre's ``All for Love'' is a case in point. The third story in this series, L'Elegance (Sunday, April 14, 9-10 p.m., check local listings for premi`ere and repeats -- runs opposite ``Space,'' previewed above), has taste, honest emotions, restraint, judgment, subtlety, and, perhaps most important, a respect for the intelligence and sophistication of its audience.

Based on a Rumer Godden short story, ``L'Elegance'' concerns a spinsterish Manchester saleswoman who subscribes to pseudo-sophisticated magazines like L'Elegance to learn how the rich and elegant live, hoards her savings for an annual vacation in a posh French ch^ateau resort, where she lives out her superficial fantasies . . . albeit without the romantic partner of her dreams. One year she attracts the attention of a coarse new chef at the hotel, who sees through her masquerade and proceeds to make what she considers improper (and embarrassing) advances to the kind of lady she pretends to be.

Geraldine McEwan (Mrs. Proudie in ``Barchester Chronicles'') plays Miss Mountford with such studied gentility that her very propriety seems tinged with insincerity. It is a unique kind of heartbreaking vulnerability that Miss McEwan projects. I promise she will send chills of d'ej`a vu through any viewer who has ever sat alone in a dining room, pretending to enjoy the solitude amid tinkling glasses and sparkling laughter at tables all around. This slight tale of illusion and reality was directed with excruciating delicacy by Jack Gold.

``L'Elegance'' ranks with the recent ``An Englishman Abroad'' as the absolute best of short British TV drama, and Miss McEwan's performance is of award-winning caliber. Granada Television, rapidly developing a worldwide reputation for dependable excellence, produced this series of five unconventional love stories. Granada was also responsible for the recent superb productions of ``Brideshead Revisited'' and ``Jewel in the Crown.''

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