Sensitive miniseries from Australia

WGBH/Boston's "Masterpiece Theater" enters its second public broadcasting decade with a first for the series -- a miniseries from Australia. And I am happy to report that it is bereft of kangaroos or koala bears.

"A Town Like Alice" (PBS, Sundays, 9-10 p.m., for six Sundays beginning Oct. 4) is based upon Nevil Shute's novel "The Legacy." Alice is the town of "Alice Springs," the joy of many Australians -- especially joyful to those who looked forward to returning to their native land while suffering the degradation of World War II Japanese prisoner-of-war camps.

"A Town Like Alice" is perhaps a better "watch" then the original novel was a "read." It portrays another era with skill and sensitivity, is acted and directed (by David Stevens) with impeccable style by a troupe of people who know that a miniseries can and should accomplish the depth of character and detail which, so often, a shorter form cannot manage.

Basically, "Alice" is a well-made, traditional romantic melodrama, starring two of Australia's most popular film actors -- Bryan Brown (whom you may have seen in "Breaker Morant") and Helen Morse (whom you may know from "Picnic at Hanging Rock"). Both Australian films were well received in America recently (especially by the critics). The character who will really captivate you, however, is Gordon Jackson, who plays a lonely bachelor lawyer -- you probably remember him as the unflappable Hudson in "Upstairs Downstairs."

"Alice" is the mainly untold tale of British colonials who were captured in the Far East by the Japanese invaders, detained in prison camps and local villages, finally returning to pick up their lives in England and other commonwealth countries such as Australia at the end of the war. It is a seldom-told story and fascinating if only for its unusual Malayan cinematography and the Australian locations in the outback, which look very much like the arid west of the US.

Unfortunately, it also calls to mind the days in World War II when the Japanese, charming and industrious today, had a government that sometimes played the role of aggressors and torturers. Although there are several scenes of torture which are terrible to watch, on the whole, the miniseries tries to paint the Japanese as ambivalent in their unpleasantness, carrying babies for weary mothers even as they force the women to stumble through Malayan jungles.

The main story line is a complex one of a staid young Englishwoman who falls in love with a heroic young Australian who appears to have been beaten to death for having tried to lighten her captivity. The story starts with the information that she has inherited a trust fund in London, then flashes back to the awful days in Malaya, picks up again in London, then turns to the search for her loved one in the Australian outback, where she must learn to adjust to its somehow frigid mores, just as she had to learn to adjust to life in Japanese prison camps and Malayan villages. In one sense, author Shute is saying that people with inner strength always seem to manage to adjust to their environments.

Produced by Henry Crawford (also responsible for "Against the Wind," another Australian miniseries, syndicated mostly to independent stations recently), the novel was adapted by the ubiquitous Rosemary Anne Sisson, and Tom Hegarty. She was responsible for much of the "Upstairs Downstairs" writing, and the current "Manions of America." The Australian Film Commission, which has played an important part in the current renaissance of Australian cinema and TV, was a partial funder.

"Alice" is fine popcorn TV for the whole family as long as the kiddies are out of the room during the few torture scenes. If it reminds us of a time we have forgotten, perhaps too soon, it also reminds us of the nobility of the human spirit, something we also sometimes seem to have forgotten too soon.

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