Another fall, another "Masterpiece Theatre" series. The latest to welcome is "A Town Like Alice," a six-part, lush, Australian-made epic that starts (Channel 26 at 9 p.m. tomorrow) with the Japanese invading Malaya in World War II and ends quite a few years later in the Australian outback. It is beautifully photographed and a good yarn, with sympathetic characters, love stories and a lot of suffering.
"A Town Like Alice," which was filmed for $1.2 million in Malaya and London, as well as in Australia, is adapted from the novel of the same name by Nevil Shute, who based major elements of the novel on real incidents. It was also a 1956 film starring Peter Finch and Virginia McKenna.
The first two episodes, the ones available for previewing, start in a British colonial outpost in Malaya where life is all gin and tonics and tea dresses. Enemy forces arrive, send the men off to a prisoner-of-war camp and send the women and children, on foot, to Singapore. That journey ultimately takes 2 1/2 years. The sight of the English matrons in their high heels and sun hats, setting off down the jungle road clutching bundles and babies, is one the camera lingers on for many miles.
Their tribulations are many. Some die. But the heroine, Jean Paget, proves resourceful and blessed with stamina, adapting to the conditions by walking barefoot, much to the dismay of her more proper compatriots. Small details -- such as the fact that over the six months of forced marching and small rations none of the women seems to lose weight, nor does the infant age -- pale beside the graphic depiction of their misery. On two occasions, the women are allowed to bathe, and go into paroxysms of joy when given some contraband Lifebuoy soap.
Along the way the women run into two Australian men who also are prisoners. One of them takes a fancy to Jean Paget, and steals food and medicine for her and her fellow prisoners. The bulk of the narrative is hung on the romance between these two, as they search for each other after the war, she traveling to Australia not knowing that he is meanwhile seeking her in England. She also inherits money from a distant uncle and travels back to Malaya to repay the villagers who helped the survivors of the long march.
Jean Paget is played by Helen Morse, a lovely Australian who endures, with almost expressionless stoicism, the great misfortunes of her captivity and of later life as a secretary and then housewife in the dismal, dry outback. But a quality of game resourcefulness softens her otherwise stiff-upper-lip demeanor.
The handsome hero is Bryan Brown, who played Lt. Handcock in "Breaker Morant," and he is the essence of the Australian stereotype -- sunny, open, adventurous and irreverent, and the picture of health. Gordon Jackson, who played the butler in all those episodes of the immortal "Upstairs, Downstairs," is seen here as a stuffy English lawyer, whose heart begins to pound at the sight of his new client, Paget.
The march, which takes up most of these first two hours, is based on the story Shute heard from a survivor of a similar journey in Sumatra. A group of about 80 Dutch women and children were forced on a march through Sumatra, he wrote, and 30 survived.