An ox-drawn wagon moves slowly down a dusty, primitive road winding across a vast stretch of African bush landscape. A herd of zebra watches, and then, at dusk, the black silhouettes of the long-necked giraffes appear, backlighted against the sky.
Those scenes -- full of the mysterious beauty of an unspoiled, alien land -- serve as a captivating introduction to "The Flame Trees of Thika," the seven-part Masterpiece Theatre series that starts at 9 p.m. tomorrow on PBS (WETA, Channel 26).
The backdrop of the African wilderness is one of the delights of this dramatized story of the memoirs of novelist Elspeth Huxley, who was taken to Africa as a child by her English parents. The series was filmed on location in Kenya, with some spectacular views of magnificent animals and land.
"The Flame Trees of Thika" offers more than pretty scenery. It is the story of the Grants -- Tilly and Robin and their 11-year-old daughter, Elspeth -- as they arrive in Kenya in 1913 just before the outbreak of World War I. These early settlers in East Africa hope to find their fortune by carving a coffee plantation out of the wilderness.
As Alistair Cooke, the frequently over-helpful host of Masterpiece Theatre, points out, these British pioneers were not made of the same stuff as the hardy types who won our West. But they have their own kind of pluck as they sit, in the middle of the African bush, shielded from the hot sun only by a piece of canvas, and sip tea from a silver pot brought from home. But tea is only a short, civilized break from unnerving encounters with animals, natives and nature in a strange, primitive land.
In the opening episode -- titled "The Promised Land" with more than a twist of irony -- Elspeth and her mother arrive by ox-drawn wagon with the family possessions to meet the father, Robin Grant, who had gone on ahead. As the young Elspeth, Holly Aird captures the wonder and curiosity of an intelligent child without any preciousness. And Hayley Mills, once a child star, has grown up to play the role of the young mother. Her Tilly is a woman combining both the feminine softness and sinewy strength necessary to support an unpractical, idealistic husband, played by David Robb.
She pours tea from the silver pot as painted African warriors watch. And with equal dispatch she can aim a rifle at a growling lion until he moves disdainfully away into the bush. In the first episode, the promised land -- Grant bought on the basis of promises in a prospectus -- turns out to be far from a settler's paradise.
"Really, darling, you make it sound like Wimbledon," says Tilly, as she stands in the midst of a stretch of wild African bush country and hears her husband talk about planting coffee trees and having a dairy farm on the side.
As young Elspeth watches in both fascination and fear, several natives parade in front of the Grants' tent with shields, spears and menacing chants. The leader stops, forcefully plants his spear in the ground, and announces in passable English: "We have come to build your house."
Then the house is built, with vines to hold together the framework, foot-trampled mud clay and a thatched roof. At first the natives, who live in round huts, don't want to build a house with corners that can hide evil spirits. But the Grants finally have a thatched roof over their heads -- although it turns out to be a leaky roof.
As the opening episode ends, Tilly, sitting among pails and pans to catch the leaking rain and trying to protect the family antiques, bursts out: "I wish that I had never come to this rotten country."
But Tilly has planted the trees purchased in the village of Thika -- trees that are scarlet, like flames -- and the family's roots are in African soil. The next six episodes will follow the Grants until the outbreak of World War II. The question is, will this leisurely paced story against the backdrop of the splendid African landscape be dramatic enough to sustain a seven-part series?