A Town Like Alice

A Town Like Alice

1981 - Australia

A Story of Love, Resilience, and Empowerment - A Masterpiece of Television Storytelling

The 1981 Australian mini-series A Town Like Alice stands the test of time as a remarkable and captivating tale of endurance, resilience, and love. Based on the novel by Nevil Shute, this mini-series was brought to life by a brilliant cast, exquisite cinematography, and a captivating script. Spanning six episodes, it takes viewers on an emotional journey that lingers in their hearts long after the final credits roll.

A Town Like Alice

Set against the backdrop of World War II, it follows the story of Jean Paget, played brilliantly by Helen Morse (Luke’s Kingdom), an English woman living in Malaya. After the Japanese invasion, Jean joins a group of women and children as they are captured and taken as prisoners of war. The men of their community are sent to work camps whilst the women and children are forced to march across Malaysia, to a non-existent prison camp. The hardships they face under the brutal Japanese regime during their six-month trek: disease, hunger and exhaustion are depicted with unsettling realism, immersing the audience in the harsh realities of war. The mini-series truly shines in its depiction of Jean's personal resilience and determination. As the story unfolds, Jean becomes a beacon of hope for her fellow prisoners, displaying unwavering strength and courage in the face of unimaginable adversity.

A Town Like Alice

The challenges they face are briefly eased by Joe Harman (Bryan Brown – Breaker Morant), an Australian man from Queensland who exchanges gasoline from his broken-down truck for medication and soap for the women. There is an undeniable connection between him and Jean, as they develop feelings for each other without even touching. The chemistry between Jean and Joe is one of the most compelling aspects of the mini-series. Unlike many war dramas, A Town Like Alice portrays a genuine and heartfelt love story that develops organically and touches the soul. The trials and tribulations that Jean and Joe face create a powerful connection, making their romance all the more poignant. Unfortunately, their time together is all too brief. Although Joe manages to fix his truck, he steals chickens from a Japanese Army captain and sends them to the women before departing. As a result, he is captured, tortured and crucified while Jean and the other women and children helplessly watch in terror.

A Town Like Alice

As the exhausting march continues, the women barter their limited belongings for sustenance and gradually assimilate into Malaysian culture, donning sarongs and embracing the local way of life. When their appointed guard succumbs to sunstroke, they are fortunate to find refuge in a village where they contribute by labouring in the paddy fields. Years later, after the war has ended, Jean ventures back to this village with a heartfelt mission — to construct a well as an expression of gratitude for the friendship that blossomed during those trying times. To her astonishment and delight, she discovers that Joe survived his harrowing ordeal and now resides in Australia. She sets out to find him not knowing that he is on his way to London to look for her.

A Town Like Alice

But there is another who has deep feelings for Jean. Noel Strachan is a middle-aged barrister whom she hired to sort out her inheritance when she returned to England. Gordon Jackson (Upstairs, Downstairs), who took the role of Strachan later said of the character: "Noel Strachan's a silly old boy who should have known better. He's solid and tremendously reliable, but there's a glimmering of romance in the old boy yet." Bemoaning the fact that he rarely 'got the girl', Jackson added: "A director once told me I held a girl like someone with a time bomb in his hands. I'm just not a sex symbol."

Writing in The Observer, TV critic Clive James said, "In this production, no shortcuts were taken. The Asian locations were the real thing. The Japanese were real Japanese. Above all, the Australia on show was the real Australia, with all its colours uncorrected. You could hear Jean's skin drying as she stood against the red earth."

Getting A Town Like Alice to the screen required the movement of 50 people and twelve tons of equipment into Malaysia. Producer Henry Crawford said this took twelve months of negotiations with the government. "I think we ended up dealing with about seven different departments," he said.

It was worth it. Visually stunning, A Town Like Alice transports viewers through breathtaking landscapes. From the lush jungles of Malaya to the arid beauty of the Australian outback, the cinematography captures the essence of each setting. The attention to detail in the costume and set design further adds to the authenticity of the era, effectively immersing the audience in a bygone time.

A Town Like Alice

Justifiably, the series won an International Emmy Award for drama in 1981 and a Logie (Australian Television ceremony since 1959) Award in the Best Single Drama or Mini Series category at the 1982 awards. Morse, Brown and Jackson won Logies for their performances.

A Town Like Alice remains a shining example of outstanding television storytelling. Its gripping narrative, remarkable performances, and stunning visuals make it a timeless masterpiece. This emotional rollercoaster not only educates viewers about the atrocities of war but also explores the universal themes of resilience, love, and the indomitable human spirit. Whether one is a fan of historical dramas or simply appreciates a well-crafted story, A Town Like Alice is an absolute must-watch.

Published on October 26th, 2023. Written by Laurence Marcus for Television Heaven.

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