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On `Masterpiece Theatre' -- `Paradise Postponed'

Masterpiece Theatre: Paradise Postponed PBS, Sundays, 9-10 p.m. (premi`ere is 90 minutes), Oct. 19-Dec. 28, check local listings. Stars Sir Michael Hordern, Jill Bennett, Colin Blakely, Annette Crosbie, and Peter Egan. Written by John Mortimer. Produced by Jacqueline Davis for Thames Television. Directed by Alvin Rakoff. Presented on PBS by WGBH, Boston. John Mortimer's latest teleplay to reach American viewers revolves around the late Rev. Simeon Simcox, who suffered from ``an insane optimism about the future of mankind.''

Yet when this British cleric and political activist died after a lifetime of championing socialist causes, he left the bulk of his estate to a Conservative cabinet minister, who symbolized everything Mr. Simcox marched against. Why?

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That's what ``Paradise Postponed'' is all about. It traces an investigation into Simcox's life by a son who is suing to break the will. En route to the courts, he uncovers enough scandal to please even ``Dallas'' fans. But ``Paradise Postponed'' isn't mere soap opera.

It tells the story of life in a typical English village from World War II to the present, illuminating epochal socio-economic changes. Viewers will see the old class system being replaced by a new one -- and then the eagerly anticipated Utopian paradise of postwar expectations postponed for everybody. They will learn how the impoverished nobility managed to live and how former members of the ``lower classes'' struggled to attain the status of the ``upper classes.''

In the course of telling his tale, Mr. Mortimer uses complex flashbacks and flashforwards that are sometimes confusing. And in the first few episodes, viewers may find it difficult to keep the relationships of the many characters straight.

But in addition to a jolly good, if contrived, story, viewers will be treated to an incisive chronicle of rural English life in which no major trend or fad of the past four decades is overlooked.

Sir Michael Hordern plays the idiosyncratic vicar with utterly disarming eccentricity. His characterization and those of the other cast members, however, tend toward stereotypes. Part of the blame lies with Mortimer's book (on which he based this screenplay), which can't seem to make up its mind whether it's a social tract or potboiler. One thing is clear, though: It's literate, ingenious, entertaining, and witty.

``Paradise Postponed'' is not in the same class as PBS superseries like ``Brideshead Revisited'' (adapted for TV by Mortimer, incidentally) or ``Jewel in the Crown.'' Its brand of humor isn't the same kind of whimsy Mortimer displayed in ``Rumpole of the Bailey'' either; it has the bite of satire, and it borders on the obvious and rambunctious, though Mortimer manages to keep it just short of broad farce.

Viewers will have to contribute something if they watch: an 11-week commitment and some accommodation to a wide range of confusing characters and situations at the start. But, in the long run, ``Paradise Postponed'' is a rewarding ramble.

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Arthur Unger is television critic of The Christian Science Monitor.

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