A Town Like Alice by Neville Shute ( or Finch Vs Brown)

When I was younger, thinner and still winning the war against gravity, I had this mad crush on a young Australian actor by the name of Bryan Brown. Six foot plus, cheeky smile, and always in roles which required that laconic Aussie humour. He lived on the wrong side of the tracks – literally – only 10 minutes from my home in southern Sydney, and when he wasn’t wearing a singlet (as in The Thorn Birds) he had his shirt unbuttoned. Give me a break: I was young and stupid-er once.

My youngest gifted me a DVD for Christmas that I had been chasing for over 30 years called A Town Like Alice, made in the early 80’s as a mini series for television. This was the performance that made me fall ( you can read lust should you so choose) for Brown, and fall hard. He played Ringer, Joe Harman, who was crucified by the Japanese in Malaya for stealing some chickens for a group of starving English women and children during World War 2.


A Town Like Alice was originally a novel written by Neville Shute in the 50’s about a group of women and children taken captive by the Japanese, and marched from one end of the country to another, as there were no dedicated female POW camps. Young Jean Pagent, is responsible for a young babe in arms whose mother is one of many whom have died on this journey. She crosses paths with POW, Joe Harman, and there is some flirting as expected when an Australian bloke hasn’t seen a white woman for six months. Hearing the fate of this group, Joe aids the women by providing black market soaps and medicines. His good luck leaves him with the chicken episode. Jean thinks Joe is dead and Joe thinks Jean is married. The women settle into life in a Malaysian village for the remainder of the war where they plant rice alongside the Malayan women.

End of story, right?

Dead wrong- it’s only just the beginning.

Several years after wars end Jean inherits from a wealthy uncle and returns to Malaya to thank the villagers for their protection by building them a well. Here she learns that Joe has survived his ghastly ordeal which sends her on a convoluted trip to the north of Australia, barren cattle country, looking for Joe. At the same time, Joe has headed to England to look for Jean having discovered she was never married.

This is where the Peter Finch and Virginia McKenna film from the 50’s ends. Big smooch at the reunion in an airport in Far North Queensland. A good flick which holds up well despite being 60 years old, and there is nothing like a bit of old fashioned romance to make the heart flutter, is there?

The miniseries follows the novel more closely. Jean and Joe don’t reconnect until she gets back into her sarong, and then Jean battles to settle into a new country, learning different ways and utilising her personal strengths and entrepreneurial nous to make a good life for herself and Joe.

The film on the DVD is of poor quality, more gritty, and I suspect that they transferred old video footage direct to DVD. At times it seems more dated than the original version.

Peter Finch is probably classically better looking, but I’m still a Bryan Brown girl through and through, and he doesn’t seem to have experienced the same gravity issues.

If you get a chance, read the book. It is an easy read, and it seems a simple read, though it is multi layered and covers so many different themes : healing, discrimination, sexism. I tend to read  A Town Like Alice every two or three years and each time I feel something a little different towards it. Considering it is such a big story it is not a thick book. It is one that is sad, tragic, full of hope and love. Shute can certainly spin a good yarn.

And remember : “Alice is a bonzer town”.





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