By Will Lawrence
The big 5-0 is a time for celebration, getting together with friends and throwing one heck of a party. But celebrating that milestone for Masterpiece, the flagship drama franchise of the Public Broadcasting Service, or PBS network, would take an almost impossibly large venue and unimaginably large cake. As the longest-running prime-time drama series on American television hits its half-century mark in January 2021, with a broadcast and streaming viewership of 75 million per year, it has a lot of friends—and family.
It is through Masterpiece that TV audiences have largely come to know the plays of William Shakespeare; the novels of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters; the detective stories of Agatha Christie; adaptations of more recent historical classics like Wolf Hall; and written-for-TV phenomena such as Prime Suspect, Victoria and, most famously, Downton Abbey.
Downton star Elizabeth McGovern watched Masterpiece when growing up in Illinois. “I remember it was television for people that wanted something different from the more commercial fare,” recalls the American actress, 59, who was nominated for both an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham. “Back then, it was the only place for quality television.”
Born in 1971, Masterpiece Theatre (note the British spelling) was the brainchild of Stanford Calderwood, then-president of the Boston PBS station WGBH, after a trip to the United Kingdom, where he devoured a feast of quality television. The series debuted Sunday, Jan. 10, 1971, with The First Churchills. Audiences “across the pond” were soon hooked as Masterpiece Theatre served up a menu of tantalizing drama garnished with all the trappings of British history and culture beloved by many Americans: exquisite etiquette, stately homes, green meadows, soft rolling hills, fabulous frocks and, of course, the historical narratives themselves, abounding with mystery, secrecy, heroes, heroines, rogues and romance.
Also a great success was the 1980 spinoff Mystery! (rebranded as Masterpiece Mystery! in 2008)—with programming themed around British mystery fiction, including long-running series made from Agatha Christie novels, featuring her detective sleuth characters Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.
“You see all this work gathered together and yet it feels coherent,” says Kenneth Branagh, 60, the actor and later director who came to prominence in America as Guy Pringle in Fortunes of War (1987). “Masterpiece brings together various bodies of work and adds a weight and heft.” Branagh returned to Masterpiece in 2008 as the Swedish detective of Wallander for Mystery!
“There is a certain kind of show that when you’re watching you think, This belongs on Masterpiece,” says Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, 71. “It’s made a role for itself in American life.”
That role typically unfolds on Sunday evenings, the perfect time for families to gather together to watch other families gather together (or fall apart) and to become immersed in stories set in a far-off time and place. Here, we celebrate some of our favorite Masterpiece shows and stars and share some intriguing behind-the-scenes trivia. Happy birthday, Masterpiece!
Best Masterpiece Hosts
Alistair Cooke, who hosted from 1971 to 1992 with his velvety tone and immaculate suits, helped establish the Masterpiece brand, even inspiring a spoof from the Muppets in the guise of Alistair Cookie (Cookie Monster’s alter ego, who hosted Monsterpiece Theater on Sesame Street).
Other Masterpiece hosts include author Russell Baker (1993–2004), actress Gillian Anderson (2008) and actress Laura Linney (2009–present).
Famous Mystery! hosts include film critic Gene Shalit (1980), actor Vincent Price (1981–89) and actress Diana Rigg (1989–2003).
“I love being the Masterpiece Mystery host,” says actor Alan Cumming (2008–present). “I go into the dressing room and there are pictures on the walls—Vincent Price and Diana Rigg and then a picture of me. What a lineage! Together at last! Honestly, it is a great honor to be flying the flag for that tradition.”
It wouldn’t be Masterpiece Mystery! without the macabre opening animations based on cartoons by Edward Gorey (1925–2000). The crumbling gravestones, Grecian urns and gaunt figures skulking in shadows or playing croquet in the rain set the tone for Mystery!, which launched in 1980.
By the Numbers
Number of Masterpiece episodes
Number of Emmys won by Masterpiece
The year Masterpiece Theatre became just Masterpiece
The number of episodes in the longest-running Masterpiece show, Upstairs Downstairs
That’s how many million viewers watched episode one, season four of Downton Abbey, which picked up after Matthew was killed in a car crash, leaving Lady Mary to raise her newborn on her own.
Masterpiece‘s Most Popular Shows
Prime Suspect (1991–1996, 2003, 2006)
One of the most iconic Masterpiece characters of all time is the modern-day detective Jane Tennison, the hard-nosed lead investigator on Prime Suspect played by Helen Mirren. The role earned her two Emmys, and her character helped forge a new, take-charge template for women in crime dramas.
A 2017 miniseries, Prime Suspect 1973 (also called Prime Suspect: Tennison), took viewers back to Tennison’s first year on the police force. Stefanie Martini, 30, played the young detective who experienced sexism and police corruption during a murder investigation.
Masterpiece Memory “One great thing I learned from a policewoman: She said, ‘Never fold your arms, because folding your arms is defensive.’ And the other thing she said is to touch people. It’s true—politicians are all vying with each other to be the first one to touch the other one, because then they’ve got the initiative.” —Helen Mirren
The 19th-century British queen and empire founder was brought to life by Jenna Coleman in Victoria. Alongside the usual period accoutrements, Victoria harnessed elements of lively young adult fiction and resonated with younger audiences, helping ensure Masterpiece’s future with a newer generation of viewers.
“There was a huge response from young girls,” says Coleman, 34, who played the monarch as a teenage girl who just happened to become one of the most powerful women the world has ever seen. “It had quite an appeal among girls all over the world.”
Like all the best historical drama, its themes echo across the years, with Victoria’s creator, Daisy Goodwin, plucking inspiration from her often-fraught interactions with her own her teenage daughter—to which all mothers (and daughters) can relate. “So much of television is about women being attacked and murdered,” says Goodwin, 59. “But when you get to Masterpiece, you have got this haven of strong women calling the shots. Masterpiece is ahead of its time.”
Masterpiece Memory “I always loved the domestic scenes in Victoria because you have the jewels and crowns, but what is interesting is when the crown is taken off and Victoria is at home reading a newspaper—what happens then, the daily life. That makes her human and relates to now as well.” —Jenna Coleman
I, Claudius (1977–78)
During its formative years, Masterpiece gambled on I, Claudius, a weighty classical drama with an unfamiliar actor playing a distant Roman ruler who spoke with a pronounced stutter. “They wanted Charlton Heston,” Derek Jacobi, 82, says with a laugh. “But they got me.” Yet, nearly 50 years on, I, Claudius remains one of Masterpiece’s best-loved shows.
Masterpiece Memory “There were no location shoots for I, Claudius, and if you look very carefully when you go from one set to another, usually it is the same set but they’d just moved things around to make it look like different. It was all pretty homemade but worked; it was quite theatrical.” —Derek Jacobi
Sherlock (2010, 2012, 2014, 2016–17)
Somebody at Masterpiece knew what they were doing when they scooped a beloved literary and screen hero from his comfortable sleuthing amid plush Victorian parlours and foggy London streets and dropped him into the 21st century, reimagined as a brilliant but eccentric oddball played by Benedict Cumberbatch, 44. Sherlock’s eccentricities played well to American audiences; seven Emmys for 2014’s Sherlock: His Last Vow attest to that.
Masterpiece Memory “I was nervous about playing him. I think Sherlock might be the most portrayed fictional character on film, but whereas before he was seen as heroic, as a comment on where we are at as a culture, now in the 21st century, he’s treated with more suspicion in our version. People are unnerved by him.” —Benedict Cumberbatch
All Creatures Great and Small (1978–80, 1983, 1985, 1988–90; 2021)
One of the series’ most anticipated shows in its 50th year is a new version of All Creatures Great and Small (Jan. 10). This reimagined seven-part adaptation of James Herriot’s beloved books about a 1930s rural veterinarian in Yorkshire comes back to PBS (the original series aired on BBC and BBC One) and features Diana Rigg, who died in September of 2020, in one of her final appearances.
Downton Abbey (2011–15)
Set in Yorkshire from 1912-26, this beloved historical drama featured more stars than you could shake a Yorkshire pudding at, including Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Maggie Smith, Lily James and many more. The cast was almost as bereft as viewers when the series about the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants ended after six seasons.
“My last day filming was terribly emotional,” says Michelle Dockery, 39, who played Lady Mary Crawley. “I felt sick leading up to that final take, anticipating those words, ‘And that’s a wrap,’ after six years. My last scene I was below stairs, which was really poignant for me, with Jim Carter [Mr. Carson], Phyllis Logan [Mrs. Hughes] and Hugh Bonneville [Lord Grantham].”
Masterpiece Memory “Dancing with Dame Maggie Smith in the first Christmas special was an epic moment. I didn’t take my first acting job until I was 28; if someone had told me that I’d be doing a waltz with Dame Maggie—and that I’d stand on her toe in one take and that she’d give me a funny look—I’d have said, ‘No chance!’” —Robert James-Collier, butler Thomas Barrow
Popular with mystery lovers, Granchester features a village detective teamed up with an unlikely accomplice, the local handsome vicar (James Norton from 2014 to 2019 and Tom Brittney beginning in 2019).
“Granchester is quintessentially English,” says Robson Green, 56, who plays the detective, Geordie Keating. He describes the show’s setting as “beautiful, idyllic, peaceful and tranquil; perfect for picnics…and murder!”
Upstairs Downstairs (1974–77)
You wouldn’t think a show that captures the slow decline of the British aristocracy would be a hit, but it was. Set in a large London townhouse, the series depicts the servants—”downstairs”—and their masters, the family—”upstairs”—between the years 1903 and 1930. A lot happens in those 27 years, including the First World War and women’s suffrage.
The impact of Upstairs Downstairs, like most Masterpiece shows, comes not from violence but from emotion, Fellowes says. “The shows are dealing with the emotional response, not the brutal fact; all ages can watch them.”
Masterpiece Memory “I remember watching Upstairs Downstairs in my kitchen with my granny and my mom way before I had any idea that I would ever be in a TV show. The show had a deep impact on me.” —Elizabeth McGovern
Based on an 1871 novel by George Eliot, Middlemarch was a huge hit, inspiring viewers to read Victorian fiction or take a trip to visit Stamford, Lincolnshire, where the show’s exteriors were filmed. Rufus Sewell, 53, played romantic idealist Will Ladislaw, and Juliet Aubrey, 54, was Dorothea, the young woman central to most of the intrigue and drama.
Masterpiece Memory “I remember the hair! I was doing Arcadia [playing Septimus Hodge, a 19th-century friend of the poet Lord Byron] at the National Theatre at the same time, and I would go from one to the other, swishing my Byronic 1815 hairdo as I went.” —Rufus Sewell
Biggest Masterpiece Stars
Glenda Jackson, 84, the beloved star of 1972’s Elizabeth R, returns as a woman in the grip of dementia, searching for her missing friend, in a new Masterpiece show, Elizabeth Is Missing (Jan. 3).
Two-time Emmy nominee Kyle MacLachlan, 61, stars as Franklin D. Roosevelt in Atlantic Crossing (coming this spring), an epic drama based on the World War II relationship between the U.S. president and Norwegian Crown Princess Märtha.
Imelda Staunton, 64, of the 2020 Masterpiece Mystery! miniseries Flesh and Blood, is part of the ensemble of 12 actors reading British playwright Alan Bennett’s classic dramatic monologues in Talking Heads (coming this spring). Regarded as some of the most moving contributions to contemporary English literature, the monologues were filmed in England during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Judie Dench, 86, is a Masterpiece regular, having starred in Love in a Cold Climate (1980), Mrs. Brown (1997) and Cranford (2008, 2010).
Fan-favorite Shaun Evans, 40, charms audiences with his portrayal of the cerebral and solitary Detective Constable Endeavour Morse in Endeavour (2012–present), written by Inspector Lewis creator and Inspector Morse writer Russell Lewis.
Michael Kitchen, 72, and Honeysuckle Weeks, 41, as Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle and his driver Samantha Stewart/Wainwright, helped hike the popularity of Foyle’s War (2002–4, 2006–8, 2010, 2013, 2015), the eight-season British detective drama set during (and shortly after) the Second World War.
Brideshead Revisited (1981), an 11-episode retelling of the Evelyn Waugh novel set in the 1920s through the early ’40s, helped make stars of Jeremy Irons, 72, and Anthony Andrews, 72.
Emily Watson, 53, and Angela Lansbury, 95, starred in Masterpiece’s Little Women (2017), as Marmee and Aunt March, respectively.
A six-part Les Misérables (2018) featured Lily Collins, 31, as Fantine, Dominic West, 51, as Jean Valjean and David Oyelowo, 44, as Inspector Javert.
Before she was the queen on The Crown, Claire Foy, 36, played Amy Dorrit in Little Dorrit (2009), a BBC production of the Charles Dickens’ book that aired on Masterpiece.