Shortly after Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh and husband of Queen Elizabeth II, died last Friday, the BBC cut away from its schedule to broadcast special coverage across its TV channels and radio stations for the entire afternoon and night.
As popular shows were taken off the air — including Friday’s episode of “EastEnders,” a soap opera that has run since 1985, and the final episode of “MasterChef,” a cooking competition show — the BBC was flooded with expressions of displeasure. To be exact: 109,741 complaints were received, the BBC said on Thursday, making it the most complained-about moment in the BBC’s history. [ . . . ]
It’s pointless trying to divide up and second-guess audiences. Just create high-quality television and let us choose for ourselves
Should the BBC be making more programmes specifically targeted at older viewers? Responding to a letter accusing the corporation of taking older viewers for granted, the audience services department (on behalf of senior management) said that, in their opinion, the over-50s actually had varied tastes, so were encouraged to enjoy shows made for a “general audience”.
That wasn’t good enough for DCMS chair Julian Knight, who declared that many people feel “the BBC has left them behind”, while, in contrast, writer Charlie Higson has said that the BBC was “forever tying itself in knots about the ageing demographic of its viewers” and stereotyping them by programming gardening shows and documentaries about tanks. It’s also notable that BBC Three is getting an extra £40 million for its terrestrial reboot, with a schedule “aimed at audiences 16-34”, while BBC Four becomes a repeats channel.
But is the viewing audience really that simply – or starkly – divided? I think it’s eminently more sensible to make programming for that so-called “general audience” rather than fretting about demographic targets or second-guessing audience preferences in such an offhand, even patronising, way.
One of the big hits of lockdown, BBC Three’s adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People, might seem a prime example of “yoof” telly, as a coming-of-age drama centring on two teenagers navigating love, sex, family and education. Yet only 5m of the record 16.2m viewers in its first week were from that 16-34 group; the other two-thirds were older viewers.
And that makes perfect sense. You don’t need to be a teenager right now to be able to understand adolescent experience; we’ve all gone through it. Nor do you need to match the characters’ age in order to appreciate a sensitively crafted, beautifully performed piece of drama. If anything, it might be a more powerful watch with an added wistful nostalgia. Certainly, Rooney’s readership wasn’t confined to young adulthood, even as many labelled her a “millennial” voice.
The same applies to other lockdown favourites, like The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix. By November 2020, over 62m households had tuned in to watch the exploits of chess prodigy Beth Harmon, not just those of a similarly tender age. And of the 9m-plus consolidated viewers who enjoyed ITV’s Quiz, about Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?’s “Coughing Major”, 1.5m were aged 16-34, even though this was based on a scandal that took place before many of them were born.
It just goes to show that you can’t pigeon-hole viewers – and it’s foolish to try. What we really want is quality entertainment, and if it touches on a universal experience or emotion, then of course it will appeal to people of all ages. The best television doesn’t divide us; it unites us. And never have we needed that more than in this past difficult year, with many separated from loved ones or living in isolation. Continue reading →
A Falling Tree production for BBC Radio 4 first broadcast in September 2016.
Annie Briggs was a leading figure in the English folk revival of the early 1960s, inspiring Bert Jansch (famously, in Blackwater Side), Sandy Denny, The Watersons and many more. But she was a restless spirit, travelling through the British Isles and Ireland, finding songs and living close to the earth.
As Sandy Denny depicted her in The Pond and the Stream: Annie wanders on the land. She loves the freedom of the air. She finds a friend in ev’ry place she goes. There’s always a face she knows. I wish that I was there.
And so she remains, now a grandmother living by the water in the west of Scotland. She’s always resolutely resisted celebrity and commercial success, withdrawing from the folk scene in the early 1970s, but her legacy – her voice and her attitude – continue to inspire and to carry a link to life as it was once lived in ‘the imagined village’.
Annie talks to Alan Hall about childhood holidays singing along with the waves, writing songs while living on a beach in west Ireland, her garden and the wildlife that she shares it with, and the ballad tradition she discovered as a teenager and that she ‘belongs to’.
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.” Continue reading →
Normal People’s treatment of nudity and sex is a gateway to so much more .
By Abby Robinson
Sally Rooney’s hand is felt throughout Normal People, the BBC Three and Hulu co-production based on her critically acclaimed novel of the same name. The characters move and breathe as they do in all 266 pages of the book, the story of Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal) as captivating on screen as it in Rooney’s written word.
Even if you didn’t know that the Irish writer was an executive producer or co-wrote six episodes – Edgar-Jones described her as “very involved” and “overseeing everything” to Digital Spy and other press – you’d know anyway, because it shows.
Normal People is beautiful. It sweeps you up in its arms, capturing the very essence of the book – that all-encompassing love between Marianne and Connell that transcends the physical, the pair fascinated by the way each thinks and how they see the world.
It’s a series that would, without the perfect casting, have fallen flat. But Edgar-Jones and Mescal are breathtakingly good and there’s no other pair on earth that could have exceeded their performances.