An intimate portrait of the iconic but elusive English folksinger Annie Briggs

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’.

Producer: Alan Hall

Happy Birthday, Masterpiece! Find Out Why Americans Love British Programming So Much

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 birthdayMasterpiece!

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 is a masterclass in on screen nudity

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.

normal people
BBC/HULU

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The enduring allure of erotic masterpiece Black Narcissus

What began as a 1930s novel about troubled nuns in the Himalayas led, a few years on, to a film classic. Now as a new TV version begins, Neil Armstrong explores the story’s dark power.

There is nothing in the innocent opening sentences of Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel Black Narcissus to suggest that the subsequent film version would be butchered by censors, banned, and eventually hailed as “one of the first truly erotic films” by one of the world’s great directors – Martin Scorsese.

 
Black Narcissus tells the story of a group of nuns who find themselves overcome by repressed desire when they move to a Himalayan retreat (Credit: Alamy)

Black Narcissus tells the story of a group of nuns who find themselves overcome by repressed desire when they move to a Himalayan retreat (Credit: Alamy)

That movie was made by an English director and a Hungarian-born writer-producer: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the celebrated cinema partnership revered for a series of groundbreaking and influential British films, of which Black Narcissus has become one of the best-loved. Now, there is a new adaptation, this time a joint BBC-FX production made for the small screen and starring Gemma Arterton and Aisling Franciosi.

The book, Godden’s third, and first bestseller, was praised by critics for its “rare beauty” and its “subtlety and freshness”, yet the story is not commonly described in such terms now. Rather Amanda Coe, the writer of the new three-part television version, says she thinks of it as “The Shining with nuns”.

Godden, who died aged 90 in 1998, was born in England but spent much of her childhood in India where her father managed a steamship company. She was a bestselling author who wrote more than 60 books, several of which were filmed. However her popularity has waned to the point where the most familiar Rumer to some will be the actress daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, apparently named after the writer.

Black Narcissus is Godden’s best-known work, partly because of the success and enduring popularity of the 1947 film. It tells the story of a small cadre of nuns from an Anglo-Catholic order sent to a remote mountaintop palace 8,000ft (2,400m) up in the Himalayas to establish a school and dispensary for the ‘natives’ – whether the ‘natives’ want one or not. The young, relatively inexperienced and rather self-important Sister Clodagh is placed in charge of this mission. Among the nuns is the highly-strung, difficult Sister Ruth.

The sexual themes are understated in the novel but when Michael Powell read it, he felt ‘the story, so coolly told in excellent prose, would be wildly exotic and erotic on the screen’

The palace is an unsettling place, perched vertiginously on the edge of a gorge and constantly buffeted by the wind. “I think you can see too far,” one of the nuns says. The locals know the building as the House of Women because, in the past, the region’s ruler kept his harem there. It is still filled with the ghosts of bygone days. The air may be thin, but the atmosphere is thick.

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