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.” Continue reading
The streaming service boasts an impressive line-up of British television to choose from.
BritBox has stolen our hearts during lockdown, with the relatively new streaming service providing a healthy dose of nostalgia and a mix of comedies and serious dramas.
The streamer is a collaborative effort between the BBC, ITV and Channel 4, and it brings together the best content from those broadcasters for the price of £5.99/month.
Shows available to watch as boxsets include the likes of Downton Abbey, Midsomer Murders, Gavin & Stacey, Wolf Hall, and The Vicar of Dibley, with more shows set to join their ranks on the platform.
Read on for the best BritBox television picks from the staff, from Love Island to Miss Marple.
The Vicar of Dibley
This sinfully funny sitcom was one of our top Lockdown Binges earlier in the year, and with good reason – Dawn French answers all our prayers as Geraldine Granger, a left-leaning vicar and bonne vivante who rocks up to the sleepy village of Dibley and turns it upside down.
The series first aired back in the mid-90s when female vicars were still a novelty, but new viewers will find that the show still provides laughs aplenty, alongside sneaking in some still-prescient messages about sexism and body positivity.
Beecham House – Season 1
What’s it about?
Created by Gurinder Chadha (Viceroy’s House, Bend It Like Beckham), ITV’s new six-part drama is set on the cusp of the 19th century in India.
The story is based in Delhi, before the British ruled the region, and follows the residents of Beecham House, an imposing mansion surrounded by acres of exotic woods and pristine lawns.
The cast of Beecham House includes Lesley Nicol (Downton Abbey), Adil Ray (Citizen Khan), Marc Warren (Hustle), Leo Suter (Victoria) and Dakota Blue Richards (Endeavour).
What did the reviews say?
“Although a world away from the likes of Downton Abbey in terms of setting, the series shares many themes including family drama and romance with the backdrop of a monumental time in history. While its truly magical and enchanting setting will leave you wanting to book a holiday to India, the element of mystery will leave you hungry for more.” ★★★★ – Metro
“Beecham House is a feast for the eyes … [Tom] Bateman as Beecham has everything a Sunday-night hero needs…” ★★★ – The Times
Continue all 35 programs at British Period Dramas
Christopher Muther loves all things “Downton.” Could the movie version of a favorite show mess it all up?
We have a hard time letting go of things we love.
Be it a treasured trinket, an old love letter, or maybe a dead pet’s ashes in a shoebox under the bed — although hopefully not that. But when it comes to television characters, we really can’t let go.
When they’re not getting rebooted on the small screen, à la “Will & Grace,” “Roseanne,” or “Gilmore Girls,” they’re turning up at the cinema. This is when we hold our breath. Legacy and love are at stake.
Was it a good idea to make a second “Sex and the City” movie, even with the added bonus of Liza Minnelli singing “Single Ladies”? Absolutely not. Did the actors from “Star Trek,” plus William Shatner’s toupee, need to come back to save the whales 20 years after the original series debuted? Nope. Did we need an “Entourage” movie? That’s a hard no. We didn’t need “Entourage” in any form.
I invested myself deeply in 52 episodes of the upstairs-downstairs drama of an English family trying to hang on to a monolithic castle and its evaporating aristocratic lifestyle. The series was a gift that we delicately and eagerly opened layer after layer, year after year, until we were emotionally satisfied and grateful with what series creator Julian Fellowes and international treasure Maggie Smith had bequeathed us.
I was terrified to find out whether the “Downton” movie would be the gift that kept on giving, or whether I would need to hang on to the emotional receipt and ask for my cherished memories back. I love all things “Downton,” and I didn’t want those memories sullied.
Guess who cried with joy when Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) proposed to Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery)? This guy, that’s who. Who dropped his Doritos with quaking hands and a quivering lip when Lady Edith Crawley (Laura Carmichael) was left at the altar? Yes, that was me as well. I’ve traveled to the locations in England where the show was filmed, and I have come up with excuses to interview the actors and the show’s costume designer. The technical term for this type of behavior is shameless.
The news of a “Downton Abbey” movie stirred equal parts terror and elation in my chitterlings. Everyone appeared destined to live happily ever after when the series wrapped. I did not want to see Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) tossed back in prison or listen to patriarch Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) sputter more outdated guff when Mary and Tom Branson (Allen Leech) attempt to save the estate.
“Please!” I thought. “Leave them be.” If we’ve learned anything from years of television and movies, it’s that exhuming the dead can only lead to zombies, or, even worse, an “Entourage” movie.
Even with my deep trepidation, there was no question that I would see the movie. I managed to squeeze myself into an early screening (again, shameless), and bit my lip as John Lunn’s now-iconic “Downton” theme began.
Here’s the good news about the movie. The legacy remains intact. Even better, Paul Giamatti does not make a guest appearance. With few exceptions, there is nothing too damning or outrageous that happens to our beloved characters. I’m not going to reveal those exceptions because I operate under a strict no-spoilers policy. The film is primarily a self-contained caper surrounding a visit from King George V and Queen Mary. But that visit is a thin excuse to launch the action, both among the Crawleys and the servants.
Truth be told, I could have sat for two hours and watched Smith’s Violet Crawley volley pointed witticisms while wagging her chin at Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), who is now known as Lady Merton. The chemistry between the two actresses is as dynamic as it was during the series.
The movie feels like one of the cherished Christmas episodes, but longer. It’s a tidy package with a few character development tendrils unfurling with the promise of new stories, new romance, and new changes.
But wait. Does this mean a second “Downton” movie is on the horizon?
Fellowes, “Downton” producer Gareth Neame, and three actors from the show/movie were at the screening I attended. After the movie there was a Q & A session where the question of a sequel was asked. Fellowes shrugged and grinned, Neame said it would depend on how this movie did at the box office, and Phyllis Logan (Mrs. Hughes) and Lesley Nicol (Mrs. Patmore) both strongly indicated that they were onboard for a second film.
Immediately, I began to fret again about my “Downton” family and said a silent prayer. “Please, no matter how many of these movies you make, just let Edith be happy and keep the Dowager Countess alive as long as possible.”