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

So, You Want to Start Watching The Crown

Can you dive into the Netflix series for the first time with season four? Sure! But there are some things you should know first.

The fourth season of The Crown is the first one to cover some of the most familiar stories about the royal family. It’s the first foray into Charles and Diana, it’s the first time the series gets into modern politics and the Thatcher area, and it’s also the first time that its central figure, Queen Elizabeth, resembles something closer to the monarch we know today. It’s also a great season of TV, with more energy and momentum than the show has had in previous years. It’s fun and gossipy, in its own deeply serious, painstakingly psychoanalytical kind of way.

So, let’s say you’ve never seen the show and are now interested in jumping in with season four. Will that work? Do you need to watch the beginning to know what’s going on? Can you just skip straight to the juicy parts?

Short answer: Sure, knock yourself out!

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The Crown offers a ‘Now That’s What I Call The Troubles!’ version of Irish history


The Crown season four review: The ‘angry Nordie’ stereotype is long past its sell-by date

Series four of The Crown is a tale of two iconic women – neither of whom has the letters “HRH” before their name. Because while Olivia Colman’s wry (and sometimes unsympathetic) Elizabeth II, of course, continues to receive top billing, the season is really all about Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher.

This could have been the point at which Peter Morgan’s reliably middle-brow chronicling of the Queen’s progress through the 20th century went off the rails. Diana and Thatcher are both seismic figures. The obvious worry is that parachuting them into this delicately-wrought drama would capsize the entire endeavour.

But to his credit Morgan incorporates Princess Di and Mrs T seamlessly into his grand chronicling of Elizabeth’s life and times (they may be the stars, yet they are in orbit around her). He is helped by extraordinary performances by Emma Corrin as the bright-eyed young Diana and by Gillian Anderson as a rather wistful Thatcher.

Corrin captures Diana’s naivety and her taste for the spotlight (the first time she is chased by paparazzi, something like a smile flashes across her face). Morgan clearly sees Diana as a victim hoodwinked into tying the knot with a Prince (Josh O’Connor) already in love with the married Camilla Parker-Bowles (Emerald Fennell, bringing shades of panto villainy).

The depiction of her struggles with bulimia are particularly frank and shocking. Still, The Crown is careful not to go far down the road of framing her as utterly hapless. Morgan makes it clear that Diana is an intelligent woman with her own agency (and impressive pair of roller-skates, which she uses to whoosh about Buckingham Palace).

Thatcher is a revelation, too.The part is a showcase for Anderson, who could not be further removed from her X-Files days. An Emmy Award is surely incoming

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