History in the Making


Downton Abbey serves its last cup of tea in America as Masterpiece celebrates its 45th anniversary.

Written by NANCY M. WEST
Portraits by TOM KELLER

June 2016

After six triumphal seasons, Downton Abbey served its last cup of tea in America on March 6th. Daisy has moved on, presumably, to marry Andy. Julian Fellowes has moved on to write The Gilded Age. And Masterpiece, the PBS show that first brought Downton Abbey to us on a January night in 2011, has moved on too.

Masterpiece celebrates its 45th anniversary this year. In the world of television, 45 years has an unbelievable, Methusaleh-like sound to it, bordering on the miraculous. The show’s long life is all the more remarkable because doomsayers had been predicting its imminent demise for 20 years. It was too stuffy, too quaint, to survive in a television landscape increasingly dominated by antiheroes and reality shows. Today, however, the pulse rate of Masterpiece has never been healthier. Because of Downton Abbey’s blockbuster success, it is enjoying a 35% rise in ratings, with a new audience of hip, young viewers— including Katy Perry and Jay Electronica— eager for more costume drama. And it is heading in brave directions, thanks to the brisk, experimental drama now emerging from Britain. 

MASTER STROKES

With a fanfare of trumpets, Masterpiece Theatre premiered on January 10, 1971. It opened in the library of some imagined country house where Alistair Cooke, the show’s legendary host for 22 years, sat cozily ensconced in a wing chair. In his redolent English voice, he introduced a BBC miniseries called The First Churchills, written and produced by Donald Wilson. If you looked closely, you could see the creases in Cooke’s trousers. 

“Jack Pulman’s adaptation of Robert Graves Roman histories, I, Claudius, with its incestuous liaisons and bloody beheadings, pushed the limits of small-screen sex and violence. This includes a scene in which Caligula cuts the fetus from his sister’s womb, then eats it.”

Ads proclaimed that Masterpiece Theatre was bringing “the best of British drama” to America. To many, the concept seemed pretentious. But to viewers of the nascent PBS station, it felt fresh and exciting: a welcome alternative to the sitcoms and game shows choking American airwaves. As one of the program’s originators would later say, “Nobody had ever done a show like this...Not even the BBC realized there was a theme to what they were doing.” 

The First Churchills ran for 12 weeks, launching a form that would become Masterpiece Theatre’s métier and mainstay: the dramatic miniseries.

Critics complained about the series’ muddled plot, but they also thought it surpassed anything else on American TV. They applauded the “witty” dialogue and “sparkling characterizations” of Sarah and John Churchill. They appreciated the “solid dose of Restoration history.” And fed up with America’s own “prudish programming,” they delighted in its “lusty scenes of aristocrats jumping in and out of each other’s beds.” 

Other early series include heavyweights like Jude the Obscure, scripted by Harry Green, and Madame Bovary, written by Giles Cooper. Critics praised these series for their “remarkable fidelity to the mood and atmosphere” of the novels. And while some chafed at the conservatism of such choices, others expressed gratitude for the “seriousness” and “good taste” Masterpiece Theatre was bringing to American television. Reinforcing these associations was Cooke himself, Oxford-educated and bearing a cut-glass accent: America’s epitome of the civilized aristocrat. And yet Cooke could be deliciously “improper.” Introducing Rex Tucker’s adaptation of Vanity Fair, he pronounced Becky Sharp to be “one of the most accomplished bitches between the fall of Rome and the rise of Las Vegas.”  

Other early series include heavyweights like Jude the Obscure, scripted by Harry Green, and Madame Bovary, written by Giles Cooper. Critics praised these series for their “remarkable fidelity to the mood and atmosphere” of the novels. And while some chafed at the conservatism of such choices, others expressed gratitude for the “seriousness” and “good taste” Masterpiece Theatre was bringing to American television. Reinforcing these associations was Cooke himself, Oxford-educated and bearing a cut-glass accent: America’s epitome of the civilized aristocrat. And yet Cooke could be deliciously “improper.” Introducing Rex Tucker’s adaptation of Vanity Fair, he pronounced Becky Sharp to be “one of the most accomplished bitches between the fall of Rome and the rise of Las Vegas.”  

Photo Caption

However much cachet these classic adaptations lent Masterpiece Theatre, they are not the standouts of its first decade. This designation goes to Elizabeth R, an original drama about England’s illustrious queen in which writers John Hale, Julian Mitchell, and John Prebble inserted 1970s feminist politics. Another standout is I, Claudius, adapted by Jack Pulman. With its incestuous liaisons and bloody beheadings, I, Claudius pushed the limits of small-screen sex and violence. This includes a scene in which Caligula cuts the fetus from his sister’s womb, then eats it, which had to be edited 11 times before the BBC’s Serial Department gave its stamp of nervous approval. 

The real masterpiece of the decade, however, is Upstairs, Downstairs. Airing from 1974 to 1977, it marked Masterpiece Theatre’s first turning point. Like Downton Abbey, it portrayed an upper-class British family and their servants during the early 20th century. It also used soap opera conventions with cheeky abandon. While this worried some PBS executives, producer Joan Wilson guessed Upstairs, Downstairs would free the program from its toplofty associations. She was right. Almost overnight, it became a blockbuster hit. Festooned with awards, it captured an audience of nearly 1 billion viewers worldwide, including the Shah of Iran, by the time it finished its re-broadcast in 1987. 

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However much cachet these classic adaptations lent Masterpiece Theatre, they are not the standouts of its first decade. This designation goes to Elizabeth R, an original drama about England’s illustrious queen in which writers John Hale, Julian Mitchell, and John Prebble inserted 1970s feminist politics. Another standout is I, Claudius, adapted by Jack Pulman. With its incestuous liaisons and bloody beheadings, I, Claudius pushed the limits of small-screen sex and violence. This includes a scene in which Caligula cuts the fetus from his sister’s womb, then eats it, which had to be edited 11 times before the BBC’s Serial Department gave its stamp of nervous approval. 

The real masterpiece of the decade, however, is Upstairs, Downstairs. Airing from 1974 to 1977, it marked Masterpiece Theatre’s first turning point. Like Downton Abbey, it portrayed an upper-class British family and their servants during the early 20th century. It also used soap opera conventions with cheeky abandon. While this worried some PBS executives, producer Joan Wilson guessed Upstairs, Downstairs would free the program from its toplofty associations. She was right. Almost overnight, it became a blockbuster hit. Festooned with awards, it captured an audience of nearly 1 billion viewers worldwide, including the Shah of Iran, by the time it finished its re-broadcast in 1987. 

Upstairs, Downstairs’ most stunning achievement is in how it limited filming to the inside of the family home: in reality, a wobbly set that when shooting began got dismantled after each episode and tossed in a corner. To confine the filming this way was a brave and backward step, taken by creators Alfred Shaughnessy and John Hawkesworth because they believed the script, not the camera, should be the star of a series. They hired 11 of Britain’s best scriptwriters, instructing them to include three “acts” and an upstairs/downstairs plot in each episode. By the end of season two, the show had shifted its tone from lighthearted to elegiac and fastened its drama onto one character— the wayward son, James Bellamy. In the penultimate episode, after he learns he has squandered his family’s fortune on the stock market, he retreats to his room, arranges his belongings, and shoots himself in the head. Even today, this remains one of the most powerful scenes in television drama.