In today’s world of social media, streaming entertainment on demand, and short attention spans, the idea of a television series celebrating its 50th anniversary feels like — and is — an anomaly. But such is the case for Masterpiece, formerly known as Masterpiece Theatre (more on that later), which is still going strong five decades after its January 1971 debut. Incredibly, although the series has undergone numerous changes over the past five decades, it still offers basically the same winning formula that it has offered for generations: curated programming that largely consists of adaptations of classic novels by (mostly British) authors including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Hardy, Agatha Christie, and Jane Austen, among others. Some of its most popular dramas, like the award-winning Downton Abbey and fan-favorite Sherlock, have become so successful in their own right that viewers often forget they're products of the same singular anthology series.
As well-established as Masterpiece is, however, there’s a lot about its history and its form that remains a mystery to even its most ardent fans. Did you know, for instance, that it's produced by Boston’s local public TV station WGBH and features content purchased from the UK’s BBC, ITV, and Channel 4? (Most viewers stateside primarily associate Masterpiece with PBS, which actually just distributes the content.) Masterpiece was also arguably the launching pad for now-household names including Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, and Helen Mirren. Here are 10 surprising facts about the long-running series that may help shed some light on the ever-enduring appeal of Masterpiece.
1. It’s the longest-running primetime drama in the history of American television — even though the content is exclusively British.
Masterpiece Theatre premiered its first episode on January 10, 1971, following the success of a 1967 adaptation of John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga. Stanford Calderwood, who was then the president of WGBH, Boston’s PBS affiliate, saw that success and wondered whether there might be a growing American appetite for British drama. His instincts proved spot-on. While on vacation in London, he convinced the execs at BBC that a partnership could prove fruitful for both networks; now, 50 years later, American viewers continue to clamor for classic British stories told with beautiful sets and elaborate costumes.
2. The Mobil Corporation helped get Masterpiece Theatre up and running as its first sponsor.
Because Masterpiece Theatre is distributed by PBS (which stands for Public Broadcasting Service), it depends on the support of individual sponsors and public donations to stay afloat financially, a la Sesame Street and other great PBS programming. So while it was a huge win for Calderwood to get the go-ahead from the BBC to distribute their content, he still needed a way to finance the series. Luckily for him, Herb Schmerz of the Mobil Corporation agreed to sign on as the main underwriter in 1971, to the tune of $1 million that first year, which helped get the series on the air. In fact, Mobil continued to be a primary sponsor for Masterpiece Theatre up until 2004. Other sponsors since then have included Viking River Cruises, Ralph Lauren, and Farmers Insurance.
3. Producers found the iconic Masterpiece theme song at a Club Med in Sicily.
Part of the appeal of Masterpiece is its unapologetic British-ness, from the period costumes to the bucolic sets. Interestingly, however, the trumpet-filled theme song that ushers in each episode comes not from England but from France — specifically, French composer Jean-Joseph Mouret. Even stranger, producer Christopher Sarson stumbled upon the now-instantly-recognizable intro at a Club Med in Palermo, Sicily. As the story goes, Sarson heard the music on vacation with his soon-to-be-wife in 1962, when Club Med played the stately tune (“Rondeau” from Mouret’s Symphonies and Fanfares for the King’s Supper) each morning as a way to summon guests out of their grass huts for breakfast. “It was just magic,” Sarson previously told PBS. “I wanted to use it for Masterpiece Theatre but there was no way I could bear to put a French piece of music on something that was supposed to be English. I went through all kinds of English composers and nothing worked. So, it became the theme.”
4. The series’ original host, Alistair Cooke, thought it was going to fail.
Masterpiece Theatre’s very first host was British-American broadcaster, author, and journalist Alistair Cooke. Cooke was the face of the series for more than 20 years, but he actually turned down the hosting gig when it was first offered to him. At the time, he was working on his own BBC series, and he wasn't convinced that Masterpiece would appeal to American audiences. According to Rebecca Eaton, who has served as Masterpiece’s producer since 1985, Cooke only agreed to sign on at his daughter’s urging. In a show of skepticism, Eaton wrote in her 2013 book Making Masterpiece, he signed a one-year contract just weeks before the series premiered — and proceeded to sign one-year contracts for the remainder of his time as host, a whopping 22 seasons.
Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Russell Baker, who succeeded Cooke as the show’s host in 1993, didn’t want to take the job either, though for different reasons. The journalist reportedly had qualms about filling Cooke’s big shoes — it was only after his daughter begged him to consider the role that he eventually agreed.
5. Helen Mirren’s Prime Suspect character, Jane Tennison, is believed to have inspired more nuanced female TV roles.
Helen Mirren has been acting since the 1960s, but she is perhaps most beloved for her leading role in the early '90s Masterpiece Theatre series Prime Suspect, in which she played a no-nonsense Detective Chief Inspector for London’s Metropolitan Police Service. The series itself was groundbreaking for honing in on themes of sexism in the workplace, especially as it affected Mirren's character, Jane Tennison. Mirren was nominated six times (and won twice) for Best Actress in a Miniseries at the Emmys, and her character has been credited as a model for strong female TV leads, including Kyra Sedgwick’s Brenda Leigh Johnson on The Closer and Gillian Anderson's Stella Gibson on The Fall.
6. Downton Abbey is the series’ most successful and popular miniseries.
In its 50-year history, no Masterpiece miniseries has drawn as much buzz as Downton Abbey, which debuted in the U.K. on September 26, 2010, and on PBS the following January. The series, which aired its final season in the U.S. in 2016, chronicled the lives of an aristocratic family and their domestic servants in the fictional Yorkshire county estate of Downton Abbey. It tackled historic events ranging from the First World War to the Spanish influenza pandemic to the Irish War of Independence, all through the lens of the highly hierarchical household. It’s the most nominated non-U.S. series in Emmy history, with a total of 59 nominations and 12 wins. In 2019, a full-length feature film was released due to popular demand, furthering the storyline of the original Masterpiece series and featuring many of the original actors.
7. Parodies include Sesame Street’s “Monsterpiece Theater” and Disney Channel’s “Mousterpiece Theater.”
Masterpiece has become such a cultural institution that it has inspired parodies in a number of mainstream shows, ranging from Sesame Street’s “Monsterpiece Theater” (featuring host Cookie Monster as “Alistair Cookie”) to the Disney Channel’s “Mousterpiece Theater,” hosted by George Plimpton. The hilarious Thug Notes is also a clear spin on the prim and proper Masterpiece formula, as is Issa Rae’s Ratchetpiece Theatre. A number of sketch comedy shows have featured spoofs of the long-running series, too, including In Living Color, which aired a sketch in season 5 that had Jamie Foxx and David Alan Grier reciting the lyrics of popular gangster rap songs in a deadpan manner. Mad TV also previously ran a sketch called “Master P’s Theater,” with the titular rapper sitting in the host’s seat.
8. The decades-old series was given a modern brand update in 2008, dropping the word “Theatre” and splitting into three sections.
So, about that name change: In 2008, in a bid to modernize the series, the word “Theatre” was dropped from Masterpiece Theatre, resulting in a sleeker, simpler moniker. The series was also split into three different sections that would ostensibly serve up different stories for different viewers — Masterpiece Classic, Masterpiece Mystery!, and Masterpiece Contemporary. Masterpiece Classic was originally hosted by Gillian Anderson, but has since been taken over by Laura Linney and dropped the word "Classic," to become just Masterpiece. Alan Cumming hosts Masterpiece Mystery!, and David Tennant hosts Masterpiece Contemporary (first hosted by Matthew Goode).
9. Countless Hollywood stars made a name for themselves on Masterpiece series before (and after) crossing over to the States.
Helen Mirren is far from the only household name to grace the ever-expansive web of Masterpiece cast lists. Other A-listers, including Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock), Maggie Smith (Downton Abbey), Laurence Olivier (Henry V), Peggy Ashcroft (The Jewel in the Crown), and Jane Seymour (The Six Wives of Henry VIII) also had major roles on Masterpiece series.
10. Before Downton Abbey, Upstairs Downstairs was voted the most popular in 2006.
Before Downton Abbey came along as the most successful Masterpiece series of all time, Upstairs, Downstairs was the undisputed favorite, according to a 2006 survey of PBS viewers. Interestingly, the 1970s series’ storyline bears a lot of similarities to its more modern descendant: Upstairs, Downstairs followed the lives of servants living in a large townhouse in Belgravia in central London (the “downstairs”) and the parallel lives of their masters (the “upstairs”). The series was set in the early 1900s, and spanned 27 years, encompassing the Edwardian period, women’s suffrage, World War I, and the Roaring Twenties. It seems as though Masterpiece fans have a “type”: period pieces that dissect social hierarchies and the drama between social classes.
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