Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on December 29, 2011
2011 marked the 40th anniversary of Masterpiece on PBS and I couldn’t let the year pass without making note of the show’s accomplishments and sharing some highlights from their current schedule. After 40 long and impressive years Masterpiece is better than ever and if you’re not watching you’re missing some of the most thoughtful, well-written and wonderfully acted programs on television. I also happen to think that some of the shows currently airing on Masterpiece are more interesting and entertaining than anything you’ll find playing at your local multiplex.
Masterpiece premiered on PBS in 1971 as Masterpiece Theatre. The show was hosted by Alistair Cooke and was recognized for its adaptations of classic novels and biographies. Throughout the shows long history Masterpiece Theatre has been rewarded with numerous Emmys and Peabody Awards for the critically acclaimed programs they’ve aired such as Elizabeth R starring Glenda Jackson as the British Queen, an adaptation of Vanity Fair with Susan Hampshire playing the cunning social-climbing anti-heroine Becky Sharp and I, Claudius, which featured a remarkable performance from Derek Jacobi as the stammering Roman Emperor. One of Masterpiece Theatre‘s most popular and longest running series was Upstairs, Downstairs, which depicted the class struggles and personal stories of a wealthy “Upstairs” family and the “Downstairs” servants who work in the large Edwardian house they all shared in London. And Prime Suspect, featuring the Academy Award winning actress Helen Mirren, became one of the most highly regarded programs that Masterpiece Theatre has ever aired.
Nine years after the premiere of Masterpiece Theatre, the show gained a ‘sister series’ called Mystery! that featured adaptations of British crime fiction and detective stories. Mystery! premiered in 1980 and was hosted by Gene Shalit who was soon replaced by the late great Vincent Price. Some of the most popular shows on Mystery! included Rumpole of the Bailey with Leo McKern, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes starring Jeremy Brett and the Inspector Morse series featuring John Thaw as the aging Inspector Morse and Kevin Whately as Sergeant Lewis. The program has also had a lot of success with their long-running adaptations of Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Miss Marple mysteries.
In 2008 Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! merged into one all-inclusive program simply called Masterpiece but with three individual brands; Masterpiece Classic, Masterpiece Mystery! and the newly spawned Masterpiece Contemporary. The show’s current hosts are actress Laura Linney along with fellow actors Alan Cumming and David Tennant. Producers hoped that the name change and facelift might attract a younger and fresher audience. It’s no small coincidence that it’s become somewhat commonplace for shortsighted film critics to use the term “Masterpiece Theater” as an insult when reviewing British films. Apparently in some circles well-acted adaptations of classic literature and crime fiction are worthy of scorn. The view seems to be that Masterpiece Theater was stuffy, stilted and barely watchable but nothing could be further from the truth. A good story never goes out of fashion and although Masterpiece still intends to revisit longstanding literary favorites, the program is also taking some surprising chances and breaking new ground. Don’t believe me? Here’s some examples of the best shows currently airing on Masterpiece as well as a look ahead at highly anticipated new programs scheduled to air in 2012.
Downton Abbey is a British period drama created by screenwriter, Julian Fellowes. Fellows is probably best known to American audiences for his work on two Oscar-winning films, Robert Altman’s GOSFORD PARK (2001) and Jean-Marc Vallée’s THE YOUNG VICTORIA (2009). The series focuses on an aristocratic family and their servants as they navigate the quickly changing modern world while the Great War of 1914 fast approaches threatening to change all of their lives forever. The cast, which includes Maggie Smith, Elizabeth McGovern, Hugh Bonnevilleis and Jim Carter is exceptional and the writing is particularly smart. If you appreciated Upstairs, Downstairs and Fellowes’ previous writting for GOSFORD PARK or happen to enjoy the work of British authors like Evelyn Waugh you’ll undoubtedly find Downton Abbey as engaging as I do. The first series aired on Masterpiece last year and is currently being re-shown in anticipation for the new series, which starts next month on Jan. 8th and runs through Feb 19th. You can also currently watch episodes of the first Downton Abbey series online at the Masterpiece PBS site.
Sherlock Holmes seems to be everywhere these days but the most interesting modern interpretation of the character can currently be seen on Masterpiece Mystery! in the aptly named new series, Sherlock. Benedict Cumberbatch portrays Sherlock Holmes as a quick-thinking, arrogant outsider with an obsessive compulsion to solve crimes. Martin Freeman plays Holmes sidekick, the amicable Dr. Watson, an Afghanistan war vet struggling to cope with the after effects of the war while losing himself in the world of amateur sleuthing. The scripts are based on updated versions of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic Sherlock Holmes stories told with a modern twist and they make great use of current technologies and scientific advances. Sherlock is exciting, fresh and just plain entertaining but it’s also brilliantly acted by its two leads. Mark my words, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are two actors destined for even bigger things in the near future including roles in Peter Jackson’s upcoming adaptation of THE HOBBIT (2012). In January Masterpiece will be re-showing the first episodes of Sherlock in anticipation of season two, which will air later in the year. You can also currently watch it on Netflix.
Next year Masterpiece is going to be focusing a lot of their attention on classic works by Charles Dickens. Besides an encore presentation of The Old Curiosity Shop starring Masterpiece favorite, Derek Jacobi, they’ll also be airing new adaptations of Great Expectations and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Great Expectations will debut on Masterpiece in April of 2012 and the award-winning actress Gillian Anderson will be playing Miss Havisham along with Ray Winstone as Magwitch, David Suchet as Mr. Jaggers and a young up-and-coming actor by the name of Douglas Booth stars as Pip. It’s directed by Brian Kirk who’s worked on many well-received shows including Luther, Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones. Great Expectations debuted in Britain during the Christmas holiday and seems to be getting good reviews. Hopefully it will meet my own expectations once I get the chance to see it but word of mouth has been very positive.
Endeavour promises to be a real treat for fans of Masterpiece’s Inspector Morse and Inspector Lewis series. This new Masterpiece Mystery! program will depict the early crime solving years of young Inspector Morse, which took place in Oxford during the swinging sixties. Of course, Morse isn’t exactly the hippest cat in town but the new series promises to delve a little deeper into his background so we’ll get to know more about Morse’s penchant for classical music and classic cars. It was written by Russell Lewis (frequent scriptwriter for Inspector Lewis) and it will debut on the 25th anniversary of the original series. Young Morse is played by Shaun Evans, another up-and-coming British actor who also appeared in the popular Masterpiece program, Young Victoria. And one of his costars is Abigail Thaw, daughter of actor John Thaw, who originally portrayed Inspector Morse. I suspect that comparisons will be made between Endeavour and other period dramas like The Hour and Mad Men but the shows unique history should add another dimension to this highly anticipated new production. Endeavour debuts in Britain early next month and hopefully Masterpiece will air it in the US soon afterward. You can catch up with the original episodes of Inspector Morse on DVD and episodes of Inspector Lewis can currently be streamed on Netflix.
Wallander is based on a series of existentialist crime novels written by Swedish author Henning Mankell. This powerful, hard-hitting and emotionally draining drama is shot on location in Sweden and it’s one of the best looking shows that Masterpiece has ever run thanks to some impressive photography by the Oscar-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle and Igor Martinovic. The look and feel of Wallander is absolutely captivating but the show seems to resonate with viewers thanks to Kenneth Branagh’s sensitive portrayal of detective Kurt Wallander. I’ve always liked Kenneth Branagh but he hasn’t appeared in anything I’ve been particular impressed with in years until I saw him in Wallander. The role of a world-weary detective struggling with his personal demons and various family crisis while trying to solve complicated crimes seems particularly well-suited for Branagh and he gives it his all. Wallander is not easy viewing but that’s what makes it so special. It’s compelling adult programming and I hope Masterpiece will continue to run modern shows like Wallander that challenge viewer expectations and break new ground. This award worthy series is now in its third season and new episodes should be making their debut on Masterpiece next year. In the meantime you can catch up with Wallander on DVD or view it instantly online at Amazon.
Did I forget to mention a Masterpiece series that you’re particularly fond of? Are you looking forward to any of the new and upcoming Masterpiece programs that I failed to mention? Please feel free to share your own viewing suggestions below and join me in wishing Masterpiece a very happy 40th birthday!
More about Masterpiece and their upcoming programs can be found on the official PBS site: Masterpiece : PBS
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