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Best 'Masterpiece Theatre' Shows Ever

by Jane Murphy, posted Jan 16th 2011 11:00AM

Created during the Nixon Administration, in existence longer than CNN and HBO, 'Masterpiece Theatre' began 40 years ago last week on public television stations. It earned its very first Emmy for Best Miniseries in its second season, for 'Tom Brown's Schooldays.'

That show was very much a part of the golden age of the miniseries in the mid-1970s, with such blockbusters as ABC's 'Rich Man, Poor Man' and 'Roots', and 'Masterpiece Theatre's own 'Upstairs, Downstairs'.

'Masterpiece Theatre' is still going strong, though now it is split into three distinct entities: 'Masterpiece Mystery!' is a summer mainstay, followed by 'Masterpiece Contemporary'. Winter's 'Masterpiece Classic' returns last Sunday with 'Downton Abbey', which collected sterling reviews (read our own Maureen Ryan's rave here). It marked a network TV comeback for Elizabeth McGovern, the Illinois-bred actress who – like another 'MT' regular, Gillian Anderson -- has been based in England for years.

The late Alistair Cooke hosted the show until 1992. Cooke was a professorial Englishman who had already spent decades as a host on American television. During his twenty-one year tenure on 'MT', Alistair Cooke impressions were everywhere – and we do mean everywhere.

Here is a list of some of the most memorable 'Masterpiece' moments:

'Upstairs, Downstairs'. You'll have to wait until April for 'Masterpiece Theatre's remake of this classic. But the 1977 original, starring Jean Marsh as the maid in an aristocratic household, was appointment viewing way before there was such a term. Emmy-winner Marsh will also star in this spring's reboot.

'I, Claudius' (1976). Intrigue in Rome, centering on Nero's predecessor, the Emperor Claudius. Five years ago, Claudius's portrayer, Derek Jacobi, hosted 'The Best of Masterpiece Theatre' in honor of the show's 35th anniversary.

'Prime Suspect.' Some seasons of the detective classic were shown as part of 'Masterpiece Theatre'. Helen Mirren won two Emmys for her role as the relentless investigator Jane Tennison. Below is a clip offering some insight into the development of 'Suspect'.

'Bleak House' (2005). This eight-hour Dickens adaptation starred 'X-Filer' Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock. 'Bleak' also introduced American audiences to Carey Mulligan (at left), nominated for an Oscar in 2009 for 'An Education'.

'The Jewel in the Crown' (1984). A fourteen-episode series set during the waning days of British colonial rule in India. The epic earned 'Masterpiece Theatre' its third Emmy for Best Miniseries. 'Crown' star Art Malik will appear in 2011's remake of 'Upstairs, Downstairs'.

'Cranford' (2007). Retiree Matty Jenkyns (Dame Judi Dench) witnesses illness, loss and love among the citizens of an English village named Cranford. The popular soapy story set in the 1800s was picked up in 2009's 'Return to Cranford'.

'The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders' (1996). Alex Kingston took television by storm as a chatty Moll, whose heaving bodice and habit of speaking to the audience made her very compelling indeed. In this clip, Moll is wooed by a rogue, played by James Bond himself, Daniel Craig (at left).

'Emma' (2010). Jane Austen is no stranger to 'Masterpiece Theatre' and her fourth novel made for delightful television in 2010. Here, the dashing Jonny Lee Miller as Knightley dances with Romola Garai (pictured at left), returning to 'Masterpiece' as the title character. Garai will find out if she's earned a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Miniseries or Motion Picture made for TV at the January 16th ceremony.

'Daniel Deronda' (2002). A sleeper pick from 2002, Hugh Dancy is the anguished and angelic Deronda, confidante to a nobelman's unhappy wife (Romola Garai). Based on George Eliot's last novel, a highlight is a rare television appearance by Barbara Hershey (at left, and currently co-starring in 'Black Swan')

'Jeeves & Wooster' (early '90s). Before portraying a maddening genius on 'House M.D.', Hugh Laurie was perhaps best known stateside as Bertie Wooster, a piano-mad dim bulb with a great deal of inherited wealth. Laurie's former comedy partner, Stephen Fry, played Jeeves, Wooster's patient valet.

Talk about your favorite 'Masterpiece Theatre' shows in comments below!

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I was introduced to Masterpiece as a child. I remember my mother saying "look, it's the perfect murder." I realized how compelling these shows were. I could never get out of my mind her phrase and my vague memory of a murder of a woman in a dark room. I finally found that movie after all these years and it was Mother Love with Diana Rigg. Wonderful movie and I can't wait for my children to get a little older to enjoy Masterpiece with me. There is simply no better television than Masterpiece Theater.

August 01 2014 at 4:24 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
nickie burke

I agree Poldark should be added to the list. All the other picks are great, but Poldark should be here as well.

June 13 2011 at 12:24 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

How could you forget Poldark?! I was in love with Ross and Demelza from the start!

January 19 2011 at 9:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Karen S2

Big slip up here, Jane! While I wholeheartedly support all your choices, you left off the best Masterpiece series of all: Brideshead Revisited with Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons! I am still in love with Anthony's fragile Sebastian and his teddy Alyoisis 30 years later...and I started my long lasting uber fan devotion to Irons then, too. This series/book was made recently into a theatrical movie with the new breed of English acting stars and boy...did it sure suck compared to the Masterpiece version (and I am sure they spent millions on the new version compared to what the BBC/PBS spent, to little avail). The rest of your choices just plain rock. I am loving Downton Abbey, too...can't wait for installment three this Sunday. Isn't David Suchet's Poiret missing from this list, too? Karen S2

January 19 2011 at 5:37 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Karen S2's comment

I, too, have recently been reminded of "Brideshead Revisited with Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons. I saw the movie "The King's Speech" and I was able to recognize Anthony Andrews after all these years in a very small role. Jeremy Irons is one of my all time favorites as well. He did a stunning presentation at the Golden Globe Awards making full use of that gorgeous deep voice of his. Oh, Jeremy you were my first GQ!

January 20 2011 at 11:29 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

The big slip-up is yours. Jane is correct in omitting 'Brideshead Revisited', which was originally shown on 'Great Performances', not 'Masterpiece Theater'. Different series, different night of the week.

January 27 2011 at 12:47 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Can not believe it has been 40 years! I remember watching The First Churchills - maybe the first thing I ever watched on our area's brand new "Educational TV" - as it was known then - station. I had never seen anything like it and was hooked! My children were babies. Years later, when they were teens, they teased us, their parents, unmercifully for not allowing them to watch Dallas on network TV ("That's trashy", we told them) but encouraging them to watch I Claudius! Years after that, as young adults do to help their parents stay in touch with popular culture, they bought us our first DVD player. Accompanying that Christmas gift? The Complete I Claudius! Viva Masterpiece Theater in all its incarnations! We are loving Downton Abbey. Love Mystery, too, and almost all the Contemporaries.

January 18 2011 at 11:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Susan's comment

I am the 5th cousin of Winston Churchill and appreciate that you enjoyed the presentation Masterpiece Theatre presented regarding The Churchills.

January 24 2011 at 9:39 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I agree with most of the selections here and would add the Forsythe and Bramwell series and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

I also like the excellent productions of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility from 2009 with Hattie Morahan and Dan Stevens and Persuasion from 1995 with Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds. My favorite is Pride and Prejudice with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth from 1995.

January 18 2011 at 10:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Laura Lou

How could you pass by Foyle's War, which was a million times more compelling than Emma, Johnny Lee forgive me...??

January 18 2011 at 7:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply



Small town England... its the English version of CBS's "NORTHERN EXPOSER"

January 18 2011 at 6:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Downton, Sherlock Holms, nice job guys..... now dont forget "Kingdom", with Steven Fry.

chatch it HULU.com if ya cant wait to see it on PBS... well worth the watch!!!!!

January 18 2011 at 6:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

My new favorite = North & South.

January 16 2011 at 9:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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