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!