Masterpiece (TV series)

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"Masterpiece Theatre" redirects here. For the album by En Vogue, see Masterpiece Theatre (En Vogue album). For the album by Marianas Trench, see Masterpiece Theatre (Marianas Trench album).
Mastepiece logo.PNG
Also known as Masterpiece Theatre
Genre Anthology
Presented by Alistair Cooke (1971–1992)
Russell Baker (1992–2004)
Gillian Anderson (Masterpiece Classic, 2008)
Alan Cumming (Masterpiece Mystery)
Matthew Goode (Masterpiece Contemporary, 2008)
Laura Linney (Masterpiece Classic, 2009)
David Tennant (Masterpiece Contemporary, 2009)
Theme music composer Jean-Joseph Mouret
Opening theme Sinfonies de Fanfares: Rondeau
Country of origin United States
Original channel PBS
Original run January 10, 1971 (1971-01-10) – present
External links

Masterpiece (formerly known as Masterpiece Theatre) is a drama anthology television series produced by WGBH Boston. It premiered on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) on January 10, 1971, making it America's longest-running weekly prime time drama series. The series has presented numerous acclaimed British productions. Many of these are produced by the BBC, but the line-up has also included programs shown on the commercial services ITV and Channel 4.


Masterpiece is best known for presenting adaptations of novels and biographies, but it also shows original television dramas. The first title to air was The First Churchills, starring Susan Hampshire as Sarah Churchill. Other programs presented on the series include The Six Wives of Henry VIII; Elizabeth R; I, Claudius; Upstairs, Downstairs; The Duchess of Duke Street; The Citadel; The Jewel in the Crown; Reckless, House of Cards; Traffik; and Jeeves and Wooster. More recent popular titles include Prime Suspect; The Forsyte Saga; Sherlock; and Downton Abbey.

The theme music played during the opening credits is the Fanfare-Rondeau from “Symphonies and Fanfares for the King’s Supper” by French composer Jean-Joseph Mouret. The theme was performed by Collegium Musicum de Paris. Roland Douatte was the conductor. It was recorded in 1954 by Vogue Records in Paris, France, and was later remastered in stereo and re-released by Nonesuch records in the 1960s.

During the first seasons in the 1970s, the theme music accompanied varying closeup shots of a waving British flag, which panned out into a still image of a British flag on a staff serving as the P in "Masterpiece." In the late 1970s the opening video switched to views of antique books and other literary artifacts.

In 1980, Masterpiece gained a sister series, Mystery!, featuring a mix of contemporary and classic British detective and crime series, such as The Inspector Lynley Mysteries, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, and Touching Evil. In 2000, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the show, it presented Masterpiece: The American Collection, nine works by American writers, including Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, starring Paul Newman.

Awards and nominations[edit]

One of television’s most honored series, the various shows aired on Masterpiece have garnered numerous Emmys, Peabodys.[1]

In 2013, TV Guide ranked it #3 in its list of the 60 Greatest Dramas of All Time[2] and #16 in its list of the 60 Greatest Shows of All Time.[3]


The success of the broadcast of the 1967 version of The Forsyte Saga on NET (the precursor of PBS) led Stanford Calderwood, then serving as president of WGBH, to investigate whether the BBC would sell programs to the station. Suggestions for the series format came from, among others, Frank Gillard in England[4] and Christopher Sarson in the US. In looking for an underwriter for the series, Calderwood eventually met with Herb Schmertz of Mobil Corporation. Schmertz was able to gain funding for the show and he and several other men, including Frank Marshall, met in London and made a selection of programs to be broadcast.[5]

Decision on the format of the show were finalized and the series premiered on Jan. 10, 1971, with the first episode of The First Churchills. The series was hosted by British/American broadcaster/journalist Alistair Cooke until 1992; Pulitzer Prize-winning author Russell Baker hosted from 1992 to 2004. From 2004 to 2008, it was broadcast without a host.

The original series producer was Sarson. He was succeeded in 1973 by Joan Wilson. The current series producer, Rebecca Eaton, took over in 1985 after Wilson’s death from cancer.[6]

Format change[edit]

Logo used immediately before the title change.

In 2008, the word “Theatre” was dropped, and the show, officially known as Masterpiece, was split into three different sections. Masterpiece Classic was initially hosted by Gillian Anderson;[7] the following year, Laura Linney stepped into the role of host.[8] Masterpiece Mystery! is hosted by Alan Cumming.[9] Masterpiece Contemporary was initially hosted by Matthew Goode;[10] he was replaced by David Tennant [11] in 2009.

All three versions received their own opening sequences and theme music with a common signature based upon the Rondeau by Mouret. In the opening to the “Classic” strand of shows, the word “Theatre” appears for a brief moment, apparently in order to maintain WGBH's trademark registration on the former name[12] (in 2011, the show’s 40th anniversary, the opening was altered to show “Classic” briefly before showing “40 years”). The theme music was composed by Man Made Music, Inc; the opening sequences were designed by Kyle Cooper of Prologue.


From its 1971 premiere, the series was underwritten by Mobil (which later became ExxonMobil). After 25 years of support, the series added the funder’s name to its title. ExxonMobil ended its sponsorship in 2004, and the series remained without a corporate sponsor until 2011, when Franklin Templeton Investments signed as a sponsor. The show is currently funded by Viking River Cruises, Ralph Lauren Corporation, the Masterpiece Trust,[13] the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and by contributions to various PBS stations from, as PBS puts it, “Viewers Like You”.

The Best of Masterpiece Theatre[edit]

In March 2007, to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the show, PBS aired an entertainment special produced and directed by Darcy Corcoran. The Best of Masterpiece was hosted by Derek Jacobi and featured interviews with Helen Mirren, Hugh Laurie, Damian Lewis, Robson Green, Ian Richardson, Gillian Anderson, Charles Dance, Alex Kingston, Anthony Andrews and Jean Marsh. The countdown special was based on more than 20,000 survey responses posted to the Masterpiece and PBS affiliate web sites, the top 12 series were:

At the end of the program Anthony Andrews thanked the audience for voting the 1981 serial Brideshead Revisited as the seventh favorite series. He then pointed out that it had not aired as a part of Masterpiece Theatre. Rather, it had aired as a part of the PBS series entitled Great Performances.


  • A series of film, theatre, and television show parodies appeared on Sesame Street as "Monsterpiece Theater", hosted by Cookie Monster as "Alistair Cookie". The theme music for "Monsterpiece Theater" (composed by Sam Pottle) was similar to the theme composed by Mouret.
  • On the 1976 Captain and Tennille TV variety show, a weekly parody sketch spoof of “Masterpiece” was featured called "Masterjoke Theatre" with a different celebrity guest each week playing the host Allistar Banister who before each part of the "Masterpiece" story put on a Groucho Marx-style glasses with mustache disguise.
  • On Saturday Night Live, Dan Aykroyd played the high-bred but low-brow Leonard Pinth-Garnell, host of "Bad Theatre", in which horrible pseudo-intellectual skits were presented.
  • Disney Channel had a show titled Mousterpiece Theater hosted by George Plimpton, featuring classic Disney cartoons.
  • During the first two seasons of the NBC comedy Mama's Family, Harvey Korman appeared at the beginning of each episode as Alistair Quince, who would soberly introduce the program in the style of Masterpiece Theatre.
  • On In Living Color during Season 5 a sketch titled "Parody of Masterpiece" aired in which Jamie Foxx and David Alan Grier recited the lyrics of popular gangster rap songs of the early 1990s by artist such as Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. Cast member Marc Wilmore was the host imitating James Earl Jones.
  • The Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "Storyteller" opened with the character of Andrew Wells introducing the episode in the style of Masterpiece Theatre.
  • In the film Heartburn (1986), Rachel (Meryl Streep) watches a program like Masterpiece Theatre, wherein she imagines that the erudite host (John Wood) is narrating the story of her own life.
  • Tracey Ullman's television special Tracey Ullman: A Class Act (1992) begins with a scene resembling the hosting segment of Masterpiece Theatre, with Tracey Ullman "standing in for Alistair Cooke."
  • The sitcom My Name Is Earl included an episode titled "Bad Karma", in which Jason Lee (Earl) introduces the episode in a set made to look like that of Masterpiece Theatre. Lee reveals on camera that he really is on a set and not in a real room.
  • The South Park episode "Pip" is based on Great Expectations. The episode is hosted by Malcolm McDowell in the style of Alistair Cooke.

See also[edit]


Further reading[edit]

  • Masterpiece: A Celebration of 25 Years of Outstanding Television by Terrence O'Flaherty (1996), ISBN 0-912333-74-X
  • Masterpiece and the Politics of Quality by Laurence Jarvik (1999) ISBN 0-8108-3204-6

External links[edit]