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Masterpiece (TV series)

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Presented by
Theme music composerJean-Joseph Mouret
Opening themeSinfonies de Fanfares: Rondeau
Country of originUnited States
Original languageEnglish
No. of seasons53
Production companyWGBH
Original release
ReleaseJanuary 10, 1971 (1971-01-10) –

Masterpiece (formerly known as Masterpiece Theatre) is a drama anthology television series produced by WGBH Boston. It premiered on PBS on January 10, 1971. The series has presented numerous acclaimed British productions. Many of these are produced by the BBC, but the lineup has also included programs shown on the UK commercial channels ITV and Channel 4.


Masterpiece is 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 Suite of Symphonies for brass, strings and timpani No. 1 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, many of which titles had been dramatized on the program.

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 won numerous Emmy and Peabody Awards.[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 the UK[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 with Joan Wilson of WGBH-TV bought the US distribution rights for fifty hours of British dramas for about $1 million per year.[5] He and several other men, including Frank Marshall, met in London and made a selection of programs to be broadcast.[6]

Decisions on the format of the show were finalized and the series premiered on January 10, 1971, with the first episode of The First Churchills. The working title for the series had been The Best of the BBC, which was changed to Masterpiece Theatre before the first broadcast, with Sarson insisting upon the British spelling for Theatre.[6] The series was hosted by British-American broadcaster and author / journalist Alistair Cooke (1908–2004), who initially had been reluctant to take the role. Cooke appeared for two decades until 1992; native Baltimorean, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and longtime columnist for The New York Times, Russell Baker (1925–2019), was next and hosted for over a decade 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.[7] Mobil pulled out in 2004.[8] In 2011 Eaton launched the Masterpiece Trust as a fundraising initiative, in collaboration with WGBH Boston. The Trust gives donors the opportunity to support their local PBS station and also "secure the future of superb British drama...invest upfront in the development of new scripts and programs, and grow the [Masterpiece] series both on-air and online".[9] In the same year the series attracted new sponsors Viking River Cruises and Ralph Lauren (Ralph Lauren was subsequently replaced by Farmers Insurance).[10] In the first three years the Trust raised $12 million from 45 donors.[8]

The Masterpiece approach has been reported as being to put up about 10% of the production budget, in return for distribution rights and a degree of consultation on casting and content, but not editorial control.[8] Masterpiece licences programs for several years, after which the broadcast rights revert to the original owners, generally the British producer or distributor.[10] Interviewed in 2017, Eaton described her role at Masterpiece as "the person who chooses which British programs will be included in Masterpiece...looking at a lot of shows that are already made, reading scripts, and choosing the ones that would suit this audience."

They're made by British companies and British broadcasters – for the BBC and ITV – and once they're done, we bring them back here. It's also my job is to make sure the whole country knows about Masterpiece and knows about whatever show is being produced. There's a great deal of publicity and marketing to be done. I also have to raise money.[11]

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;[12] the following year, Laura Linney took her place.[13] Masterpiece Mystery! is hosted by Alan Cumming.[14] Masterpiece Contemporary was hosted initially by Matthew Goode,[15] who was replaced by David Tennant[16] in 2009.

All three versions received their own opening sequences and theme music with a common signature based upon the First Suite in D by Mouret[10] (originally chosen by Sarson, who had heard it played at a Club Med resort in Sicily, because it sounded "British and heraldic").[6] 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[17] (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.[citation needed]

As of 2017's broadcast of Victoria series one, Masterpiece Classic no longer aired with a regular host and the series was no longer branded as "Masterpiece Classic" but simply "Masterpiece".

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 Sir Derek Jacobi and featured interviews with Dame 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 websites, 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.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Peabody Award-Winning BBC Programs". Archived from the original on September 24, 2014.
  2. ^ Roush, Matt (February 25, 2013). "Showstoppers: The 60 Greatest Dramas of All Time". TV Guide. pp. 16–17.
  3. ^ Fretts, Bruce; Roush, Matt. "The Greatest Shows on Earth". TV Guide Magazine. 61 (3194–3195): 16–19.
  4. ^ "Wild Film History – Frank Gillard". Archived from the original on December 1, 2008. Retrieved August 26, 2009.
  5. ^ Starr, Jerold (2001). Air Wars: The fight to reclaim public broadcasting. Temple University Press. p. 48. ISBN 1-56639-913-0.
  6. ^ a b c "How should public TV follow up the Forsyte Saga success?". Archived from the original on May 18, 2011. Retrieved March 11, 2011.
  7. ^ "Masterpiece Theatre – Series – Hosts + Producers". PBS. Archived from the original on June 9, 2016.
  8. ^ a b c Brown, Maggie (March 1, 2015). "Rebecca Eaton: Masterpiece is the 'little black dress of British drama'". The Guardian. Archived from the original on February 16, 2018. Retrieved June 6, 2018.
  9. ^ "The Masterpiece Trust". www.pbs.org. PBS. Archived from the original on May 23, 2018. Retrieved June 4, 2018.
  10. ^ a b c "Masterpiece: Frequently Asked Questions". WGBH digital. Archived from the original on April 8, 2018. Retrieved June 6, 2018.
  11. ^ Legg, Heidi (March 4, 2017). "Before You Say Goodbye to 'Downton Abbey'..." The Huffington Post. Archived from the original on January 14, 2017. Retrieved June 4, 2018.
  12. ^ "Masterpiece Theatre | Series | Masterpiece Theatre Introduces". PBS. Archived from the original on August 20, 2012. Retrieved September 24, 2012.
  13. ^ "Masterpiece | Classic | PBS". PBS. Archived from the original on May 6, 2009. Retrieved September 4, 2017.
  14. ^ "Tony Award–winning Actor Alan Cumming To Host PBS's Masterpiece Mystery! 2008". PBS. Archived from the original on September 13, 2008.
  15. ^ Jensen, Elizabeth (December 10, 2007). "'Masterpiece Theater,' Now in 3 Flavors: Classic, Mystery, Contemporary". The New York Times. Archived from the original on April 25, 2009. Retrieved January 22, 2008.
  16. ^ "Tennant signs as Masterpiece host". BBC News. May 14, 2009. Archived from the original on May 18, 2009. Retrieved May 14, 2009.
  17. ^ WGBH Educational Foundation (August 18, 2009). "Combined Declaration of Use in Commerce & Application for Renewal of Registration of a Mark under Sections 8 & 9". United States Patent and Trademark Office. Archived from the original on June 10, 2015. Retrieved January 9, 2013.
  18. ^ Lehman, Daniel (October 2, 2010). "John Hodgman's 'Masterpiece Theater'". Blog Stage. Backstage. Archived from the original on February 2, 2017. Retrieved September 6, 2016.
  19. ^ Perpetua, Matthew (October 2, 2008). "Masterpiece Theater: John Hodgman's Spam". Vulture. New York. Archived from the original on February 12, 2017. Retrieved September 10, 2016.

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
  • Making Masterpiece: 25 years behind the scenes at Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! on PBS by Rebecca Eaton (2013) ISBN 978-1-4104-6841-3

External links[edit]