Masterpiece (TV series)

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Mastepiece logo.PNG
Also known as
  • Masterpiece Theatre
  • (1971–2008)
Genre Anthology
Presented by
Theme music composer Jean-Joseph Mouret
Opening theme Sinfonies de Fanfares: Rondeau
Country of origin United States
Original network PBS
Original release 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 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 garnered 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 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]

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 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 took her place.[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.

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 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 2014-09-24. 
  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 2008-12-01. Retrieved 2009-08-26. 
  5. ^ "How should public TV follow up the Forsyte Saga success?". Archived from the original on 2011-05-18. Retrieved 2011-03-11. 
  6. ^ "Masterpiece Theatre - Series - Hosts + Producers". Archived from the original on 2016-06-09. 
  7. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-08-20. Retrieved 2012-09-24. 
  8. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2009-05-06. Retrieved 2017-09-04. 
  9. ^ "Tony Award-winning Actor Alan Cumming To Host PBS's Masterpiece Mystery! 2008". Archived from the original on 2008-09-13. 
  10. ^ Jensen, Elizabeth (2007-12-10). "'Masterpiece Theater,' Now in 3 Flavors: Classic, Mystery, Contemporary". Archived from the original on 2009-04-25. Retrieved 2008-01-22. 
  11. ^ "Tennant signs as Masterpiece host". 14 May 2009. Archived from the original on 18 May 2009. Retrieved 14 May 2009. 
  12. ^ WGBH Educational Foundation (2009-08-18). "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 2015-06-10. Retrieved 2013-01-09. 
  13. ^ 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. 
  14. ^ 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]