Masterpiece–A celebration of 50 years of America’s fascination with British TV dramas

Review by C.J.  Bunce

Nancy West is a fan of British television, but she’s an even bigger fan of Downton Abbey.  To celebrate the first 50 years of public television’s Masterpiece TV program, the writer has created Masterpiece: America’s 50-Year-Old Love Affair with British Television Drama, an overview of the history of the popular PBS signature program and the productions it has transported to the American audience.  Masterpiece is the longest-running prime-time dramatic production on TV, and it has been the conduit that first introduced many an American household to appreciate classic and modern Great Books through its half-dozen to a dozen annual series and films since 1971, like Bleak House, Cranford, and Vanity Fair, historical dramas like Mr. Selfridge, and modern twists on the old like Sherlock.

To most people the show has always been, in a word, pretentious, but West takes great pains to explain how Public Television’s roots saw both the network and Masterpiece as one of its first programs as aspirational–something to prompt American viewers to learn more and experience more of the world, against what Newton Minow referred to as the “vast wasteland” called network television.  Although she spends most of her time on Downton Abbey, probably too much of the book, it is a good representation of the reach and success of the program, which initially saw as its goal the resurrection of early television’s playhouse/theater programs.

The author tracks the hosts of the show, sometimes elitist, sometimes snobby purveyors of haute culture, back to Alistair Cooke for the first two decades, to Laura Linney today.  Shows getting more in-depth treatment include Upstairs, Downstairs, I, Claudius, Elizabeth R, Foyle’s War, Mr. Selfridge, Wolf Hall, and the aforementioned Downton Abbey.  Gene Shalit, Vincent Price, and Diana Rigg were the first hosts of the Mystery! incarnation of the show, with series like Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Sherlock, Inspector Morse, Case Histories, Zen, and Van Der Valk, with early title designs created by artist Edward Gorey.

Much of the book is a bit indulgent as the author highlights favorite performances throughout the more modern shows, like Gillian Anderson in Bleak House, Claire Foy in Wolf Hall, Damian Lewis in The Forsyte Saga, and Kenneth Branagh in Wallander.  One full section is devoted to location settings for many series.   West also delves into the politics of the show and its network, from its controversial sponsors like Mobil Oil, to competition from every other network and streaming platform, including BritBox and Acorn, to politicians swinging in to try to pull funding on PBS as the administrations swing back and forth.  West also nicely balances popular discussions of content, including sentimentality, false nostalgia for class structure, and detractors of its programming.

The book includes a center insert with black and white and color photos, a map of Masterpiece show locations, and two appendices, one showing all the Masterpiece shows by year, and the second showing all the Masterpiece Mystery shows since 1980.  Note that the list includes films shown on the program, which is more than the program actually produced, including films like Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing, and series like A&E’s Pride and Prejudice, which were not created by PBS.  It also includes a section of notations and an index.

It’s a nice overview and celebration of 50 years of Masterpiece, even if it doesn’t cover discussions of all the shows it produced over the years.  For your favorite anglophile or Downton Abbey fan, order Masterpiece: America’s 50-Year-Old Love Affair with British Television Drama now here at Amazon in hardcover, and just out here in paperback, published by Rowman & Littlefield.

Leave a Reply