One day in 1979, Henry Becton, General Manager of Boston PBS station WGBH, received the sort of phone call no public broadcaster ever expects. On the other end of the line was Herb Schmertz, head of corporate communications for Mobil Corporation, with an unsolicited offer.
1936 - 2005
Derek Lamb, an extraordinarily talented filmmaker, composer, performer, teacher and writer, and the animator who brought Edward Gorey's drawings to life for Mystery's opening titles, died in November 2005.
Lamb, born in England, began his career with the National Film Board of Canada in the late 1950s. He worked as a writer, director and producer in Canada, the US and Europe, both in commercial and experimental film. He served as Director of the English Animation studio at the National Film Board of Canada between 1976 and 1982. He won an Oscar for Every Child (1979) and was most recently an executive producer on the Emmy-winning, animated children's series Peep and the Big Wide World.
"Derek was a delight to work with and a beloved member of the WGBH family," said Mystery! executive producer Rebecca Eaton. "Thanks to his inspired animation of Edward Gorey's charmingly macabre illustrations, the Mystery! open is still a classic of television art."
"Henry, I've been thinking," Schmertz began. "If you were interested in putting together a series that was nothing but British mysteries, we'd be interested in funding it." Becton, who's still running WGBH, now as both general manager and president, wasted little time telling Schmertz to count WGBH in. And that's how MYSTERY! came into being.
Before Schmertz made that call, though, some important pieces had already begun to fall into place. First, Mobil, as the sole underwriter of WGBH's enormously successful Masterpiece Theatre ever since its inception in 1971, had enjoyed tremendous public relations benefits from that association. Mobil had still more money to invest in prestigious television programs and was looking for new outlets.
At the same time, Becton, Schmertz, and Joan Wilson, the executive producer of Masterpiece Theatre, had noticed the tremendous viewer support for a series of Masterpiece Theatre adaptations of the Dorothy L. Sayers mysteries about Lord Peter Wimsey, staring Ian Carmichael as the stylish British detective.
Because there seemed to be a large number of similar programs available, there was a temptation to license other finely-crafted British mysteries for Masterpiece Theatre to capitalize on the Wimsey success story. But the consensus was that this sort of programming might begin to steer the distinguished series too much toward the specialized audience for mysteries and away from the more broadly-based following it had each Sunday night. That's when Schmertz came up with his notion for a "spin-off" of Masterpiece Theatre. It seemed an irresistible idea.
Joan Wilson and her staff combed through lists of mystery shows that were in production in England and might be available on short notice to help launch MYSTERY!, as the new series came to be called. One tantalizing prospect for MYSTERY! was The Racing Game, the first television series ever adapted from the novels of former world-class steeplechase jockey Dick Francis, whose mysteries were breaking onto best-seller lists all over the world. Rumpole of the Bailey, which had just gone into production, was another possibility. It was written by John Mortimer, who had adapted Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, one of the most elaborate miniseries ever undertaken by Brtitish television. Although Rumpole was basically a whimsical courtroom series that dealt with crime and only rarely with genuine mystery, WGBH nevertheless opted to take it. "We've always had the philosophy that we'd take what was well done and had superior characterizations rather than worry about whether or not it would fit the format," says Becton.
They also made another crucial decision: They would become investors in the production of The Racing Game and help share the financial risk in exchange for the right to show it first in the US market. WGBH continues to invest production money in a majority of the MYSTERY! programs, including such enormous hits as the Sherlock Holmes and Prime Suspect series, and also helps develop them from their inception.
To the first season's schedule they added an offbeat series based on the novels of Peter Lovesey about Victorian-era policeman Sergeant Cribb, a new adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, and a wildly eccentric movie-length mystery spoof called She Fell Among Thieves. Together with Rumpole and The Racing Game, they suggested the many paths MYSTERY! would take.
While the schedule was being set, the WGBH team was rapidly moving forward with two other important parts of the package: a host and a snazzy opening. For the host, the idea was to follow the Alistair Cooke formula of Masterpiece Theatre, but with what Becton calls "its own quirky distinctiveness." They chose pun-happy Gene Shalit, resident film critic of NBC's Today Show. Meanwhile Joan Wilson approached animator Derek Lamb about turning the macabre cartoon drawings of Edward Gorey into the opening and closing credits for the series.
MYSTERY! went on the air with She Fell Among Thieves on February 5, 1980, and after one of the quickest development cycles ever, a classic PBS series was off and running. Edward Gorey, Rebecca, and especially Rumpole were big hits. The Racing Game and Sergeant Cribb never really caught on, but they lasted another season because MYSTERY! had more episodes to play off. Gene Shalit retreated back to commercial television and the mass audience that appreciated him best.
Current Executive Producer Rebecca Eaton, who took over after Wilson's death in 1985, believes the series has lasted so long because it hasn't tried to compete in violence with American crime shows, but instead gives viewers fascinating detectives to follow week after week. Whatever the reason, viewers have made MYSTERY! one of PBS' biggest hits, averaging five million viewers per week by 1990.
MYSTERY!'s executive producer, Rebecca Eaton
The preceding is an excerpt taken from the book, MYSTERY!: A Celebration, by Ron Miller (published by KQED Books).
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