Jace Lacob: When you ask people what their favorite Masterpiece Theatre program is — one title comes up again, and again, and again.
You’ve probably heard of it: It’s a show set in the early 1900s about a wealthy English family and the common people who serve them. And it has everything you’d want in a good TV show: amazing acting, beautiful costumes, lavish sets…
You probably think I’m talking about Downton Abbey… But I’m not. I’m talking about Upstairs, Downstairs.
In 1974, Upstairs, Downstairs premiered on Masterpiece Theatre and was practically an overnight sensation. The New York Times claimed, “If you missed Sunday evening’s first episode of ‘Upstairs, Downstairs…’ you shouldn’t have.”
By the time the second season aired, it was the kind of show that everybody was talking about.
Elizabeth McGovern My granny, who lived in a little cottage in the back garden, would come up once a week, and we would watch Upstairs, Downstairs. That was a special occasion for us.
Jace Upstairs, Downstairs… was a phenomenon.
Elizabeth McGovern There’s something about that picture that made me want to be an actress. But it seemed such a big leap for me to project that I would ever be in a show like that.
Jace This is Academy Award-nominated actor Elizabeth McGovern. Recently, she’s perhaps best known for her role as Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham on MASTERPIECE’s Downton Abbey.
Of course, McGovern did end up acting in a show like Upstairs, Downstairs: Downton is also about a wealthy family and the people who serve them…
Upstairs, Downstairs inspired Downton. It inspired so much television. (which we’ll get into later in this episode). And… it also put Masterpiece Theatre on the map: it made Masterpiece Theatre must watch TV, and kept people tuning in season after season…
Since it aired, Masterpiece Theatre has been home to more than 400 different series, starring some of the most famous actors of all time, a few of whom we’ll talk to in this podcast…
Jace Who are you and what do you do?
Lily Collins Oh, this is good. I love these kinds of questions. I am Lily Collins, a constant optimist.
Rufus Sewell Well, my name is Rufus Sewell. Beyond that, the details at present are fuzzy.
Alan Cumming I’m Alan Cumming.
Robin Ellis I’m Robin Ellis.
Crystal Clarke I am Crystal Clarke.
Laura Linney My name is Laura Linney and I’m an actress.
Hugh Bonneville My name is Hugh Bonneville. I’m an actor.
Jace But this podcast isn’t just about the actors… It’s about great television and what it takes to make it; it’s about the ups and downs of showbiz, and the surprisingly juicy behind-the-scenes drama of public television.
It’s about 50 years of MASTERPIECE history.
I’m Jace Lacob, and this. Is Making MASTERPIECE, a special miniseries from MASTERPIECE Studio. We’re covering five decades of MASTERPIECE history in three episodes — where MASTERPIECE Theatre came from, how it changed television, and what it still has in store for its 50th season. EPISODE 1: The Beginning.
Fifty years of history… that’s a lot of ground for one podcast to cover. Where do we even start?
Well, how about we start with the woman who was in charge of MASTERPIECE Theatre for most of those years…
Jace First question is, who are you and what do you do? Pretend I don’t know you.
Rebecca Eaton: Oh, OK. So. I am Rebecca Eaton…I was the executive producer of MASTERPIECE for, oh, 30 something years.
Jace For thirty–five years, Rebecca Eaton was the executive producer of MASTERPIECE until Susanne Simpson took over for her in 2019.
Susanne Simpson: I don’t get a lot of sleep doing this job, but I feel like I’ve been handed a gift, and that my job is to make sure that MASTERPIECE is still looked at as one of the best and most important television shows on the schedule and not only at PBS, but in the industry.
Jace You’re going to hear from Simpson and Eaton a lot over these next three episodes. After all, the EP plays a huge role in making MASTERPIECE the series it is…
But right now, I want to take you back to a time pre-MASTERPIECE, way before Eaton, Simpson or anyone, was executive producer.
We’re talking about the late 1950s, early 60s…
American television was simpler back then. Much, much simpler. In fact, if you owned a TV, you probably had access to just THREE networks — ABC, NBC, and CBS.
It was hard for others to compete with the “big three.” That was where the hit, commercial series lived. Shows like…
Rebecca Eaton Gunsmoke. The Beverly Hillbillies. Green Acres. Sitcoms. You know, kind of silly, fun. Clever, light.
Jace Another silly, fun, light series from the time? My Mother the Car – an actual show about a woman who dies and comes back to life as a vintage jalopy. It wasn’t what you’d call a “critically acclaimed hit”.
Newton Minow When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse.
Jace This is the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Newton Minow, speaking at the May 1961 meeting of the National Association Of Broadcasters. This annual meeting was — and still is — a huge deal for broadcasters. So, to gather with the best of the best in your industry and have someone tell you off… was a bit of a downer.
Newton Minow I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.
Soraya Nadia McDonald Was it a vast wasteland? Man that’s harsh.
Jace Soraya Nadia McDonald is a culture critic for The Undefeated. She’s spent a lot of her career watching, thinking, and writing about TV…especially how it’s changed over time.
Soraya Nadia McDonald I don’t know if I would say vast wasteland, but it was certainly… there is a lot of forgettable stuff.
Jace The shows that aired in the 1960s weren’t bad, necessarily. But Gunsmoke, Beverly Hillbillies, Bonanza… people really enjoyed watching them. So of course, when Minow got up and called television a “vast wasteland,” it was like a slap in the face to all of the TV executives in the room.
Newton Minow I remember very clearly I was still standing on the speaking platform…
Jace This is the man himself, Newton Minow, talking to us about that infamous speech over 60 years later…
Newton Minow…and people were coming up and one man came up and he said that was really not a very good speech. I said thank you very much. About three minutes later, he came back is, as I think about it. It was a terrible speech
Jace Clearly, some executives in the audience didn’t like what the FCC Chairman had to say. But…television viewers actually agreed with him.
After the speech, Minow’s office received scores of letters thanking him for what he said.
Newton Minow The FCC got more letters in support than ever in its history. And I knew that I wasn’t working for the broadcasters. I was working for the viewers.
Jace Minow really didn’t care who he offended… He just wanted TV to be better; to live up to its potential.
And people in the industry did listen… They gave us smart shows like The Firing Line, The Mod Squad, and – in 1969 – The Forsyte Saga.
The Forsyte Saga was prestige catnip. It told the story of the Forsyte family — mainly, the vile Soames Forsyte and his lifelong battle to control his beautiful, distant wife, Irene. You could call it the Downton Abbey of the early Nixon Years. And audiences ate. It. Up.
Jace First… it aired in the UK on the BBC…
Nancy West It aired on Sunday evenings so this meant that pubs shut down in England and church vespers had to be rescheduled to accommodate viewers who were more addicted to television at the time than they were to going to church.
Jace Nancy West wrote the definitive book on MASTERPIECE’s history called, MASTERPIECE: America’s 50 year old Love Affair with British Television Drama. So there was no way we were making this podcast without talking to her.
Nancy West The Forsyte Saga was an event. It was one of the first major, if not the major television events and it was a national and international phenomenon.
Jace After it aired in the UK, Forsyte made its way onto television in the States and was just as massively popular over here.
At its peak, as many as 14 million people were watching.
Rebecca Eaton It was huge. There was no competition for this kind of thing. But it had kind of come out of the blue and everybody showed up to watch it.
Jace But Forsyte’s success – especially in the United States – was surprising.
Nancy West Because ABC, CBS and NBC didn’t want it, they thought that it was in black and white, it was period drama, it was British, nobody in America would want to watch it.
Jace So… Forsyte found a home at NET: National Educational Television.
NET wasn’t a commercial network. It was an educational network, a group of nonprofit television stations centered around colleges and universities: a little like PBS before there was such a thing.
Jace So I imagine other executives were probably kicking themselves after it did air to such success.
Rebecca Eaton Kicking themselves, or looking for other jobs because they might very well have been fired if they passed on Forsyte Saga.
Jace If you’re thinking, “Sunday nights… British drama… Airing on educational TV… Sounds a bit like Masterpiece Theatre…?” Great! You’ve picked up on my less than subtle foreshadowing.
Rebecca Eaton I would say The Forsyte Saga was to use a baking term, the starter of Masterpiece Theatre.
Jace Without Forsyte, Masterpiece Theatre probably wouldn’t exist today.
That’s because The Forsyte Saga proved that imported, British programming could do well on American television… really well.
And so, when the producers over at WGBH – a public television station in Boston – saw how successful Forsyte had been, they decided to experiment themselves with imported British drama.
Rebeca Eaton Now, who exactly jumped on at WGBH is a little hard to determine because, you know, success has a thousand fathers and failure is an orphan. And there are a lot of people who would claim to be the fathers. It is true. They were all men at that time.
Jace Christopher Sarson, who was a television producer at WGBH, is one of those fathers —
Christopher Sarson Of course, I thought that I came up with it. Of course, Stan thought he came up with it.
Jace Stan here is Stanford Calderwood.
Calderwood had left his job as an executive at the Polaroid Corporation in Cambridge, Mass. to become the president of WGBH in the summer of 1970.
By that time, WGBH had already joined the brand new Public Broadcasting Service, or PBS.
Christopher Sarson And he had already brought Julia Child to public television. So he was very television savvy and very interested in television.
Jace Calderwood and Sarson each claim to have had the idea to import British drama first… I mean, it is possible that they both had the idea at the exact same time… But they did eventually come together to make it happen.
As all good stories go, this one starts with Stan Calderwood and his wife on vacation –
Rebecca Eaton He and I think his wife went to England, began to talk to the BBC and discovered there were literally shelves and shelves and rooms full of videotapes of other programs, like the Forsyte that the BBC and the British broadcasters had done.
Jace Calderwood was floored. And before he left the UK, he pitched the BBC a novel idea: wasn’t it a shame that all of these programs were just going to sit here in these rooms, gathering dust…? What if ‘GBH were to buy the programs and broadcast them for their new, national PBS audience in the States?
The folks at the BBC said, “Sure.” And then, they set the price: ten thousand dollars per hour of programming. That was actually an incredible deal. Star Trek, which came out around that same time, cost around two hundred thousand dollars per hour to make.
Calderwood was excited. And he headed home to pitch his big, British idea.
Christopher Sarson There wasn’t a reaction to the program, it was, ‘Get it funded.’
Jace All that summer, that’s exactly what Calderwood tried to do. He just had to find one or two sponsors who wanted to support the series.
He thought, “Shouldn’t be too hard…”
After all, Calderwood had come to WGBH directly from the corner offices of corporate America. He had a rolodex full of contacts, and he knew how to make a sale.
But corporate America… wasn’t buying.
Henry Becton And I think he visited at least 20 or 25 different corporations. But he finally found an entré at Mobil.
Jace As in Mobil Oil — known today as ExxonMobil.
Henry Becton, speaking here, was a producer at WGBH during this time.
Henry Becton And so he got an interview with Herb Schmertz.
Jace Herb Schmertz was Mobil Oil’s vice president of public affairs.
Henry Becton And Herb liked the idea.
Jace Sadly, both Calderwood and Schmertz have died, so we can’t ask either one of them to tell us what happened on that fateful phone call. But here’s how I imagine the call went down…
Calderwood pitched Schmertz his idea: he wanted to make a series that would air on PBS and showcase British drama: programs like The Forsyte Saga.
Schmertz hadn’t been watching The Forsyte Saga, at least according to a 1986 New York Magazine profile of the publicist. But it didn’t matter. On the call, Schmertz said that the Forsyte Saga was one of his favorite shows.
Rebecca Eaton Herb Schmertz was a very smart guy who understood marketing instinctively. And he understood that a high class British drama series on public television was exactly what his oil company needed, because his oil company needed its name to be burnished. They wanted to be the classy oil company, not so much to sell gas at the local pump, but in Washington to impress the policymakers, the movers and shakers.
Jace After reaching out to several dozen companies and failing to get anyone to care, Calderwood had finally found his white whale.
Mobil Oil agreed to be the program’s sole sponsor and give them ALL the money they needed. For their part, Mobil got a public facing, sexy new way of elevating their brand name.
Money in hand, Calderwood and his team at WGBH could go about making their very British miniseries. The idea was that they would air the very best of British drama in an anthology fashion. American viewers would get the cream of the crop of serialized costume drama, in the same place at the same time, every week.
This was to be appointment viewing — something big, and new and utterly unique.
But what was Sarson — by now, the executive producer of the series — going to call this new creation?
Henry Becton Chris Sarson liked the idea of just the simple word Episode as the title for the series.
Christopher Sarson I remember reading that I came up with the title Episode. I hope that’s not true, because it’s such a lousy title.
Jace They obviously did not go with Episode. Instead they picked MASTERPIECE Theatre. Mobil’s Schmertz had especially liked the alliteration of Mobil and MASTERPIECE.
Christopher Sarson I think my only contribution, which was a minority opinion, was that theatre should be spelled TRE instead of TER. Herb Schmertz in particular didn’t like that idea. He thought it was pretentious. And I said, ‘No, it’s not pretentious. It’s British.’
A very British name for a very British series. For the theme song, however — Sarson picked the Rondeau from “Symphonies and Fanfares for the King’s Supper” by Jean-Joseph Mouret. A French song.
Christopher Sarson Picture this scene. It’s 1962. And my first wife and I decided to go on a Club Med holiday….And when we got to Sicily we were all placed in little huts on the beach. And the waves washed us to sleep in the evening and washed us awake in the morning. I mean, is this bliss? To summon us to eat was dum dum, dum, dum, dum dum…was this music…. that’s nine years before Masterpiece Theatre came up. And as soon as it did come up, this damn tune came into my head. And it was crazy because it was a piece of French music and…no way could I put a piece of French music to this oh so English series…It had to have English music.
Jace As much as Sarson tried to find a proper, English replacement, he just couldn’t, so the King’s Supper stuck.
Christopher Sarson I was naughty, actually. I didn’t tell people who it was until Michael Rice, the program manager, dragged it out of me because I hadn’t got rights for it.
Jace At this point, it was autumn 1970. MASTERPIECE Theatre was supposed to premiere on PBS on January 10th, 1971. And Sarson and his crew still hadn’t picked the BBC programs they were going to air. So they flew to London to sample from the dramatic buffet.
Christopher Sarson We had to sit in a little room with a television set and say roll tape and they rolled tape. And we watched episode one, roll tape. And we watched episode two.
Jace Sarson, Calderwood and their team screened dozens of shows until they’d found 39 hours of programming they hoped would land with their American audience.
But there was still one essential ingredient Masterpiece Theatre was missing:
Christopher Sarson I said, ‘We have to have a host,’ I said, ‘because if we get the right host, people will tune in. They will tune in, not to see the new program, because they don’t know the new program from a ball of wax. They will tune in to see what this erudite, lovely, gorgeous host that they fell madly in love with, what he finds interesting.’
Jace There was an educational element baked in the idea of a host, too. This was public television, after all.
Rebecca Eaton The thinking behind behind having a host was that Americans wouldn’t understand the context of some of these books.
Nancy West The producers rightly felt that they needed a host who could not only entertain but serve to kind of translate some of the historical and cultural material to Americans, give them a history lesson in a sense, and do it in about 30 seconds to no more than four or five minutes.
Jace The producers needed someone who was part teacher, part entertainer; someone who was comfortable on screen. And someone who could be an authority on, well, British-ness.
One person came to Sarson’s mind… the legendary British-American journalist, Alistair Cooke.
Susan Cooke Kittredge He was always getting offers to do television commercials of any kind. He refused.
Jace This is Susan Cooke Kittredge. Alistair Cooke’s daughter.
Susan Cooke Kittredge I remember he came in one time with an offer and held it up and said, ‘This would be one year of college for you if I accepted this.’ But he never did.
Jace Sarson was convinced that Cooke would be the perfect host for Masterpiece Theatre. But when Sarson offered him the job, Cooke very politely declined. Well, kind of. Cooke actually gave Sarson a list of other names he thought would be good at the job. But when Sarson went to look them up, he discovered that they were all dead. So Sarson went back to zero. He did some research, interviewed a bunch of other possibilities…
Christopher Sarson And on December the First, we still didn’t have a host.
Jace This was one month until Masterpiece Theatre was scheduled to air. Sarson was panicking.
While he and his small team were busy throwing together wildly expensive visual introductions for the series, the phone rang in their Boston office.
Christopher Sarson It was Alistair Cooke! ‘I just had Thanksgiving with my daughter,’ he said, ‘And she persuaded me that I should do Masterpiece Theater.’
Susan Cooke Kittredge He wasn’t always… receptive to people’s suggestions. But he did call Christopher Sarson back
Christopher Sarson He said, I know you’ve got somebody else by now, but I just wanted you to know that she and you were right. And I was wrong. I should have said yes.
Jace Of course, what Cooke didn’t know was that they hadn’t actually found another host. And Sarson was delighted… and relieved to offer him the job a second time.
So with money, title, theme song and host firmly in place, on January 10th, 1971, Masterpiece Theatre premiered.
“The King’s Supper” played…
“Masterpiece Theatre” settled on the screen…
And Mobil staked their claim…
Christopher Sarson Masterpiece Theater is made possible by a grant from Mobil Corporation, which invites you to join with them in supporting public television.
Jace Since Cooke refused to do commercials, it fell to executive producer Sarson, a fellow Brit, to read the corporate messaging — a job he maintained for nearly 30 years..
And then – after all that was out of the way – we saw Alistair Cooke, sitting in an antique chair next to a pile of finely bound books.
Alistair Cooke: Good evening, I’m Alistair Cooke. We open tonight a new television theatre which in the next year will show you plays adapted from the works of Balzac, Henry James, Dostoyevsky…Tonight we show you the first of 12 episodes about a great name in English history.
Jace The first program broadcast on Masterpiece Theatre was, appropriately, The First Churchills.
Jennings: Well, Mr. Churchill.
Churchill: Mistress Jennings, your servant.
Jennings: This matter of importance.
Churchill: Oh yes. Oh my soul you are the prettiest boy I ever saw in my life.
Jennings: Is that all you were to tell me?
Churchill: That and 100 other things.
Jace And for all of the time and work that went into making the Masterpiece Theatre premiere a success, The First Churchills had some problems…
Rebecca Eaton Alistair Cooke thought it was so bad that he thought there would never be a second season of MASTERPIECE. He thought it was a dud.
Nancy West The script was a bit of a mess. There were too many figures, too many people named Thomas. The wigs all looked identical.
Rebecca Eaton There is more hair in this show than in anything we’ve ever done since they were, you know, tremendous. Everybody had wigs, the men and the women.
Jace Even Sarson — the man who’d picked it — didn’t like it.
Christopher Sarson I thought it was pretty lousy, but I thought it was right to open the series.
Jace And Sarson was right: America LOVED it.
PBS Headquarters was inundated with thank-you notes from fans; critics gushed over the scripts and the acting. It didn’t matter that The First Churchills wasn’t a very good show.
Nancy West What mattered was the idea behind Masterpiece Theater.
Jace Ultimately, The First Churchills was new, and different to the stuff they were used to watching.
Nancy West Nobody else was doing what Masterpiece Theater was doing, it was an anthology program, it offered a variety of different series, some of them comedies, some of them tragedies, some new and contemporary, some classic adaptations. There’s still isn’t another Masterpiece Theater. Not even Britain has it.
Jace Masterpiece Theatre was unique: it was both entertaining and educational… drama with an edge. And people liked that about it.
Newton Minow I felt television could uplift, that television should always be trying to teach, to entertain, to stimulate. And Masterpiece Theater fills an essential role by giving the viewer the opportunity to see great drama.
Jace THIS is… of course… Newton Minow. You remember, Minow. He’s the one who called television a “vast wasteland” about 10 years before The First Churchills aired.
Masterpiece Theatre was exactly the kind of series Minow had in mind when he challenged his audience to make better TV.
Newton Minow I was hooked on it.
Jace So Sundays at nine pm, Minow – along with millions of other Americans – began a new, very British habit.
Newton Minow I think there are hardly any Masterpiece Theaters through the years that I didn’t watch.
Jace And we’ll get to more of those “Masterpiece Theatres” – the good, the bad, and the Poldark – right after a quick break.
Jace Masterpiece Theatre first aired on PBS in January 1971. It was an exciting, new concept for American audiences.
But back in Britain, costume drama was already a popular, established genre.
Robin Ellis It was a gold mine. It was really it was a gold mine of stuff. Churning it out, we were and it finally ended up on the American circuit, which was great, great for the audience in the states and great for English actors as well.
Jace Robin Ellis is a MASTERPIECE regular. In 1972, he starred in Masterpiece Theatre’s Elizabeth R.
Robin Ellis Well, to be honest, it was fantastic because I was working with probably the most famous actress in the world, Glenda Jackson. So I was extremely privileged and there I found myself all decked out in my finery, dancing a pavanne with her. I was wearing a pair of false calves, actually, because my legs were not exactly tudor legs.
Jace Basically, the formfitting tights of the Tudor Court called for slightly more pronounced calves than Ellis had. And while Ellis had to wear fake calves to play the Earl of Essex, Jackson actually had to shave back her hair to play Queen Elizabeth.
Glenda Jackson At least I had a bit more of the kind of forehead that she had. Would that I had her intelligence.
Jace Wish that any of us did. I mean, I would make that bargain.
Jace We spoke to both Ellis and Jackson about what it was like to work on Elizabeth R:
Robin Ellis It was a fantastic experience.
Jace What do you recall of filming Elizabeth R? Did you feel at the time that this would go on to become an internationally celebrated production?
Glenda Jackson No, not still. I mean, I just couldn’t believe that I had seven months’ work. It was just amazing.
Jace Elizabeth R ended up winning Masterpiece Theatre five Emmys and was the first international show to win the Emmy for best drama series…ever.
It was a HUGE achievement for Masterpiece Theatre which had aired The First Churchills less than one year before.
Jace How aware were you of the US broadcast of Elizabeth R on Masterpiece Theater back in 1972?
Glenda Jackson I wasn’t at all aware it was. I mean, it was shown around the world, mostly in public broadcasting services. I remember one check I got, I think it was from Nigeria for nine pence.
Jace Nine pence!
Glenda Jackson Yeah, well, I mean, it said it was public broadcasting.
Jace Of course, not all the shows that aired on Masterpiece Theatre were breakout hits. And it took a little while for the series to develop a real rhythm. But then, something came along that would definitively put Masterpiece Theatre, and costume drama, on the map: Upstairs, Downstairs.
And yet, it almost didn’t air on MASTERPIECE Theatre…
Christopher Sarson As soon as I saw Upstairs, Downstairs, I knew that that would be good on commercial television.
Jace Commercial TV — not public TV. Sarson liked it, and thought it was a classy soap opera — but not a literary, MASTERPIECE Theatre kind of show.
But Mobil’s Herb Schmertz disagreed.
Christopher Sarson Schmertz, from the Masterpiece Theater point of view, quite rightly wanted it on the Masterpiece Theater.
Jace Eventually, Sarson and his team made the decision — Upstairs, Downstairs would air on Masterpiece Theatre — and not some other network.
Christopher Sarson Anyway, we did run it and it worked well.
Sarah: Mrs. Pratt’s agency sent me.
Sarah: I’ve come about the position. House parlour maid, was it?
Rose: Under house parlour maid. I am the house parlour maid. Well come in…
Jace Upstairs, Downstairs was a sensation. It was nominated for 16 Emmy Awards, and won seven. And it’s still one of the highest rated Masterpiece Theatre programs… ever.
It also changed television.
Nancy West Upstairs, Downstairs was really the first television show to spotlight ensemble acting, which is a really democratic way of approaching characterization. Everybody gets their turn in the spotlight. Everybody gets their story told. There’s no star of the series.
Jace You can find elements of Upstairs, Downstairs in so many shows that came after: dramas like Rich Man, Poor Man, and even Dallas…
Nancy West It also combined soap opera with serious drama, spotlighted a huge cast of characters, gave every character his or her turn in the spotlight and employed loads of melodrama.
Also inspired by Upstairs, Downstairs? Roots…
Christopher Sarson The second serialized drama that was produced in America was Roots and to my astonishment, surprise and delight. The publicist for Roots said, ‘We would never, never have had the courage to put this show on except that Masterpiece Theatre had shown us that there was an audience for serialized drama.’
Jace Masterpiece Theatre was slowly, routinely helping to change American television for the better, Sunday after Sunday after Sunday.
And Upstairs, Downstairs changed Masterpiece Theatre itself.
It was the first Masterpiece Theatre program that was created specifically for television. It didn’t have any claims to literature, or theater, or film… And it was the first Masterpiece produced by ITV… and not the BBC.
It expanded what Masterpiece Theatre was and the kinds of programs it aired.
Nancy West So what Upstairs, Downstairs did was it conveyed to Americans that watching British drama didn’t have to feel like homework. It could be fun, it could be naughty, it could be sexy. And producers and writers were taking a risk.
Jace Even more, it made Masterpiece Theatre appointment television. This was something you had to tune in to, every Sunday — for fear of missing out.
And that was by design.
Schmertz told an interviewer once: “I don’t care whether anybody watches the shows. I want them to feel socially pressured so they have to lie and say they watch the shows.”
Rebecca Eaton My memory of the success of Masterpiece Theater in those years, the 70s into the 80s was the number of people who would say, ‘No, I can’t come for dinner on Sunday night, I have to stay home to watch Masterpiece’ or, ‘Don’t call me I’m going to be watching Masterpiece,’ Or ‘Do you want to come over and we’ll watch Masterpiece together?’ It was one of the things that put public television on the map. Sesame Street, of course. But this is prime time. This is a primetime national series that millions and millions of people were watching.
Jace By 1973, MASTERPIECE Theatre was on the up and up. Christopher Sarson, however — was on the way out. Sarson had launched both Masterpiece Theatre and the children’s program Zoom! He was completely burnt out.
Christopher Sarson I was really, really sorry to go. I mean, it was. I was so happy there and had lots and lots of friends and it was an incredible atmosphere in WGBH. It was just so breathtakingly exhilarating. It was not a place you wanted to leave…except for exhaustion.
Jace So WGBH producer Joan Wilson was anointed his successor, working closely with Henry Becton, by now a WGBH Vice President, to shape the future of Masterpiece Theatre.
Henry Becton Joan went on to be a wonderful executive producer for that series.
Jace Here’s my favorite Wilson story. In 1976, acclaimed British actor Jeremy Brett was unable to obtain a green card in order to come to WGBH and film a new series. Wilson suggested that she and Brett just get married as a way to solve the visa problem — which it did, a year later. But they actually ended up falling in love.
Henry Becton What started as a marriage of convenience, just to get a working permit turned into a real marriage.
Jace Wilson was funny, and sharp, and she drove a black 1978 Mustang with a license plate that read, “WITCH.” When asked by a Boston Globe interviewer how it was that, quote “a woman who takes her tea with milk, is married to an Englishman and makes her living by importing British programs happens to drive” such a car, Wilson said, glibly, “I believe in supporting the American economy.”
We don’t have much actual interview tape of Wilson, but I want to give you a chance to hear her voice. Here she is introducing a filmed WGBH presentation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth — speaking appropriately, of course, about witches.
Joan Wilson Shakespeare’s use of witches would have appealed to King James. He was fascinated, if not obsessed by sorcery, and wrote a book called Demonology Defending Belief in Witches and their Power to Do Harm. His interest in witch trials led him to actually send for one or two witches. And reportedly he was fearfully impressed by what he heard.
Jace Wilson liked to take risks, and as Masterpiece Theatre’s executive producer too. Sometimes, she chose programs that were quite edgy, or even pushed the boundaries of taste. Like I, Claudius.
Sir Derek Jacobi It was clever, it was amusing, and it was also highly dramatic.
Jace This is Sir Derek Jacobi.
Sir Derek Jacobi I am an actor and have been an actor for the last 60 years.
Jace Sir Jacobi has been an actor even longer than Masterpiece Theatre has been around. He’s an absolute legend… some would say “distinguished.”
Sir Derek Jacobi I suppose the moment I got a letter from the Prime Minister saying I’m up for a knighthood, I said, oh, well, this this is distinguished. I can I can say distinguished.
Jace But back in the 70s – when the Brits were trying to find the right person to play Emperor Claudius in I, Claudius – Jacobi was pretty far from distinguished.
Sir Derek Jacobi I was not, the first choice for Claudius, it came my way after a series of actors, I think had been approached and decided not to do it or couldn’t do it. And in order to secure the part, I was taken out by the director and the producer to meet the gentleman from London Films. London Films was an American company that owned the rights to I, Claudius.. And they, of course, didn’t know me from a hole in the ground. So I went out to lunch, and I think that was the best bit of acting I ever did, because at the end of the lunch, he said, ‘Well, we don’t really know who you are, but we’ll take a chance on you. And you can play Claudius.’
Jace After it aired in the UK, I, Claudius made its way to Masterpiece Theatre.
It wasn’t necessarily the most obvious new selection for the still young anthology series. It was gory and violent. And it had the robes and wigs of a First Churchills.
Here’s Soraya Nadia McDonald again.
Soraya Nadia McDonald On its face, you’re just like, ‘Why would I watch this?’ You know, like, ‘Why in the world would you want to sort of travel back to in this age of antiquity?’
Jace There was no guarantee American audiences would want to spend their Sunday nights watching gruesome depictions of the sex-crazed, drunk and fiendishly violent early emperors of ancient Rome.
Sir Derek Jacobi In a sense, yes, it was full of sex and violence, we didn’t quite know how that would go down.
Henry Becton And Joan and I had many discussions about what we might have to temper in order for it to pass muster with American audiences. And she was very willing to take risks on things like that.
Jace Wilson did end up cutting some especially violent bits from the broadcast. But even with those edits, I, Claudius still didn’t sit right with all of Masterpiece Theatre’s viewers.
Nancy West A couple of people, I think, cut up their Mobil credit card. ‘This is revolting. This is disgusting. What is Masterpiece Theatre doing?’ But most people thought, ‘Wow. Oh, my God.’
Jace I, Claudius actually expanded the boundaries of what television could and should look like.
Nancy West This is when television, you know, got sophisticated and when it stopped condescending to audiences and thought, you know, they can handle a bit of sex and it’ll be just fine.
Sir Derek Jacobi Yes, I do think it was a forerunner of all that. It sort of made sex and violence acceptable.
Soraya Nadia McDonald If you think now about like Game of Thrones, you know, I feel like you can make an argument that a show like I, Claudius, where you have, you know, the like the crazy Caligula kind of like sets us up for that, like decades before. And this is coming out and what, like the 1970s? I just it’s it’s kind of shocking to think about now.
Jace You have to remember, this Game-of-Thrones-esque predecessor, aired on PBS, on Masterpiece Theatre, the home of pomp and circumstance, and refined British manners.
But I, Claudius still did really well for Masterpiece Theatre… and for Sir Derek Jacobi.
Sir Derek Jacobi Within two years of Claudius being shown, I was starring on Broadway, which would’ve never happened without without Claudius. Every actor hopes for a peak in their career. Some have many peaks somehow the Himalayas during their career. Others have a single mountain. I’ve had a couple, I think, in my career, but Claudius was certainly, for me, the cultural and career mountain. Yes.
Jace Masterpiece Theatre could be many things to many different viewers. It could be a grand family soap opera. It could be a literary education. It could be sexy. It could be groundbreaking.
It was now at a point where it could actually make an actor’s career…
And Joan Wilson was there, leading the charge.
Henry Becton She also understood the audience and understood that even if she didn’t particularly love something, it was going to be something the audience would really go for.
Jace Something like Poldark starring Robin Ellis.
Henry Becton I remember walking into the screening room and Joan was standing up watching an episode of Poldark. And she said, ‘ I hate it, Henry. I can’t even watch it sitting down. I have to stand up or I’m going to fall asleep…but it’ll sell, Harry.”’ She knew that it would be popular.
Jace And Poldark was popular. Extremely so…
Henry Becton We we had young children at the time, and so our friends were having children and there were several boys named Ross, after Ross Poldark.
Robin Ellis I always think, ‘Poor people.’ You know? They’re innocent. I often wonder how they feel about being named Ross.
Jace Thanks to Poldark, Ellis gets to look at a lot of pictures of babies, and dogs, and cats named Ross, but being in the show changed his life in more significant ways too.
Robin Ellis I’d done 50 televisions before. I did Poldark and I’d done about four or five costume dramas. But really Poldark, rhis phrase put me on the map in the UK. And in terms of people, just knowing me from Poldark. ‘Oh, yes! He’s Poldark.’ I mean, if I hadn’t done Poldark the casting people in America would not really have had into any reference for me. And so it did affect me. Yeah. I mean, it’s affected me that ever since I started that morning in Cornwall. I mean, it’s been a part of my life and it’s been a huge gift.
Jace From critical acclaim with Upstairs, Downstairs, to edgy political drama with I, Claudius, Masterpiece Theatre was making a name for itself as a home for prestige drama on American television. And as Masterpiece Theatre’s success expanded, so too did Mobil’s investment in public television.
Nancy West And so by the early 1980s, Mobil had a reputation for being the most respected oil company in the world. I think partly due to its sponsorship of Masterpiece Theater. So that sponsorship had done Mobil an awful lot of good. It had money to spare. Schmertz called up Henry Beckton in 1979 and said, “Hey, how about if we sponsor another show?’ Right? Which is every producer’s dream!
Henry Becton Herb called me and he said, ‘You know, we’ve been airing some mystery series within Masterpiece. And there’s a lot more of those. Henry, would you be interested in having a separate series that was just British whodunits? Because if so, We’ll fund you for that.’ And I thought, ‘Wow, this is too good to be true.’
Jace But Schmertz wasn’t kidding. And in 1980, Mystery! Debuted on PBS nationwide, bringing the very best of British crime drama to American screens.
The Mystery! Theme song played alongside animated visuals inspired by the eccentric artist and author Edward Gorey…
Soraya Nadia McDonald There’s this damsel, and she loses her scarf and she does this very dramatic sort of “ahh”…
Mystery! Title Woman: Ahhhhh!
Jace The theme became an instant classic. It’s the kind of song you’d find yourself humming while doing the dishes or showering.
Soraya Nadia McDonald You’re like, ‘What is this?’ Or at least, you know, I was like, ‘What is this? I’m intrigued.’
Jace And… just like on Masterpiece Theatre, Mystery! programs also featured host introductions.
Vincent Price Good evening. I’m Vincent Price. And I am delighted to be your host for the second season of Mystery!
Jace Now, the first host of Mystery! was not Vincent Price, the creepy-cool icon of horror films and Michael Jackson’s Thriller! The first host was Today Show critic Gene Shalit — but it was Price who helped Mystery! take off.
Rebecca Eaton He was done up in a dinner jacket in this crumbling mansion full of junk. And it just sort of made you smile even before the programs began. And the programs were gentle murders.
Jace Gentle murders. None of the gruesome violence of I, Claudius — no, the detective whodunnits of Mystery! were thoughtful, very English murder mysteries, featuing Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey and GK Chesterton’s Father Brown.
Soraya Nadia McDOnald And then the thing that became immediately, like, appealing about it. Like, once you’ve watched like two or three episodes, is that, oh, there’s a formula, which can feel very comfortable, I think, in a way.
Jace How many detective series do you think that Mystery! and MASTERPIECE have aired overall?
Nancy West Oh, God, I don’t know. A lot. Many. Yes.
Jace Between 1980 and 2006, Mystery! showed more than 80 different little crime dramas.
Like its sister program, Masterpiece Theatre, Mystery! underlined the familiar otherness of the British experience for an American audience — and its programs did it really well.
Much of that success came down to Wilson.
Nancy West So imagine being a woman in the 1970s and taking on this role. And she did it with guts and bravado. And then she got pancreatic cancer. And, you know, the worst kind.
Jace Wilson passed away in July 1985. And even though television was still mostly a man’s domain, Becton — who by this point had become the president of WGBH — wisely tapped a woman to replace Wilson: Rebecca Eaton.
Rebecca Eaton I’ve always thought that the reason Henry hired me was because my mother was an actress and he knew I knew drama kind of deeply.
Henry Becton Her mother had been an actress, Broadway actress, so she had a theater background. Her father had taught English literature and Shakespeare in high school. And I knew she had studied English literature at Vassar.
Jace Eaton had been working at WGBH in a variety of roles for years, but she didn’t realize that Becton, one of her mentors, had been eyeing her for the executive producer role at MASTERPIECE Theatre. Even Becton admits that it wasn’t an obvious move.
Henry Becton Now, it was a bit of a risk because she had never actually produced any drama or curated any drama showcase in her television career so far. And in fact, I think the people at Mobil were quite skeptical that this was the right choice.
Jace Despite Mobil’s concerns, Becton hired Eaton.
Rebecca Eaton The day I was offered a job it will live in my mind forever because I was newly married. My husband Paul and I decided it was time to start a family. I went to work it was five o’clock. I was about to leave to get my jacket and go out to the car. And Paul was picking me up. Phone rang and it was the doctor’s office saying, ‘Rebecca, we have good news. You’re pregnant.’ I said, that’s wonderful. I went out, told Paul sitting in the car. He was stunned. Thrilled. I said up, ‘Forgot my jacket,’ went back in to get my jacket. The phone rang again. I picked it up. Was Henry Becton saying, ‘Rebecca, like to offer you the job of executive producer of Masterpiece!’ I said, ‘Henry, oh, my gosh, I’m pregnant.’ And Henry paused for a nanosecond. He said, ‘We’ll figure it out.’ He was great. So I went out to the car again. There’s Paul kind of staring into space as his future has just completely changed. And I said, ‘Guess what? Henry Becton and just called and offered me the job of the executive producer of Masterpiece!’ and his jaw dropped even more than the first time because our whole life had changed. And I said, ‘Oh, shoot, I forgot my jacket. I’ve gotta go.’ And he literally grabbed the door so I couldn’t get out. He said, ‘Don’t go back in there.’
Jace Eaton became executive producer of Masterpiece Theatre when the series was at its height of success and popularity, and she felt the pressure of keeping it there.
Rebecca Eaton And then it became an incredibly steep learning curve because there I was pregnant first child, sick every day of the pregnancy, as many women will sympathize with, and learning this whole new ballgame.
Jace Wilson — a popular and well-liked executive, married to a leading British actor — was a tough act to follow. With piles of scripts and stacks of tape on her desk, Eaton had to quickly decide what kinds of British programming she wanted to fill her twice-weekly slots on PBS.
Rebecca Eaton My first decision that I remembered that I absolutely knew we should do this was Morse.
Jace Inspector Morse, an adaptation of the Colin Dexter novels was an unlikely fit for Mystery! It wasn’t a “gentle murder” like your typical Mystery! program: it was darker; grittier. It even dealt with complex social issues like racism and teen suicide.
But Eaton felt like Morse had to be a part of the series.
Inspector Morse aired for 13 seasons, and later inspired two different spinoff series based on the same characters – Endeavour and Lewis – all of which aired on Masterpiece Theatre or Mystery!
In all, nearly 160 hours of programming extend from this first major Eaton decision — so yes, you could call it an early success.
Rebecca Eaton I think the lesson I got from buying Morse was when I have that feeling, when something seems really simple and right, just go for it, don’t question it, just go for it. And I tend to be very, very careful about what we go for in MASTERPIECE. And it is rare that I have one of those 100 percent feelings. This is right. I know we have to have this. It’s rare.
Jace And Eaton had much to be proud of. From a series inspired by an unexpected British soap opera sensation to a popular cultural touchstone all its own, Masterpiece Theatre was thriving as the 1980s soldiered on.
Rebecca Eaton There is a poster that Mobil had made, which I actually have in my house, which is of a taxi driver and a lady with two bags trying to get in the taxi. And the taxi driver is saying, ‘Sorry, lady, it’s 9 o’clock. Masterpiece Theatre is on,’ which I thought was wonderful, because that’s everybody.
Jace Perhaps most fittingly — many who remember that Masterpiece Theatre predecessor, The Forsyte Saga, more than fifty years ago, still wrongly assume it aired as the first Masterpiece Theatre series.
Even Wikipedia says as much.
Christopher Sarson Still to this day, there are lots of oldies who think that The Forsyte Saga was the first Masterpiece Theatre. It was not!
Jace The mimic had become the master. And public television’s groundbreaking idea for a certain kind of Sunday evening drama was a certified hit.
Rebecca Eaton My job was actually just to choose among, you know, just a plethora of great British shows. There wasn’t any competition. There was no question about money. We weren’t having to ask PBS for money. It looked at the beginning like kind of an easy, fun job.
Then things, as they do, got complicated.
Jace We’ll explore those complications — of broadcast rivals, financial limits and programming dry spells, oh my! — in the next episode of Making MASTERPIECE.
Making MASTERPIECE is produced by Nick Andersen. Rachel Aronoff is our story editor. Elisheba Ittoop is our sound editor. Sound designed by Jakob Lewis of Great Feeling Studios. The executive producer of MASTERPIECE is Susanne Simpson.
I’m Jace Lacob. Thanks for listening.