With new series, old favorites and even a documentary podcast special on the way for MASTERPIECE’s upcoming 50th Anniversary Golden Jubilee Season, our executive producer Susanne Simpson joins the conversation for a special preview of the drama, mystery and more to come in a few short weeks.
Jace Lacob: I’m Jace Lacob, and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.
It’s hard to believe we’re on the cusp of MASTERPIECE’s Golden Jubilee.
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, Dostoevsky. Tonight we show you the first of 12 episodes about a great name in English history.
Jace Impossible as that might seem, it was nearly 50 years ago that Alistair Cooke gave his first introduction on the very first episode of Masterpiece Theatre.
As 2020 winds to a close and 2021 inches ever closer, we near a bold new season of MASTERPIECE, with new titles, new faces, and old favorites alike.
Maud I need the table for notes. To find Elizabeth. She’s the only friend I’ve got and now she’s gone, too.
Katy Gone where?
Jace From the legendary Glenda Jackson in the tragic mystery Elizabeth Is Missing to the sunshiney optimism of a new take on All Creatures Great and Small, January 2021 alone gives MASTERPIECE fans much to look forward to.
Farnon So where did it all start for you, wanting to be a vet?
James There was a, a small city farm at the back of my school.
James It was like having a part of the country in the city. I developed a real love for the animals there.
Farnon Ah, well you see. The animals are the easy part, it’s the people cause all the bother.
Jace For a behind-the-scenes preview of the 50th Season on the horizon — including a special documentary project hosted by yours truly — MASTERPIECE executive producer Susanne Simpson joins us for a quick tour-de-drama of what to watch out for in our 50th Season on MASTERPIECE.
Jace And this week, we are joined by a very special guest. It is MASTERPIECE executive producer Susanne Simpson, welcome.
Susanne Hi, Jace. Happy to be here.
Jace So it’s a rare accomplishment for any brand to reach 50 years in existence. But here we are about to celebrate MASTERPIECE’s Golden Jubilee season. Why do you think the series has had such longevity?
Susanne It is amazing. I have to tell you, we’ve been thinking about our 50th for about two years now and it’s finally here. But I, I think we’re very fortunate in that we have a very loyal audience who’s been with us right from the beginning. And I think what MASTERPIECE does every week is bring a show that our audience can get excited about. And for me, MASTERPIECE is really like great literature. It’s really about emotional truths and about love, betrayal, all of those great themes in life and whether it’s a costume drama or a mystery or a contemporary show, I feel that MASTERPIECE is always about something, as well as being dressed up in a beautiful frock and with some terrific actors playing the characters. So I think people feel that they come to our shows because they can enjoy them, they’re entertainment. But they’re also something that says something.
Jace So you talked a little bit about sort of the commonalities that MASTERPIECE shows have those themes of being human. How would you describe the 50th Anniversary season itself? Are there any common themes or narrative threads that connect these specific shows?
Susanne Well, I think, you know, I think we have, for the most part, a rather heartwarming season, starting off with All Creatures Great and Small. And I think that the love that people have for each other in that small community with all its problems and, you know, people being people and all of that, but that but that quality of kind of being in it together, I think is something that will spread across our entire season this year. I think what we’re very lucky to do is, you know, being an anthology series, we can put together costume dramas and some mysteries that are led by some terrific actors this year. I mean, we start off our whole year with Glenda Jackson in Elizabeth is Missing and it’s really a tour de force performance. I mean, she is really something special. So I think that two links across all of our year in that we have some outstanding performances by actors. So it’s not just Glenda Jackson, but we have Kyle McLachan, we have Tom Hollander. And, you know, we’ll be bringing back some of our favorite shows with Tom, Brittney and, you know, Robson Green. And so that will be common across the whole year, too.
Jace On the topic of Elizabeth is Missing, which kicks off on January 3rd, as you said, the incomparable Glenda Jackson stars as Maud in Elizabeth is Missing. What was it about this one off that made you fall in love with it and want to air it as part of the 50th?
Susanne When I saw the show, I didn’t know what to expect exactly. I mean, the description had been about Glenda Jackson having dementia. And I thought at first it might be a very hard show to watch since this would be a character going through that process. But I was totally surprised. It’s based on a book. It’s really a mystery inside a mystery. And so these two ideas of Elizabeth is missing, which is a close friend of hers she thinks has disappeared, reveals a whole story from her past about her sister who went missing. And it’s just a wonderful piece in general. But to see somebody like Glenda Jackson perform this character who is smart and trying desperately to do the right thing and is trying to get everybody’s attention to listen to her and is incapable of getting that because she’s showing signs of dementia. So people don’t know whether to believe her or not. And the only person who really believes her is her granddaughter. And so it forms a great bond between the two of them where the granddaughter is really trying to help her grandmother find her friend.
Katy Do you fancy listening to some music, Gran? How about some Vera Lynn?
Maud Good God no.
Katy What do you not like her?
Maud No, I do not. Where’s your mother?
Katy Oh she’s with the estate agent…
Maud Estate agent? What estate agent?
Katy It doesn’t matter. Why don’t you like Vera Lynn?
Maud She couldn’t hold a candle to Evelyn Knight. There are no bluebirds in Dover. Load of old rubbish.
Katy Did Sukey like Vera Lynn?
Maud Are you daft! Her favorite song was “Powder Your Face With Sunshine.” Somebody broke it.
Susanne It’s like two mysteries and a family drama all rolled into one led by Glenda Jackson, one of the great actresses of our generation, probably ever.
Jace Of any generation, I’d say it is only fitting that she is starring in the first program in MASTERPIECE’s 50th anniversary season, given her titular role in 1972’s Elizabeth R. Was that an intentional decision to feature her so prominently in the 50th anniversary season to sort of bookend MASTERPIECE, as it were, from the beginning to now?
Susanne Yes, it was. And it’s funny that you should pick up on that, because that’s exactly what it was. In some ways, it really bookends our history to have her be one of the greats in Elizabeth R and then here we are 50 years later and she’s on MASTERPIECE again. And I think this is her first time being in television in something like 27 years. And I think the other reason that we wanted to lead off with her and this show is that it really says something to the audience about MASTERPIECE, bringing acting royalty to the American public. And I think we’ve done that consistently.
Jace I want to go back to All Creatures Great and Small, which comes up next in the schedule once again, based on James Harriet’s memoirs as a country vet. What makes this remake unique and how does it capture the spirit or energy of the original adaptation?
Susanne I can’t believe how lucky we are to have this show at this particular time in the world when everything is just so confusing and we don’t know what’s going to happen next and everything’s so uncertain. And then to have a show that just presents the kind of loving, warm community feeling where, you know, you may not love your great uncle, but you can appreciate him for who he is. And this is the kind of show that just accepts everyone for who they are and what they’re trying to contribute to the community or to their family. And so I I think this is just a great show for the time. It’s very reassuring, I have to say. And it’s beautiful because you’re in the Yorkshire Dales and it’s just really with a lot of humor, a lot of humor and a lot of goodwill towards people, which I think is something that we could use right now.
Jace The show itself reminds me of the Durrells in Corfu plus Grantchester, but the mysteries are animals. That is sort of how I’m thinking about this show.
Farnon What’s this about Henry’s pig?
Mrs Hall Mister Dinsdale. You spoke with him last night.
James Ah yes. Yes. He, he has a pig…that…well it’s a, it’s a little confusing actually, he had a pig that was, it…
Farnon Really James, these people are our valued customers, if you can’t remember…
Mrs Hall Perhaps the inquisition can wait until after Mister Herriot’s finished his breakfast.
James The runt! I advised him to remove the others to give the little one a chance. And if that didn’t work, then bottle feeding would be the only way.
Jace It is just such a heartwarming show, as you say. It is perfect, I think, for right now, you know, the fact that the original All Creatures was such a beloved show was such a huge international hit. Was there any nervousness or trepidation on the part of the producers about remaking this pastorale, that drive? Were you concerned at all?
Susanne You know, I think the one of the things the producers said to us right away was, “This is not a remake. This is not a remake,” because I think they feared that people fell in love with the original so deeply that they would be disappointed by this. So I think what we’re calling it is a new adaptation because it’s not meant to really compare with the past, but it’s meant to create the same feeling that you had when you watched the first series a long time ago where you do come to love these characters.
Jace A second season of All Creatures has already been commissioned. Do you see this having the potential for being a Downton-level hit for MASTERPIECE?
Susanne You know, Julian Fellowes and Gareth Neame and I, when we talked about the ending of Downton Abbey, we all said to each other, you know, this is a once in a lifetime experience that we’re, you know, whatever it was, the stars aligned in such a way that made that a very special show that we’re unlikely to experience that again in our lives. So I’m always hesitant to think that there’s a next Downton Abbey around the corner. But I can say I. I do think this will become one of our most beloved shows on MASTERPIECE, and I’m quite certain of it.
Jace Miss Scarlet and the Duke is a departure from typical masterpiece fare. It falls into the mystery strand, but the tone is completely different. It’s action packed with a female lead. What makes it a perfect addition to MASTERPIECE’s stable of detective shows?
Susanne The thing I love about Miss Scarlet and the Duke is the very thing that the author of the series wanted to accomplish. Rachel New is the writer she had written on Grantchester before, but this is an original idea of hers. And she said to me, what I really want to do is I want to create a version of Moonlighting. And if anybody remembers that television show, what it was well known for was the romantic repartee between Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis. And I think Rachel has accomplished that with this show. And so she’s created this wonderful character who is in a situation where her father dies and she’s left with the detective agency. And a woman of her time would never be seen as serious about becoming a detective. But she’s determined because her father has taught her his skills, she’s determined to find out who killed him and also to make a life for herself and her only real friend in doing this is the Duke, who is a family friend for a long time, who is now the detective at Scotland Yard. And the two of them, you know, fight like brothers and sisters. But there’s always a little bit of kind of potential romance there in the background. But I think Rachel knew has created an amazing female character. And Kate Phillips is perfect in that role. She’s just wonderful.
Eliza It’s interesting that you’ve chosen strangulation as your means to kill me, since that it requires a great deal of strength and strength is something that is leaving your body as every second ticks by.
Joseph: What are you talking about?
Eliza: The maid that owed me a favour. Not only did she give me your key, she kindly allowed me to make your coffee It’s surprising how little Laudanum it takes to knock a man of your size unconscious. .
Jace Do you see Eliza Scarlet as being a feminist character?
Susanne Very much so, especially for her time. I mean, she waffles, let’s say. She’s not 100 percent sure of her decisions and she certainly has a lot of roadblocks to overcome because, of course, nobody thinks she should be doing it and including the woman who’s their housekeeper, who she’s lived with forever, who tries to encourage her. But, you know, everybody is a little unsure that she’s going to be able to make it and probably Eliza most of all. But she is absolutely determined. And I think in that way, you know, our audience loves watching women who become empowered. I mean, certainly Victoria was a huge success for us because of the character of Queen Victoria going from a teenage girl to becoming queen of England and Demelza in Poldark and a lot of other characters. I think our audience really loves to see that in women characters.
Jace Before this next question, a brief word from our sponsors…
Jace I’ve been waiting a long time for The Long Song, the adaptation of Andrea Levy’s novel of the same name to make it stateside debut masterpiece previously aired an adaptation of Levy’s Small Island. What issues does the long kick up? And despite its period trappings, does it feel particularly relevant and timely today?
Susanne I think The Long Song is really one of the most relevant shows we could put on now. It’s about Jamaican slavery in the 1850s and it’s about the freedom of the slaves. It’s about that moment in time. And the story is really about a woman, July, who’s a slave, who lives on a plantation that’s owned by some British landowners. And it really takes you through the experience of what it would have been like to be a slave at that time on a British plantation with a British manager who, you know, really they see slaves as property and to be done with as they feel like. And I think it’s a very poignant show for people at this time to really understand what slavery was, how people were made to feel and to do it through the eyes of July is really, I think, for people like us to experience what it was like for her. So I think it’ll be a very moving show for people. It’s a very important show. So I hope people will find it and really appreciate it.
Jace Would you want to develop or co-produce more series that examined the black British identity? Is that something of interest for MASTERPIECE?
Susanne Well, this summer, certainly after George Floyd’s murder, we had a lot of serious discussions at MASTERPIECE. And I got on the phone and spoke with many of our UK producers really about the question about what shows can we develop, what on, what stories can we develop it with, what writers? I think our first order of business is it takes so long for shows to be developed, it can take 18 months from the time an idea is started on with a writer to the time that it’ll appear on air, that it’s important that we start having these conversations now because it will impact what we have on MASTERPIECE in about a two year period of time. But in the meantime, we are in the process of script writing on some shows, and we do have choices about characters and how they might be cast, what their background might be. And so we have been able to impact some of our shows that we’re developing and will be filmed in this next year. So we expect that we will have more diverse characters and more diverse shows coming out in the near future.
Jace Atlantic Crossing represents a departure in co-production strategy for MASTERPIECE, partnering with non British producers on the World War II drama. What was behind the decision to look outside of Britain for content?
Susanne Well, as you know, back in March, we all went into lockdown. And many of the shows that we had in production at the time, five of them, in fact, also went into lockdown. And so I realized very quickly, you know, while while we were all hoping it was only going to be a three week lockdown, it turned out to be much longer. So I got on the phone and started calling every distributor, every producer I knew, asking what shows had completed filming, what shows might be in an editing stage and what shows might be available to us. And we were very lucky that Atlantic Crossing at that point did not have an American broadcaster. And so it did have Kyle McLachan, which got my interest kind of right away. And then it was a matter of reading the scripts and finding a story that I certainly had never heard of and I think our audience had never heard of, which was about the Crown Prince and Princess of Norway and how they had done a goodwill tour in the U.S. and became friends with FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt. And after not the Nazis invaded Norway, the crown princess needed refuge, and FDR sent a ship for her and the three children. And they lived in the White House for a number of years. Totally unknown story to me. And while it’s true that it is not a British made show, MASTERPIECE has done other things in the past. I mean, we’ve done American shows. We had American classics, for example. So we have done shows. It’s just unusual for us to do something with a Norwegian producer because we’ve never done that before. But we felt that the the story itself, the romance between the crown prince and princess, the untold story of what happened when the Nazis invaded Norway, and then the surprise of finding out that FDR and the Crown Princess had a very close relationship was really just it’s a fantastic story. So our audience is going to have to get used to some subtitles because the first couple of episodes, they’re speaking in Norwegian, but we believe people can overcome this. I think a lot of people now, especially with the lockdown, have probably watched a lot of foreign language films at this point because there wasn’t much else to do but watch television during this time. So we’re just hoping that that experience with watching foreign language shows will make it easier.
Jace On deck for the fiftieth anniversary is audio documentary Making MASTERPIECE hosted by yours truly. What can we tell listeners about that podcast?
Susanne Well, it’s spectacular from what I’ve heard. You were able to get some amazing people to be interviewed. So, I mean, I’m sure this is just a partial list. But, you know, Rufus Sewell, Lily Collins, Laura Linney. Alan Cumming, I mean, these are, you know, people who we’ve worked with for a number of years and who wanted to participate in telling the story of MASTERPIECE, I think it’s spectacular.
Jace I often get questions via email and on social media about MASTERPIECE co-productions with ITV and the BBC. There’s often a lot of confusion about how much of a role MASTERPIECE has when the UK cancels a show. Can you offer clarity for listeners when ITV or BBC cancels a show? What can MASTERPIECE really do at that point?
Susanne Well, you know, what we can do is we certainly lobby with the producers, with ITV and BBC about the show. Sometimes the shows have done better on MASTERPIECE, Sanditon, for example, than it did on ITV. And ITV is a commercial network and they have ratings to look at. And if a show doesn’t do as well for them as they expected, then it may be a commercial decision that going forward to a second season just doesn’t make sense for them. And, you know, so we can do our best with the producers to let the networks know how important the show is to us. But honestly, the funding usually comes mostly from the UK broadcaster. And in that situation, it’s very difficult for us to find the additional funding to make up that deficit by a UK broadcaster. And that’s that’s just the economics of it. And we have yet not been able to solve that problem for some shows that we would have liked to see go on and on. Home Fires being one of them. You know, we still get Zen, is another. We still get people asking us about that show. But it is an economic reality for the most part.
Jace With the ending of several mainstays like Poldark, Grantchester and Endeavor have become linchpins in the annual schedule. How has the pandemic affected production on those shows?
Susanne Grantchester just started production. It was delayed, but they’re in production and they’re closing in on finishing. So we fully expect we’ll have it for next year. You know, fingers crossed that everything goes well. The UK is in lockdown again, but we just heard from the producers last week that they they do expect they’ll be able to finish the show. So that’s terrific. Unfortunately, Endeavor, what happened during the pandemic was that actors who had been scheduled to do their filming during a certain time might have committed to two or three projects in a year. And the ones that took priority were the ones that had shut down in mid filming. So a couple of the actors in Endeavor had to finish their other shows first before they could start up with a new season of endeavor. And so that will be delayed. So Endeavor, you’ll have to wait for a full year, but I promise it’s worth waiting for. And Sean Evans is just the best, so.
Jace We get questions all the time about two shows, one of which did shoot a new season, so one is Unforgotten, which went back into production fairly recently in Britain and the other is Victoria. When might we see the next season of Unforgotten and is there a potential next season of Victoria at some point down the line?
Susanne Well, I can answer about Unforgotten, which is we fully expect to have that show next year at the end of the year in 2021. And as for Victoria, I mean, we all miss Victoria. We all miss Jenna Coleman. I’m we just do. But there is no plan right at the moment to start up again. So we don’t know if it will. So we’re just waiting to see if producers and cast want to get back together to do it.
Jace Finally, looking at the 50th anniversary season as a whole, are there any common themes or narrative threads that connect these shows?
Susanne You know, this will sound very simple, but I think probably love conquers all. I think that the stories oftentimes there are hardships and troubles and roadblocks and all kinds of things to overcome. But the message in the end is really about a loving one another and caring for people, and that somehow by doing that will get through. And it’s a good message for our time right now. I think kindness is something we all need more of. And I think these shows have characters. Again, in some cases, it’s a brutal look at history, but there are caring people in that history and I think these shows highlight them.
Jace One of my favorite philosophers, Albert Camus, said, “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” And I do think that these shows are sort of testament to the endurance of the human spirit to overcome odds. I think that’s a lesson that all of us at home could take away with it as well. We can overcome and endure almost anything.
Susanne Yes, I think you’re absolutely right. I think these shows do that. And so that’s well put.
Jace Susanne Simpson, thank you very much.
Susanne Thank you, Jace.
Jace And with that, we bid adieu to you for now — and to the year 2020. In what was a challenging, difficult year for so many of us, we here at MASTERPIECE hope you were able to find some moments of comfort, entertainment, and enlightenment in our programming, and in our conversations here on the MASTERPIECE Studio podcast.
MASTERPIECE Studio will be back in your podcast feeds in early 2021 — and on February 28, 2021, we’re launching an exciting new three-part documentary miniseries, Making MASTERPIECE, about the birth and behind the scenes drama of Masterpiece Theatre. That will appear in this feed, as well. Stay tuned, and as the year comes to a close, be well and be safe, listeners.
MASTERPIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob, and produced by Nick Andersen. Elisheba Ittoop is our editor. Rebecca Eaton is the executive producer at large for MASTERPIECE. The executive producer of MASTERPIECE is Susanne Simpson.
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