50 Years of MASTERPIECE on PBS: Author Nancy West Interview
Since 1971 we’ve delighted in classic and contemporary dramas from Britain – The Complete Jane Austen, Sherlock, Downton Abbey and Inspector Morse, to name just a few. But what’s the secret of MASTERPIECE’s success? A new book, MASTERPIECE: America’s 50-Year-Old Love Affair with British Television Drama, supplies answers in fascinating behind-the-scenes stories of actors, writers, producers and hosts.
MASTERPIECE’s Gay Mohrbacher talked with author Nancy West. A die-hard fan and literary scholar, West offers anecdotes, trivia, and thoughtful reflections on the series’ impact on American television.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Let’s start at the crux of it: Why do Americans love British things and why do they love MASTERPIECE, which is so British?
As proud as we Americans are of ourselves, we feel we lack certain things. We’re a country that prizes open space, yet we love Britain’s small villages and the sense of community we imagine they foster. Compared to Britain, we’re also a young country. So being immersed in a centuries-old, rich British history – I think we’re fascinated by that. There can also be a strain of anti-intellectualism in this country, so we turn to Britain to help feed our intellectual, cultural yearnings. For us, Britain represents great literature, great theater, a respect for history, and excellent manners. And while we sometimes bristle at the word tradition – for good reason in many ways – tradition can be a very comforting thing. Tradition is something that binds us, guides and settles us. I think we see Britain as a country replete with tradition. MASTERPIECE reinforces all these perceptions.
When this new PBS drama series premiered in 1971, the producers decided it needed a host. Why did they choose Alistair Cooke?
Because he was perfect. Really! Here was somebody who had all the manners and pedigrees of a British gentleman – except for the fact that he was actually born in the working-class town of Salford! But he certainly seemed the part. He went to Cambridge, earned a scholarship to study theater at Yale. His voice was resonant and warm, yet authoritative. He dressed well, possessed more than his fair share of charisma, and his knowledge was, I call him the Lord Google of his era in my book. What he knew about literature and history was encyclopedic. Yet with him, learning didn’t seem like homework or something you had to buckle down to. He seemed to want to learn simply for the joy of it. When he sat there in his wing chair and told us about some aspect of British history, it felt like he was a visiting uncle or something, he had such an easy, conversational delivery. And yet the fact was he wrote all his 900+ MASTERPIECE scripts himself and could memorize five pages’ worth in a half-hour – he hated teleprompters!
You believe that both Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey eclipsed all other MASTERPIECE shows to date – why?
Who knows in the end what the magic is, but I think both shows, in their own way and at their own time created more than stories; they created worlds. The original producers of Upstairs, Downstairs didn’t have the kind of technology that Julian Fellowes had at his disposal with his [Downton Abbey] team, but they researched the hell out of the Edwardian period and scoured Britain to get just the right props and costuming. The writers were also scrupulous about capturing the specific patterns of Edwardian behavior. When Lord Bellamy visits his butler, Hudson, in his sickroom, he asks to sit down. Why? Because this is what an Edwardian gentleman would have done. So, despite the wobbly sets and largely stationary camera, we felt completely in the Edwardian world of Upstairs, Downstairs. And the level of detail on the Downton Abbey set! Lady Cora’s breakfast tray contained a perfectly cooked meal and an exact facsimile of the newspaper she would have been reading at the time. I don’t know how it is, but somehow that level of detail and authenticity draws us in.
We turn to Britain to help feed our intellectual, cultural yearnings.
Our audience has gobbled up every Jane Austen title we’ve aired, from Sense and Sensibility to Sanditon. The person responsible for most of these adaptations is Andrew Davies. Does he have a particular approach to interpreting classic novels? And why are his Austen adaptations so well received?
Andrew Davies is the patron saint of Austenites, me included! We love him. He was an English professor for many years, so Austen, Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell: their books are in his bones. His writing process is fascinating. When he agrees to adapt a novel, the first thing he does is check out the audiobook, fill up his gas tank and drive around the countryside, listening to it. Then he proceeds to rip up paperback copies so he can physically move parts of the book around! With Austen, he claims there isn’t much to do – that her dialogue, structure, and timing are adaptation-ready. But Davies does make some fresh changes. One is to “fix” her men by making them sexier, more virile, less stuffed-shirt. He also gives them far more airtime than Austen ever did. And he plays up the fact that Austen’s stories are about young people making young peoples’ mistakes and having young peoples’ hormones. Davies is nearly 85 but he has the heart of a 20-year-old! And God knows why, but he also has this uncanny ability to channel the minds of young women. He thinks like a heroine.
When the spinoff Mystery! premiered in 1980, there were already a number of popular American crime shows on TV – Hart to Hart, Magnum PI among others. There are even more today. What’s so engaging about the British murder mystery?
One answer is that MASTERPIECE Mystery! featured adaptations of golden age detective writers like Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and Arthur Conan Doyle. Their stories share several characteristics, which I think are deeply appealing to viewers. The detectives (Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey, Sherlock Holmes) are super smart; they reason their way through a case. There’s also a sense of social order that’s restored at the end. Holmes solves the case, his client goes off happy, and Holmes and Watson celebrate by having dinner at a posh restaurant. British mysteries also tend to be set in posh surroundings, which the Mystery! dramas recreate in loving detail. We see victims splayed on oriental carpets, hurled off the roofs of stately manor houses, poisoned in the snuggest of cottages. And finally, the adaptations are loaded with charm. Mystery! made Hercule Poirot into a much more endearing character than he ever was on the page. Poirot, by the way, was the only fictional character ever to get an obituary in The New York Times.
Poirot is a fan favorite for sure and the golden age detective stories do have a pleasant coziness about them. But we’ve presented a wide range of British mysteries over the years. In fact, you argue MASTERPIECE actually improved the mystery genre. What new sorts of detectives did Mystery! give audiences? And how did it push the envelope within the genre?
MASTERPIECE made the British mystery a far more varied, self-reflective, and compelling genre. Take Foyle’s War. I can’t think of many television dramas that combine historical fiction with mystery. It’s set in the picture-postcard, coastal town of Hastings, but the ever-present, looming backdrop is World War II. Anthony Horowitz, [the series’ creator], said he wanted to shed light on the little-known corners of British wartime experience. The darker, disconcerting stories about black marketeers, traitors, and war criminals – that not everyone was pulling together. … And what MASTERPIECE achieved with Inspector Morse, Inspector Lewis and Endeavour! Spin-offs appear all the time in television, but most don’t pay close attention to the original series or give much thought to how characters develop over time. Inspector Lewis hardened the youthful Lewis we saw on Morse. Endeavour is doing almost the opposite, showing how the crusty, disillusioned man in Morse became that way.
And I can’t answer your question without mentioning Prime Suspect. It was the first detective show to put a woman’s professional and psychological life front and center. When the character of Jane Tennyson first appeared onscreen in 1992, she felt totally real to viewers. Helen Mirren was 46 when she started playing that role. She cut her hair short so Tennison wouldn’t have to fuss with it. She didn’t wear much makeup. And as she aged into the part, she wanted viewers to see the wrinkles. Her police work didn’t seem glamorous at all. It just felt hard. And when she fought against her sexist male colleagues, a lot of women were saying yeah, this is right. They saw themselves in Jane Tennyson. [Show writer] Lynda La Plante wanted to put gender politics upfront in that series. No British – or American – crime show had done that before. And none has done it so well since.
That’s a great summation. Speaking of great actors in great roles, did Sherlock make the splash it did because of Benedict Cumberbatch?
Yes! I think the Doyle stories themselves matter little in the end – the adaptations live or die in their portrayal of the star detective and his sidekick. I remember seeing Cumberbatch in other MASTERPIECE things, and also in [the 2007 film] Atonement. He never excited me, but he sent my heart racing in Sherlock – with his perfectly cut Spencer Hart suits and that long, tweed coat and the loop-and-through way he wears his scarf. He gave the character a whole new hip, urban style, set off by the high-tech landscape of London. And he and Martin Freeman had fabulous chemistry together. Sherlock is a very urban show and a cheeky retelling. I think young people especially love that.
Is there something different about British acting talent? You give them special praise in your book.
Yes, absolutely! America emphasizes star quality, personality. Britain emphasizes training and craft. British actors typically undergo years of training – many of them attend drama schools where they learn the cornerstones of their craft. Once they graduate, they often have a wide range of opportunities available to them in theater, television, and film. There’s a fluidity among these three mediums we don’t have here. And because each requires something so different, British actors are constantly getting their talent stretched. What’s more, they all learn Shakespeare. To deliver a Shakespearian line or monologue requires cadence, pacing, rhythm and lyricism. When they speak, it’s not just the accent we’re drawn to. It’s the attention, the loving attention to language, that’s so alluring to us. It always comes through in British performances, this attention to words.
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