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During the 1960's, there existed in the United States a non-commerical
television network called National Educational Television (NET). It was
rudimentary that it wasn't linked to its local affiliates by coaxial cable
until 1967; before then, it sent films and videotapes to its affiliates by
domestic air mail. Despite its modest resources, it had ambitions of
the USA's "fourth network." To that end, it imported and distributed
dramatic programs from the BBC. These had little impact until 1969, when
NET imported and aired the BBC's "The Forsyte Saga," which became NET's
first nighttime hit. Weary of NET's poor relationship with its
its biased documentaries, and other issues, the Corporation for Public
Broadcasting relaced NET in 1969 with a new network, the Public
Impressed with the success of "The Forsyte Saga," PBS decided to import other miniseries from the UK and broadcast them under the umbrella title of "Masterpiece Theatre." Alistair Cooke, host of the legendary 1950's series "Omnibus," was its erudite host. The first miniseries aired was "The First Churchills," but it was "The Six Wives of Henry VIII" and "Elizabeth R" that made it a hit and help establish PBS in general. "Masterpiece Theatre" followed up with later imports from the BBC such as "Poldark" and "I, Claudius" and some series from Britain's commercial network, ITV, such as "Upstairs, Downstairs." It was generally considered the highest quality series on American television.
"Masterpiece Theater" went into its second decade (1980's) with solid miniseries such as "The Citadel," "The Flame Trees of Thika" (said to be its most popular series), and "A Town Like Alice" from Australia (the first non-British series it aired). But starting in the late 1980's, "Masterpiece Theatre" was often not living up to its name. For every good series such as "Piece of Cake," there were one or two clunkers like "Sleepers." One series, "Clarissa," was downright repulsive. There were various explanations. One was that rising production costs were limiting the number of quality series produced by BBC and the ITV. Another was that cable channels, particularly A&E, were scooping up many of the British shows that used to go to PBS.
This situation persisted during the show's third decade (1990's), during which the show was often absent from the schedule. A series of temporary hosts between Alistair Cooke and Russell Baker seemed to symbolize its uncertainty. A move away from its traditional Sunday night timeslot didn't help matters. On the plus side, PBS and WGBH began to take an active part in the production of its shows.
"Masterpiece Theatre" is now in its fourth decade, a rare achievement for any kind of TV show anywhere. Its 2002-2003 season is being started off with a new production of "The Forsyte Saga," which looks most promising. Still, the series faces an uncertain future in a TV landscape far changed from 1971. Viewers can find high quality programs on innumerable cable and satellite channels, videos, and DVD's and PBS recently logged the worst ratings in its history, prompting its president to openly speculate about the network's viability and even its reason for existence. My advice is to enjoy "Masterpiece Theatre" while you still can.
I have to disagree with comments made that the Masterpiece Theater
productions 'Sleepers' and 'Clarissa' are "clunkers" or in the case of
'Clarissa,' "downright repulsive." 'Sleepers' is a charming
tongue-in-cheek romp into the spy genre -- I still have it on VHS
though it is rapidly decaying: Two forgotten Russian spies planted in
London in the 1960s are discovered in the KGB files. When they don't
respond to Moscow's directive to return for assignment, the hunt for
the now reluctant spies begins.
'Clarissa,' though heartbreaking, is hardly repulsive. Based on the 18th century British novel by Samual Richardson, it is a classic telling of the 'rogue and the innocent.' Sean Bean plays the arrogant rake Lovelace, whose obsession with deflowering the beautiful but oh-so-chaste Clarissa leads to the destruction of his soul, his life, and the woman he comes to love. Much better a real story with some meat on its bones than the safe period dress 'soap operas' Masterpiece Theater has often offered over the years.
I love this show which I have watched on and off since I was a child. As previous reviewers have noted, there have been some 'clunkers' here and there. But there are many great productions as well. The new version of the Forsyte Saga was truly excellent, as were The Lost Prince, and Bleak House. These were series that I simply could not get enough of, and was sad to see end. One problem that I have with Materpiece Theatre these days is the absence of a host. There was something delightful about visiting with the host each week to hear something interesting, insightful, or even trivial about the production which was to follow. Cook and Baker both did a superb job of this. I implore the producers of this show to bring back the job of host. Find someone knowledgeable and credible, and put them back in that leather armchair by the fireplace amid the books and other curiosities.
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