TV’s Masterpiece


When a good thing doesn’t come to an end, it is still ever subject to change. In 1971, the fall I went off to college, Masterpiece Theater began its first season. I didn’t find time to watch any of the first productions: The First Churchills and The Six Wives of Henry VIII, among them (I hope I was busy with school work), but I’ve always been a fan. Switching the title to one word this year, “Masterpiece” marks its 38th year on public television as the longest running prime time drama in television history.

Says the Masterpiece Web site: “Masterpiece Theatre came at a point in time when the quality of American commercial television entertainment was deteriorating and when programming was increasingly being directed at youngsters, often at the expense of their elders. Into this bleak landscape [of television wasteland] stepped a few visionaries at WGBH in Boston who set the stage for Masterpiece Theatre, a television playhouse devoted to dramatic adaptations of great fiction and significant biography.”

Its theme, now instantly recognizable music, was originally written for the court of King Louis XV of France by composer Jean-Joseph Mouret (1682-1738). The piece is sometimes known as Mouret’s “Rondeau” as well as the “Theme from Masterpiece Theatre“.

The original opening, with Alistair Cooke sitting in a winged chair introducing the show of the evening, has been mimicked in several venues as a classic. Sesame Street’s version puts furry, blue Cookie Monster in Alistair’s seat. Cooke was the host for 22 seasons.

Changes in this year’s series, besides the shortened name, include the grouping of the shows into three themed collections – each with new graphics, introduced by its own host. Masterpiece Classic features period drama like the Jane Austin stories shown this past winter. Masterpiece Contemporary will feature the drama of today’s world like the Prime Suspect series, which featured Helen Mirren. Masterpiece Mystery will continue with shows like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple.
Mysteries are some of my favorite reading and I credit the Mystery shows on PBS for priming my interest. How could I not be intrigued by Edward Gorey’s black and white drawings that animate the classic Mystery theme? PBS notes, “The macabre, yet merry world of Edward Gorey has provided the backdrop for MYSTERY! since the series began in 1980.” describes Gorey’s art, “No one sheds light on darkness from quite the same perspective as this Cape Cod specialist in morbid, fine-lined jocularity.”

The Gorey art I own is on a mug I received as a thank-you gift from Channel 45/49. Croquet players surround the cup with their game, and the heat sensitive mug reveals additional players lurking behind rocks when a hot beverage is poured into it. The mug doesn’t work as it once did. The hidden figures are visible all the time, no mystery there. Unlike my worn mug, the show is still tops.

A new series, Inspector Lewis, enticed me to stay up late the other night. A spin-off from Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series, which I enjoyed, Kevin Whately, who played Inspector Morse’s partner, Sergeant Lewis, has finally been promoted.
The Masterpiece shows have enriched my life, maybe yours, too, for nearly 40 years. Looks like they will continue to entertain us for some time to come.


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