My Summer Fling with Masterpiece Theater

Classic Gems from a Golden Era

Masterpiece Theater’s Poldark, 1975–77
After months of longing for the lazy days of summer, it has been rather a rude awakening that by the time I can steal away some reading time, I am too tired. Focusing on all those words is just too strenuous, and I find myself nodding off as soon as my popcorn is gone. So I’ve migrated to the television, looking for things that satisfy some of the same cravings without quite so much eye strain. What have I found? The many marvelous literary adaptions that I have loved on Masterpiece Theater over the years!

I owe a lot of my current reading tastes to Masterpiece Theater. (Also to Star Trek, but that’s a different post!) In the early 1970s, I was camped out every Sunday night in front of our single black-and-white television, watching another installment of high-quality British costume dramas. I remember those years as a golden age for book geeks like me. My life was enriched tremendously by these stories that played out before my eyes each week. (If you’re wondering what Masterpiece Theater is, click here.)
(This show began airing in 1971 on many Public Broadcasting System (PBS) stations in the U.S., right about the time I became mature enough to sit still and appreciate it. This was about the only way for Americans to view shows created by British production companies, such as the British Broadcasting Company (BBC). Science fiction and westerns were easy to find, but not literary dramas. )

I was a young, impressionable viewer, who already enjoyed escaping into books about distant times and faraway lands more than most gals her age. I was naturally drawn to historical dramas from a variety of eras. The Masterpiece Theater productions put “faces” on the people I’d read about, showed me where they lived, and brought their struggles and triumphs to life for me. They prompted me to read or reread classic literature, seek out books on early British history, eventually major in British Literature, then embark on a career that had nothing to do with these things. Masterpiece Theater nurtured within me an abiding appreciation and healthy appetite for high-quality period dramas, which is much easier to satisfy nowadays than it used to be.

Elizabeth R, 1972
Downton Abbey recently got me reminiscing about my favorite dramas from those early years, when they were hard to come by. I was surprised to discover that many of my book friends missed out completely on these wonderful shows. In all fairness, many had not graduated kindergarten or even been born yet, but they have no idea what they were deprived of! Since we love to ooh and ahh about more recent period dramas—like, cue collective sigh, the BBC’s version of Pride and Prejudice—and since many of the older shows have finally become available to rent or purchase, I thought it would be fun to share them with others who might be suffering from summer fun/yardwork/gardening/home-project fatigue (or cabin fever, for those of you Down Under) and have a little viewing time available between their usual TV shows this summer.

So I’ve prepared a quick primer on a few of the most memorable series, which captivated me with their riveting renditions of fascinating folks, turbulent times, and grand literary epics. I hope you’ll let me tell you a little about these gems after the jump.

Note: Readers raised on digital CGI special-effects extravaganzas might be a bit disappointed by the some of the 70s lighting and video quality issues, but IMHO the marvelous writing, acting, and attention to period design detail more than make up for the slightly dated technology. Some of them are now being re-released in digitally enhanced formats. Dates reflect the first U.S. broadcasts, not the original British broadcasts.

The Six Wives of Henry VIII
(1971, 6 episodes)

This is the one that started it all for me. I was mesmerized by this detailed portrait of Henry VIII and his court. Each week’s episode features a different wife and deals with whatever complex political intrigues were current at the time. All that courtly drama was so much more interesting than I’d realized in history class! This isn’t as sexy as Showtime’s recent retelling, The Tudors. (And after watching obese Henry laboriously waddle around covered with oozing boils and lifted by giant pulley onto his horse, I really had no desire to see Jonathan Rhys Meyers do the same.) But from a historical perspective it is a lot more accurate, still highly entertaining, and for me the gold standard by which I measure Tudor tales.

Keith Michell won BAFTA and American Emmy awards for his portrayal of of Henry VIII, and the show won BAFTA awards for best actress, costume design, and production design. This show was later adapted into the 1972 film Henry VIII and his Six Wives. It spawned a successful sequel, Elizabeth R (below), and a prequel about Henry’s parents, The Shadow of the Tower (later in this post), on Masterpiece Theater.

Elizabeth R
(1972, 6 episodes)

Tells the story of the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, from the age of 15 through her death in 1547 at the age of 70. When the story begins, it has been two years since her father died and will be nine years before she ascends to the throne in her own right. We watch her character evolve from political neophyte into a formidable force who guides England’s vast territories with confidence and courage. This was the first time I’d seen a “modern” representation of her life—something I didn’t consider antiquated due to earlier film technology and less authentic, “sanitized” content—or seen it portrayed in such detail. It provided an in-depth view I’d never had access to before. Thankfully, excellent biographies of this amazing woman are now easy to view! It’s too bad her dad can’t watch a few of them with me to realize what he was overlooking right under his own nose for all those years....

Along with multiple costume awards, Glenda Jackson won two Emmy awards for best actress, and the series won the Emmy for best drama, marking the first time a British show had won the award.

That same year, Glenda Jackson also played Elizabeth opposite Vanessa Redgrave in the movie Mary, Queen of Scots. Glenda Jackson reigned supreme (sorry, couldn’t resist) in the early 70s, but there have been several distinguished portrayals of Elizabeth released over the last few years: Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth, 1998), Helen Mirren (Elizabeth I, 2005), Dame Judi Dench (Shakespeare in Love, 1998), and Joely Richardson (Anonymous, 2011).

Upstairs Downstairs
(1971 to 1975, five seasons, 68 episodes)

What some might call the forerunner of Downton Abbey, this monstrously successful period drama (originally produced by London Weekend Television, not the BBC!) is set in a large townhouse in London’s fashionable Belgravia district between 1903 (early in the reign of Edward VII, whom you’ll read more about later) and 1930. It tells about the lives of the servants living “downstairs” and the aristocrats living “upstairs,” and traces, in their changing behaviors and attitudes toward each other, the breakdown of the traditional class barriers. It also highlights the effects of technological and political changes during this time.

The show was immensely popular and received numerous BAFTA, Golden Globe, and American Emmy awards for outstanding drama series, acting, and directing. In a nationwide survey conducted in 2007 by PBS, American viewers voted Upstairs Downstairs their very favorite of the top 10 best-loved series over 35 seasons of Masterpiece Theater. A recent remake by the BBC in the wake of Downton Abbey’s popularity was unsuccessful, but the original series remains highly enjoyable.

The idea for this series was originally conceived by two actresses as a comedy set in the Victorian era. It went through numerous changes in tone and scope before appearing in its final format to television audiences. In fact, it’s a wonder we ever saw it. The completed master tapes sat in storage for almost a year, thanks to internal political differences of opinion over such things as whether the viewing public had any interest in period pieces, before someone dusted them off to fill a vacancy in an unpopular time slot, where the audience steadily grew and the series became a huge hit. The stories featured each season were later formatted as novels.

The Pallisers
(1974, 26 episodes)

Follows the lives of the wealthy, aristocratic Plantagenet Palliser and Lady Glencora, beginning with their politically advantageous, arranged wedding, over two decades as they seek to further the interests of their family’s dynasty amidst much intrigue and scandal in mid-Victorian England. He is a Member of Parliament for the Liberal Party, which provides political drama and familiarizes viewers with important issues of the time. But characters spend most of their time indulging themselves in lavish surroundings as they plot complex strategies for acquiring power, money, and love. Many viewers thought it had the look and feel of a 1970s primetime soap opera (such as Dallas or Dynasty, which were popular at the time).

This production featured many good performances by familiar actors who appear in other BBC productions, including Derek Jacobi (award winner for I, Claudius), Anthony Andrews (Brideshead Revisited), and Jeremy Irons (Brideshead Revisited). It received particularly high praise for its set and costume designs. It was nominated for a BAFTA for best design, then scored Emmy awards in 1977 for costume design, art direction, and scenic design.

The series was based on The Palliser novels by Anthony Trollope (6 books).

Edward the King, also distributed as Edward the Seventh
(1975, 13 episodes)

Tells the story of Edward VII, the eldest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who does not inherit the throne until his mother’s death in 1901, when he is 59. (See, I told you he’d show up again! He is mentioned or appears peripherally in several 1970s Masterpiece Theater productions that were set in the same era.) The series portrays his entire life and focuses a lot of attention on his parents, too. He is not interested in the lifestyle his father steers him toward—long hours of studying and working—and gravitates instead toward gaming and partying. As a result, although his public appearances on behalf of the crown are successful and he is popular with the British subjects, he is a disappointment to his parents, who give him very little responsibility. Despite his happy marriage to Princess Alexandra of Denmark, and their six children, he is remembered primarily for his playboy lifestyle and many mistresses.

This show portrays him as a very likable man stuck in a “Catch 22” situation: his mother won’t give him any official duties until he behaves responsibly, and he won’t behave responsibly because he doesn’t have any duties for which he is responsible. On one hand, he apparently wasn’t ambitious enough to carve out a place for himself, and on the other, his mother was very set in her ways, insisted on being in control, and didn’t delegate well. So I really liked the guy, felt bad for his controlling-mother issues, and tended to forgive his flaws more than he probably deserved!

One of the many mistresses we meet in this series is Lillie Langtry, who then got her own spinoff series featured on Masterpiece Theater, which I’ll get to soon. Her story lines were based on The Prince and the Lily by James Brough.

I, Claudius
(1976, 13 episodes)

Tells the fascinatingly complex story of the Roman Emperor Claudius as an “autobiography” in his own words at the end of his long and colorful life. It covers the political machinations behind the throne from 24 B.C., during the reign of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus Caesar, through the treacherous Tiberius, the crazed Caligula, and the unlikely Claudius, to his death A.D. 54, when Nero takes over. Claudius lives long enough to tell this story by cleverly using his natural stutter and physical infirmities to mask his intelligence—and since no one considers him to be a serious contender for the throne, no one cares enough about him to have him murdered. Talk about keeping a low profile—he is the champ! These are some amazingly ambitious folks, quite resourceful and creative in their intrigues. They are like The Sopranos of their community, only more powerful (since their community is the Roman Empire) and devious. This show is a lush and vivid spectacle of hedonistic excess, scheming, backstabbing, murder, madness, lust, incest, perversion, orgies, and clever twists and turns. It was considered pretty darn risque back in the day, and the orgy scenes caused the first and only content warnings I remember seeing on TV for many decades!

I, Claudius was also voted as one of the top 10 best-loved series in that 2007 PBS survey, and Derek Jacobi was voted as one of the top 5 dramatic performances for his role as Claudius. He also won a BAFTA for best actor, and the art director won BAFTA and Emmy awards. Sian Phillips won best actress for her portrayal of the deliciously scheming, eeeevil Livia Drusilla (wife of Augustus Caesar, mother of Tiberius, paternal grandmother of Claudius, paternal great-grandmother of Caligula, and maternal great-great-grandmother of Nero). The character of Livia Soprano, Tony Soprano’s mother, hails back to her a little—but only a little, because the original Livia set the bar rather high for scheming-mother issues.

The series was based on I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves. I, Claudius ranks 14th on the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. It also appears in TIME magazine’s 2005 list of 100 best English-language novels published since 1923.

(1975-77, 2 seasons, 29 episodes)

Here’s the one that stole my heart and locked away the key! Tells the tempestuous tale of Captain Ross Poldark, a captain in the British army who returns home to Cornwall after fighting in the American Revolutionary War. Eager to resume his life, he finds that his father has died, his fiancée has jilted him, and the estate, farm fields, and copper mines he has inherited are in complete disarray. He quickly becomes embroiled in local mining, banking, and smuggling drama, weds an unexpected and delightful local commoner lass, and increasingly stands against the greedy landowners and businessmen of his own class to champion the interests of the working class. Filmed on location in Cornwall, Poldark became enormously popular with viewers around the world.

Poldark was also voted as one of the top 10 best-loved series in that 2007 PBS survey. On video, it was the most successful BBC costume drama ever until the 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice came along. (You know the one—starring Colin Firth!! The one that Bridget Jones and her friends, and perhaps you and your friends as well, watched over and over again on an endless loop. Not that the Wenches would ever do anything like that. *shiftyeyes*)

The BBC recently announced its intentions to begin production on a new version of Poldark, which has me simultaneously jumping for joy yet scared to even contemplate, because the original is so very special to me. I must admit on rewatching that the action scenes leave something to be desired by modern standards (Serious Eyerolling Alert), but the breathtaking beauty of the Cornish coastline is timeless, and this show has a lot of rustic charm and a really, really big heart.

The series was based on the Poldark novels by Winston Graham.

The Duchess of Duke Street(1976-77, 31 episodes)

Set in London between 1900 and 1925, tells the story of Louisa Leyton/Trotter, who begins life as a servant aspiring to be the best cook in London. With some clever strategy, persistence, hard work, and the ability to attract and learn from many wealthy, powerful men, she becomes the chef and manager of a very elegant upper-class hotel on Duke Street in London’s posh St. James district. (One of those wealthy, powerful men whom she attracts is Edward VII, whose mistress she becomes for a while.) She manages her hotel during WWI and on into the Roaring Twenties, when times are good, but she cannot resist getting caught up in the problems of her patrons and trying to help them whenever she can, which is not always in the best interest of her business.

This story was created by a former producer of Upstairs, Downstairs, and loosely based on the real-life story of Rosa Lewis, known as the “Duchess of Jermyn Street,” who ran the Cavendish Hotel in London. It received several award nominations for best actress, best dramatic series, and best design.

(1979, 13 episodes)

Tells the story of Emilie Le Breton, a firecracker of a woman who took the world by storm before it quite knew what to do with her. Born on the Isle of Jersey in 1853, she leverages her beauty, wit, charm, and considerable moxie to became an international celebrity. Upon moving to London with her aging husband, she quickly becomes a professional beauty, the Victorian version of a supermodel. She befriends numerous artistic and wealthy celebrities (including Oscar Wilde), has affairs with others (including Edward VII, if you’ll recall), and embarks on a successful career as an actress. She was particularly popular in the American west, but there is some confusion as to whether the town of Langtry, Texas was named after her or an unrelated railroad engineer/supervisor named George Langtry. In either case, Judge Roy Bean soon built a saloon in Langtry, used as his headquarters while he practiced his special brand of “The Law West of the Pecos,” which he named The Jersey Lilly in her honor.

The series was based in part on The Prince and the Lily by James Brough.

A few shorter book adaptations

Quite a few shorter adaptations of literary classics were also broadcast during this decade that are well worth a viewing. Just a few include The Mayor of Casterbridge, Anna Karenina, Vanity Fair, Jude the Obscure, and Madame Bovary. You can check here for a complete listing of all Masterpiece Theater broadcasts from 1971 to 2005. I am pretty sure that you won’t run out of viewing options for a very long time if you keep this list on hand!

What’s on my list for this summer?

In taking this short trip down memory lane, I’ve already identified several shows that I missed the first time around and am eager to see. So when I’ve finished rewatching season 2 of Poldark, here’s what’s next on my To Be Watched list.

The Shadow of the Tower
(1972, 13 episodes)
The prequel to The Six Wives of Henry VIII, this series tells the story of political outsider Henry, Earl of Richmond, who in 1485 ascends the throne of England as Henry VII. He and his queen, Elizabeth of York, successfully unite the warring factions in the country after the War of the Roses. His reign ushers out the Middle Ages and ushers in the Modern Age. And his accomplishments clear the way for the tumultuous changes on the way, a couple of little events called the Protestant Reformation and The Renaissance.

Brideshead Revisited
(1981, 11 episodes)

This series is set in England during the waning years of the British aristocratic glory between the two world wars (i.e., same era as seasons 2 and 3 of Downton Abbey). A disillusioned army captain, played by Jeremy Irons in what many consider his breakout role, is introduced to a life of affluent privilege through his friendship with the irresponsible younger son of the distinguished Marchmain family. Charles visits the family’s Brideshead estate while in college, and his life becomes forever entwined with theirs.

When I looked up the awards for this show, my eyes glazed over. In 2000, industry professionals voted it tenth on the British Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes. It’s on TIME magazine’s list of 100 Best TV Shows of All-Time. In 2010, it placed second in The Guardian newspaper’s top 50 TV dramas of all time. You get the idea! It’s already sitting on top of my DVD player waiting for me!

This series was based on Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh.

The Forsyte Saga
(1967 and 2002)

Follows the fortunes of the upper-middle-class, British Forsyte family, who in a few short generations have worked themselves up from farmers to members of the “new money” class. Their transition to the modern age is told in a web of overlapping story lines marked with rivalries, resentments, infidelities, passion, deceit, and sensationalism. Two productions are available: a pre-Masterpiece Theater BBC production that aired in the late 1960s as a major spectacle to launch the new BBC2 channel, and an updated British Independent Television version that was broadcast on Masterpiece Theater in 2002.

Both versions of the series have been enormously popular and won a ridiculous number of rewards. The success of the original version inspired American public television executives to recognize a void in American television content and orchestrate the premiere of Masterpiece Theater in 1971. It was also the “real” first television miniseries, since it predated the “official” first miniseries (the American Broadcasting Network’s Rich Man, Poor Man) by nine years. The updated version placed second in that 2007 survey of American viewers. But when I did the research, I decided I want to see the original version first, which is much longer and more detailed and gets better reviews from viewers.

Both versions of the series were based on The Forsyte Chronicles series by John Galsworthy (6 books). The author was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1932 for The Forsyte Saga.

Are you also a fan of early Masterpiece Theater dramas, or are these series new to you? Do you have any favorite historical period dramas—other than Pride and Prejudice, of course? Do you have a To Be Watched list for times when you’re too tired to read? If you do, I hope you’ll share it with us!


  1. I absolutely love Poldark, both the books and the show. Ross Poldark is a seriously sexy guy. The actor who plays him is in one episode of Fawlty Towers, and I will watch it just for him!

    I, Claudius is also great. My favorite character is Livia, who is deliciously evil. There is also a cute, young, curly-haired Patrick Stewart, unfortunately playing a bad guy. The books are good too.

    1. Ha ha, I forgot about Patrick Stewart. Of course I had no idea who he was in the 70s...and I didn't remember him by the time he became captain of the Enterprise.

      I've gotten into mid season 2 of Poldark, and there's where Ross shines! He is indeed a seriously sexy guy. And George is such a colossal ASS!!!

  2. Love the post!! It certainly gave me food for thought. I did watch "I Claudius" and "The Forsyte Saga" and loved them. I was very young and I think I watched some of the others but I can't be sure. I'll just have to watch them again and see if they ring any bells. ;)

    1. I don't think I've ever talked to anyone who saw the Forsyte Saga. I'm impressed that you loved it at such a young age. And I, Claudius--that was one that took a lot of thinking to follow all the scheming, as I recall.

      Watching these shows is what made me dream of the day someone would invent a machine that would let me watch shows at some other time than when they were broadcast. There was a hilarious episode near the end of Poldark season 1 that I wasn't able to catch for at least 20 years... until I could buy it on video in American format. How times have changed! ;-)

    2. Our national TV has a tendency to put re-runs OFTEN, so I saw the Forsyte Saga and I, Claudius again a few years ago, I was able to understand it better. When I was a kid it was more about the lavish costumes, British English and beautiful countryside.

      I've always loved costumed historical dramas and whenever it was on tv I would watch it. :)

      I also highly recommend 'North and South' by Elizabeth Gaskell, the book and the series!! ;)

  3. I don't know if it was made by Masterpiece Theatre, but a few months ago I fell in love with North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. I read the book first (free on kindle!) and it's like Pride and Prejudice but with more drama. After I finished it, I discovered that it had been made into a movie which you can watch on youtube or netflix. And the best part? Richard Armitage pays the main guy. Sigh. Swoon. Gasp.

    1. Krista, I have heard so much fangirling about North and South (from Wench Zee among others) that I recently picked it up to watch, too. I'm so glad you reminded me! It's short, so I should watch it before Brideshead Revisited. It is a 2004 BBC miniseries, but I don't know whether it was broadcast on Masterpiece Theater. It seems to fit the mold perfectly. Thank you so much for mentioning it!!

  4. Excellent post!, I loved to watch Masterpiece Theater and I think I watched all the above except Lillie. For me I Claudius was THE BEST, Derek Jacobi and Sian Phillips were fantastic. In 2nd place comes Upstairs Downstairs and Poldark.
    I also watched The Forsyte Saga and Brideshead Revisited, both wonderful shows.
    Kathi, North and South is great go watch it please.


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