Why Americans still love ‘Masterpiece’ after 50 years

British television drama expert at the University of Missouri shares how Masterpiece has affected American culture.

Jan. 11, 2021
Contact: Eric Stann, 573-882-3346, StannE@missouri.edu

The views and opinions expressed in this “for expert comment” release are based on research and/or opinions of the researcher(s) and/or faculty member(s) and do not reflect the university’s official stance.

This is a picture of Nancy West

Nancy West

Some dramatic series can transcend both space and time, while leaving lasting memories with people of all ages. One of those series is Masterpiece, formerly known as Masterpiece Theatre, which is a British television drama series that began airing in 1971 on Public Broadcasting Service, or PBS.

A half century later, Masterpiece still lives on, and continues to bring audiences well written, richly produced and finely performed drama. Nancy West, a professor of English in the College of Arts and Science at the University of Missouri, studies Victorian literature and culture, and is an expert on British television dramas. She shares her insight on why Masterpiece continues to exert a powerful appeal in this country.

Why is America still in love with British television drama 50 years after the debut of Masterpiece on PBS?

There are many reasons. One is that British television drama tends to be very well-scripted. It’s written by people who love to read. These screenwriters know what makes a compelling story and strong characterization based on their lifelong experiences with literature. Books are in their bones because they hail from a country whose love of language is its most defining characteristic, as a love of freedom is America’s most defining characteristic. In addition, British drama also boasts superb acting performances, such as Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect, Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey and Damian Lewis in the remake of The Forsyte Saga. Their performances are indelible.

A deeper reason has to do with what Americans feel they lack in their own lives. The list is long, and includes a rich, centuries-old history, villages and village life, stately manor houses, rolling hills, wit, charm and good manners. Therefore, Americans tend to look to British drama to provide a certain sense of order and comfort.

How has Masterpiece influenced the television industry for a half a century?

To begin, it pioneered the dramatic miniseries. It showed American producers the beauty and appeal of ending a series after a respectable number of episodes. Programs such as Roots or  Rich Man, Poor Man wouldn’t exist without Masterpiece. It also showed American producers that you could blend the low-grade appeal of soap opera with serious drama. The 1980s hit show Dallas was largely inspired by the blend of these forms in Upstairs, Downstairs, which aired in the U.S. between 1974 and 1977.

Masterpiece’s Prime Suspect also gave us television’s first troubled female detective. In addition, there are no words to describe how Sherlock revved up the original Conan Doyle stories for television. It showed the television industry that young audiences could love a hero whose superpower was his brain.

How has the program affected American culture over the years? Has it influenced trends in the U.S.?

Yes, in its own quiet way. More than any other institution, Masterpiece has inspired a love and admiration of Britain. If David Harlan is right, that “We are who we are by virtue of who we care about,” then America’s national character is partly bound up in its Anglophilia, and Masterpiece has played no small role in shaping that Anglophilia.

Its adaptations of literary classics have inspired us to read or re-read certain books. One early instance of this was the BBC’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, which turned Mr. Darcy, played by a young Colin Firth, into a much more virile, sexier character. Another example is the BBC’s 2005 Bleak House. With its icy blue palette and rapid-fire edits, it transformed a Victorian novel into CSI. Due to the television series, book sales of Bleak House in the U.S. went up by 40%.

Recently, Masterpiece has produced adaptations of 20th century books considered classics in Britain, but are less well-known here in America, such as The Durrells in Corfu and the upcoming All Creatures Great and Small, based on the memoir by Yorkshire veterinarian James Herriot. The Durrells in Corfu totally charmed American audiences, leading many of them to read the original book on which the series is based — Gerald Durrell’s lively, hilarious memoir, My Family and Other Animals. I believe All Creatures Great and Small will also be a huge hit here in America. Those at Masterpiece think so as well, and that’s why they’re launching it now, just as Masterpiece celebrates its 50th anniversary.

What are some major memorable moments throughout the history of the program?

  • In Downton Abbey, when Matthew proposes to Mary on Christmas Eve.
  • In Upstairs, Downstairs, when the king dines at the Bellamy household.
  • In Pride and Prejudice, when Darcy comes out of that pond and his shirt is clinging to his chest.
  • In Cranford, when the genteel ladies of Cranford wait for a cat to poop out a lace doily.
  • In Sherlock, when Sherlock introduces himself to Watson by giving Watson the once-over and then recounting pieces of his background in 30 seconds flat.

Do we see the same interest in these dramas from across the pond in England? Why or why not?

Yes and no. Like Americans, people in the U.K. loved the original Upstairs, Downstairs, which depicts the interactions of a family living “upstairs,” and their servants, who live “downstairs.” British viewers also felt the history it portrayed far more keenly than Americans did — they and their families had lived through it and suffered through the appalling class divisions that characterized the Edwardian era of British history. American and British audiences both devoured Jewel in the Crown when it appeared in 1985, though the show’s treatment of British imperialist history was far easier for U.S. audiences to digest.

Britain went absolutely crazy over the BBC’s 1993 version of Middlemarch, while U.S. audiences barely gave it a nod. Downton Abbey, especially after season 3, was far more popular in the U.S. than in the U.K. Many people in the U.K. grew impatient, even angry, over the show’s sentimental look at master and servant relations.

Who have been some of the most memorable characters for fans to follow over its 50 years?

I can narrow my list down to five:

  • Bridges from Upstairs, Downstairs
  • Jane Tennison from Prime Suspect
  • Francis Urquhart from House of Cards
  • Christopher Foyle from Foyle’s War
  • Carson from Downton Abbey

Recent British dramas such as Downton Abbey and The Crown have also captivated audiences and garnered high ratings. Why have those programs been so successful?

Both are highly sumptuous dramas with massive budgets and an army of people dedicated to getting the period detail right. They not only give us good stories but also give us worlds to enter into. They both feature a large ensemble cast, so we can pick our favorite characters and marvel over the range and diversity of acting talent.

But they’re very different shows. Downton is a highly sentimental drama, based on the happy notion that no matter what our class differences may be, we can all get along. The Crown, a Netflix show, is stripped of any sentimentality. Its aim from the start has been to give us a detached, unsparing look at the British monarchy. Many viewers appreciate this because they’ve been fed so much sentimental nonsense about Kate, William, Harry and Meghan by the tabloids. Historically, we’ve also lacked a coherent narrative about the royal family, perceiving and understanding them mainly through events — Diana’s car crash, Meghan and Harry’s move out of Kensington Palace — or images.

How has Masterpiece influenced the fashion industry?

  • With Sherlock, the iconic long navy blue coat and scarf wrapped once around the neck.
  • With Downton Abbey, a line of tweeds, jewelry, shoes, dresses, blouses, coats and skirts. Ralph Lauren, Marc Jacobs and Naeem Kahn all designed fashion lines around the show.
  • With Jewel in the Crown, a rage for white linen and tunics.

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