With its trademark classical music theme (Jean-Joseph Mouret’s Rondeau), classic adaptations of literary masterpieces, and countless British accents, Masterpiece Theater has provided its viewers with some of television’s finest moments. A mixture of education and entertainment, this program is now entering its third decade of devoted fanatics seeking a glimpse of antiquity in the desert of bad films and American football that is Sunday night television.

The Beginnings

This television giant got its start on January 10, 1971, after the success of "The Forsyte Saga", a BBC adaptation of the John Galsworthy novels about a group of wealthy British families. Having been a hit in the United Kingdom the previous year, NET (National Educational Television, the predecessor to PBS) decided to bring the series to the United States in 1969. It was meant to last twenty-six weeks and then be replaced by a series called Civilization, which looked at the roots of societies throughout history. However, after the success of the program, WGBH, the NET station in Boston, Massachusetts, wanted to try to create a series of programs based on British classics in the same time slot.

WGBH hired Alistair Cooke, a Brit-turned-Yank famous for his “Letter from America” dispatches on the BBC. Cooke had previously hosted a similar program on CBS called "Omnibus", a forerunner to Masterpiece Theater that had been cancelled. On the first program, an introduction to the BBC series “The First Churchills”, Cooke greeted viewers from an English country house, a background that lasted until American Russell Baker took over the reigns in the 1990’s.

“The First Churchills” was chosen not because of its quality, but rather because one of the characters in “The Forsyte Saga” had the name Churchill, and WGBH wanted Forsyte fans to flock to the series. The series was underwritten from the beginning by the Mobil Corporation, which gave to the classic line: “Masterpiece Theater was made possible by a grant from the Mobil Corporation,” announced at the start of each episode by the show’s producer, Christopher Sarson, probably because of his British accent.

Britannia Rules the (Air)Waves

The series that put the show on the map, however, was "Upstairs, Downstairs". The program was originally put off by WGBH who saw it too soap-operatic and modern to be considered a “masterpiece.” The station eventually gave in to its better senses and in 1974, when the series became a national favorite, and arguably was the basis for the highly rated 1976 miniseries on ABC, “Rich Man, Poor Man”, from its depiction of class struggles to its parallel title. Anglomania swept the United States, from the rise of public television programming such as Mystery, Fawlty Towers, and Benny Hill to the popular wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana.

“Living repository of our culture”

The program continued to be a forum for the finest British productions of literature. From "I, Claudius”, “The Six Wives of Henry VIII”, and eight different productions based on the works of Charles Dickens, the program has been true to its original vision: a “living repository of our culture.” However, the program has been a source of controversy throughout the years, even amongst its own producers, over its betrayal of this vision. In the turbulent 1970’s, American culture was changing radically and many, particularly those in the upper-class being threatened with the most drastic changes to their culture, looked across the Atlantic Ocean for solace, as Henry James did in the earlier part of the century. Many questioned whether the essence of American public television should be a vehicle for rampant anglophilia. Where were the American masterpieces?

While some American novels, including The Last of the Mohicans and The Buccaneers, were featured, the programs were predominately British. Viewers learned far more about struggles between Native Americans and the British than their own. They were similarly treated to no less than three separate serials dealing with British mining towns. The explanation for this lack of American programming was that films lifted straight from the BBC were less expensive than self-made productions, and that the British had perfected the art of the miniseries, having done them since the 1940’s, while the Americans were still perfecting their skills.

In October 2002, WBGH aired the first in a periodic series called “The American Collection.” Beginning with Langston Hughes’ short story, “Cora, Unashamed”, the program finally brought literary perspectives neglected by the series to the airwaves. Gone were the serials about the polished lives of the aristocracy and present were those about African-American housekeepers, small-town America, and the Deep South. Absent, however, were the trademark commentaries at the beginning of the program, and the trademark theme music (see more below). Instead, a piece by the Boston Pops and Yo-Yo Ma was used. Indeed, you can’t get much more American than that.

Made Possible By

As previously mentioned, the program has been sponsored by Mobil from its beginning. During the 1970’s, when increased gas prices tarnished the reputations of oil companies, the program provided them with an outlet to improve their image. This benefit was seen throughout PBS, leading some to dub it the Petroleum Broadcasting System. During the 33-year course of the program, the corporation has paid more than $300 million to fund its various projects. In recognition of this, the program changed its name to “Mobil Masterpiece Theater”, and in 1998, to ”ExxonMobil Masterpiece Theater”. To some, this represented what was wrong with PBS. Corporate underwriting of programs cut into the channel’s original objective: to educate and entertain the masses. Due to corporate influence, some believed, the programs had become bland and designed to attract high-income audiences, instead of looking at the social issues of the day.

In 2002, ExxonMobil announced that it would no longer underwrite the program, citing financial reasons. By 2004, the program was simply called “Masterpiece Theater”, and had been unable to find another underwriter, willing to invest $6-$8 million for a 30-second spot at the beginning of a program that is, on a good night, watched by 5 million people.

Multiculturalism at Its Best: The French Theme to the American Series about British Drama Found at an Italian Resort

The famous theme music of the program is widely identified with its grand values. It was created by Jean-Joseph Mouret for King Louis XV of France for “Symphonies and Fanfare for the King’s Supper.” Christopher Sarson, the program’s original executive producer was visiting Club Med in Italy, when he heard the song being used at the resort to summon people to meals. After hearing the French piece, he refused to settle for English alternatives, and despite the cultural mismatch, it became one of the trademark parts of the program. This was so much the case that Sarson recounted reading in the New York Times that a journalist visiting a Club Med in Mexico commented on the resort’s sophistication because it used the theme from Masterpiece Theater to summon people to breakfast.

The theme will continue to summon viewers across the United States to their televisions in order to experience the very best both sides of the pond have to offer from their literary traditions.

Sources: “Masterpiece Theatre: A Celebration of 25 Years” “Twenty Seasons of Mobil Masterpiece Theatre” “Masterpieces: A Decade of Masterpiece Theatre” The program’s (or should I say programme’s) website at: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/series/masterpiece.html

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