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'Masterpiece' At 40: Defying Cooke's Prediction

Masterpiece Theatre has been an integral part of public broadcasting since its first airing, 40 years ago this month.

Here's how Alistair Cooke, the show's well-dressed host, introduced the program, sitting in an armchair next to bookshelves: "Good evening. I'm Alistair Cooke. We open tonight a new television theater, which in the next year will show you plays adapted from the works of Balzac, Henry James, Dostoevsky."

It's worth noting that Cooke used the phrase "in the next year."

Cooke was a respected journalist who refused initial offers to host the new PBS series — and when he finally agreed, he would sign only a one-year contract.

"After he saw the first show, he was so dubious that the whole thing would be a success that he thought the whole thing would just fade away after one season," says Masterpiece executive producer Rebecca Eaton.

But the show didn't fade away, and Cooke hosted the program for 21 years.

Masterpiece Theatre originally came to PBS station WGBH in Boston as a way to fill out the roster of a very new public television network.

Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, says Masterpiece offered a reprieve for audiences looking for a change from the shows of the 1960s.

"In 1971, we'd gone through a decade of talking horses and talking cars, and genies, and witches that were housewives," Thompson says.

In contrast, Masterpiece Theatre's production quality was top-notch, bankrolled by the BBC. Eaton estimates that period costume dramas cost about $2 million an hour.

And the program's episodes featured British acting giants, many of them previously unseen by American audiences — with names such as Judi Dench, Hellen Mirren and Colin Firth in Pride and Prejudice.

Over those decades, Masterpiece has garnered fans ranging from Whoopi Goldberg to Michael Blumberg to the Tea Party's Christine O'Donnell, according to Eaton.

The show has also seen some changes, from its theme music to its name — producers lopped the "theatre" off the name a few years ago.

"We were scaring people off with the 'theatre,' " Eaton says, "particularly 'theatre' spelled the British way."

The programming has also changed since the days of hits like Upstairs, Downstairs and I, Claudius. There was the crime procedural Prime Suspect, and the miniseries Traffik, which became a blockbuster movie with Michael Douglas.

Still, Masterpiece is known as the iconic home of costume drama. And like any icon, it will always have imitators.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.