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GBH’s ‘Masterpiece’ reflects on 50 Years with a new podcast

A still image from Masterpiece's new "All Creatures Great and Small" series, with actors Rachel Shenton and Nicholas Ralph.
A still image from Masterpiece's new "All Creatures Great and Small" series, with actors Rachel Shenton and Nicholas Ralph.Masterpiece

Depending on your age, you might have tuned into “Upstairs Downstairs” or “Downton Abbey.” You might remember that iconic “Masterpiece Theatre” opening with Alistair Cooke. Or maybe you grew up with “Sesame Street’s” Cookie Monster as Alistair Cookie, host of “Monsterpiece Theater.”

For 50 years, generations of Americans have tuned into GBH Boston-produced “Masterpiece” for British dramas like ”Bleak House,” “Emma,” “Poldark,” and “Victoria.” Originally called “Masterpiece Theatre” the series has been produced by GBH Boston since its Jan. 10, 1971, debut.

In celebration of the big 5-0, GBH is launching a three-part documentary podcast. “Making Masterpiece”— hosted by Jace Lacob and executive produced by Susanne Simpson — looks back at the series’ history, featuring interviews with actors Alan Cumming, Laura Linney, Lily Collins, and more. Episode One posted Feb. 28. Find it at www.pbs.org, or via iTunes, Stitcher, or RadioPublic. The next two episodes post March 7 and 14.

Lacob, of LA, has won four Webby Awards as co-creator and host of the “Masterpiece Studio,” a companion podcast launched by GBH in 2015. We caught up with him by e-mail to ask about “Masterpiece.”

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Q. How did the idea of a documentary podcast come about?

A. “Making Masterpiece” is sort of a superhero origin story — a very unlikely tale of a public television creation importing the best and brightest of British television drama and lasting an astounding five decades and counting. We wanted to look at how Masterpiece evolved and changed television — and how television itself has changed in the 50 years.

The late Alistair Cooke hosted "Masterpiece Theatre."
The late Alistair Cooke hosted "Masterpiece Theatre."Courtesy Eric Roth for GBH

Q. How did that first 1971 season came together?

A. “Masterpiece Theatre” was the outgrowth of several factors at the time, one of them being the success of “The Forsyte Saga” on NET, an early precursor of PBS. Another was a former Polaroid executive, Stan Calderwood, and his wife going on vacation to Britain, where they met with the BBC and were shocked to finds shelves of films that had aired in the United Kingdom. Calderwood pitched the notion of airing programs in the States and then headed home to find a sponsor — which was easier said than done. Episode One recounts a lot of that and more — the search for a host, the search for a theme, and the reaction to the first program: “The First Churchills.”

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Q. What’s one interesting thing about the show’s history you think readers may not know?

A. “Masterpiece Theatre” was very nearly called “Episodes,” for one. Alistair Cooke turned down the offer to host “Masterpiece Theatre” and instead suggested potential hosts — all of whom were dead. Cooke later said yes and the rest was history. But really there are so many interesting tidbits threaded throughout the narrative — you’ll have to listen to hear them all.

Learn more at www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece

Interview was edited and condensed. Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurendaley1.


Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com. Follow her on Twiiter @laurendaley1.