Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Happy Birthday Masterpiece Theatre!

Masterpiece Theatre and I --we really go back.
I first donned my TV critic's hat in 1970 and in January, 1971, Masterpiece Theatre was born.
Starting in 1973 to her untimely death in 1985 the producer was the ever enthusiastic Joan Wilson for PBS's Boston affiliate WGBH and she managed to secure rights to some very fine British TV miniseries --WGBH often invested in these productions before filming had ever started.
To answer an oft asked question yes Canadian TV did manage a toehold. In 1988 the CBC TV flick Glory Enough For All about the discovery of insulin played successfully.
But that meant much trying --CBC head honchos took their prized possession --CBC's new TV serial Jalna (197-72)--down to Boston to screen for Wilson.
She hated it she told me in a moment she probably wished was off the record. Because I duly quoted her and all heck broke loose at CBC.
Finally, Canadian producers would turn to the more lucrative market of making shows for private American producers.
The first title to run was The First Churchills (1971) starring John Neville (now a Toronto resident) and Susan Hampshire.
Then came The Six Wives Of Henry VIII, Elizabeth R, I, Claudius and Upstairs, Downstairs.
It was with Upstairs, Downstairs that I snagged my first exclusive interview --with creator Jean Martsh. Still with the Hamilton Spectator, I took a bus to Buffalo to interview her as she made her way across the U.S. as part of a membership drive.
And now she's all set to launch Part 2 of Upstairs, Downstairs which reopens in 1936 later in the season.
A few months later I got time with actor Simon Williams who played the wayward son James Bellamy in US/DS and was then starring in a touring play at Toronto's Royal Alex theater.
The PR in those days was New York veteran Frank Goodman who ran a tight ship with wige Arlene. Forced to pay his own way for a reception room to promote the British miniseries Edward And Mrs. Simpson with Edward Fox, he kept making notches on the scotch bottles just to ensure critics did not go overboard in the drinks department.
But he always delivered on his promises to round up talent.
Once Frank phoned me at home and shouted "Dame Wendy Hiller has been waiting for you to phone her for the past hour!" But he had forgotten to phone me and it took all my soothing skills to calm her down when I dialed her number.
In Los Angeles I remember sharing tea for two with Dame Diana Rigg just before she was named as hostess of Mystery. I feared she might be formidable. Instead she was funny and diffident and we've talked several times since.
On another occasion Frank arranged a telephone interview with Clive Owen just before he was about to break out as the hot new leading man --that was for the drama Second Sight. Owen was shy and personable, two traits which make him such a fine actor.
One of the most unexpected phoners was with Juliet Stenson then starring in The Politician's Wife --she explained her tardiness in phoning: "The girl at the Globe said not to phone because The Star was the tiniest of the Toronto papers." Goodman found out about this prank --In truth it was the other way around--and blasted the smaller morning paper.!
In later years Frank would round up a gaggle of incoming Masterpiece stars each summer during the TV critics press tour and stage a gala at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
By this time Mobil Oil paid all the bills and the festivities were truly costly. Mobil liked to present each critic with a huge glass papweight and I still have some:Nicholas Nickleby, Edward And Mrs. Simpson. Today they're collectibles.
Frank always arranged a seat for me beside one of the visiting British stars. One year it was Charles Dance (The Jewel In The Crown), the next it was John Duttine (To Serve Them All My Days), another time it was Francesca Annis (Partners In Crime), another time Patricia Hodge (She-Devil).
But once Vincent Price joined as Mystery host I'd sit between him and his inimitable wife Coral Browne.
It was a big thrill to sit next to my favorite British star John Thaw (Morse) once at a dinner at the Universal Hilton. Another night was reserved for a very boozy evening with Jeremy Brett of Sherlock Holmes fame. I had afternoon tea with Hercule Poirot's David Suchet, such a tiny man in person. In the same lobby I once held hands with Prime Suspects's Helen Mirren. Oh, it's not what you're thinking --she was very nervous about being interviewed, that's all.
People are always asking me why Prime Suspect ran on Masterpiece Theater and not Mystery.
Mobil Oil said times had become tough and the company could only afford to advertise on Masterpiece Theatre or Mystery that season. Whatever one WGBH picked (it was MT) then Prime Suspect would haver to run there.
For me Alistair Cooke as host set just the right tone and nobody could really replace him. I wish they'd chosen as replacement Julie Andrews as that supreme embodiment of Britishness.
Today the show's name is simply Masterpiece. Few of the productions can live up to that title although most simply offer a jolly good time from the Old Company.
And the fact that the quality has been kept up is due to one person: executive producer Rebecca Eaton.
I hope MT lasts for decades to come but public broadcasting is currently under the gun. One well intentioned but culturally illiterate PBS president even tried running it on another night only to fail miserably.
Even the advent of BBC Canada hasn't dimmed my fondness for the original.
Happy 40th Birthday Masterpiece Theatre!

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