One of the consolations of being trapped inside during the cold, wet Pacific Northwest winter in the prospect of great television from Masterpiece Classic on PBS. Celebrating its 40th year on the air, the longest-running and most-honored drama series in primetime announced its new 2011 season this past week. There are some exciting new productions in the queue: Downton Abbey, Any Human Heart, Upstairs Downstairs and South Riding, and encore presentations of My Boy Jack, The Unseen Alistair Cooke and 39 Steps in store for drama lovers.
Since girlhood, I have been entranced by Masterpiece Theater, now Masterpiece, broken down into the Classic, Mystery and Contemporary seasons a few years back. This superbly produced series has for the majority of my life enriched my viewing experience and opened up new possibilities in reading classics which many of the shows are adapted from, and more recently contemporary fare with books and stories from the twentieth century.
I am really looking forward to five months of great television entertainment. Here is a preview of the new season.
My Boy Jack (encore) – January 02, 2011
An intense and poignant story of author and British national icon Rudyard Kipling’s (David Haigh) patriotic ambitions for his only son John “Jack” Kipling (Daniel Radcliffe) during WWI. Based on actual events in their lives, the story is set in 1914 England during the patriotic fervor brewing for young men to enlist in His Majesties service. Kipling’s outspoken American wife Caroline (Kim Cattrall) and sister Elsie (Carey Mulligan) are opposed to his enlistment, and for good reason. His poor eyesight would greatly hamper his abilities in the field. My Boy Jack offers an interesting look at one family’s divided views of honor and duty. One 120-minute episode
Downton Abbey – January 09, 16, 23 & 30, 2011
Set in Edwardian England, the story revolves around a stately country house, a noble family, their servants and the challenge of primogeniture. Yes Jane Austen fans. All that English inheritance law you studied to understand the inner workings of who got what, and why, in Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice will pay off when you watch this great new series created and written by Julian Fellowes. Lord Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville, Edward Bridges in Miss Austen Regrets and Mr. Bennet in Lost in Austen) and his family are still governed by English laws of succession. When the Titanic goes down with his next male heir, and the spare to the estate, minds must work fast to keep their power, money and loyalty to the great estate of Downton Abbey. Staring Hugh Bonneville, Maggie Smith (Becoming Jane 2007), Elizabeth McGovern, Dan Stevens (Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility 2008) and an amazing supporting cast. This new drama took the UK by storm when it aired in Fall, 2010. I predict Downton fever when it hits colonial shores. Four 90-minute episodes.
This excellent tribute of Alistair Cooke, British/American journalist and host of Masterpiece Theater for twenty one years, is not a drama in the fictional sense, but his life surely unfolds like one. Documenting Cooke’s early travels across the United States armed with an 8mm camera, this documentary is told in his own voice and by interviews of several who knew him. It chronicles his early ears in America as he worked as a journalist, his friendships with Hollywood icons such as Charlie Chaplin, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and later years as host of Masterpiece Theater. One 60-minute episode.
Author William Boyd adapts his acclaimed 2002 novel following the life of writer Logan Mountstuart played by three actors in different stages of his life: younger years by Sam Claflin, middle years by Matthew MacFadyen (Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice 2005) and older years by Jim Broadbent. As Mountstuart travels to 1920s Paris to 1950s New York and 1980s London, we witness some compelling history and meet dazzling personalities: Ernest Hemingway (Julian Ovenden), Ian Fleming (Tobias Menzies) and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (Gillian Anderson and Tom Hollander) to name a few. The many women in his life include: first fling Tess Scabius (Holliday Grainger), first girlfriend Land Fothergill (Charity Wakefield, Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility 2008), first wife Lottie (Emerald Fennell), second wife Freya Deverell (Hayley Atwell, Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park 2007) third wife Allanah (Natasha Little), later fling Gloria Scabius (Kim Cattrall), and guy friends Peter Scabious (Samuel West) and Ben Leeping (Ed Stoppard). As you can see, the cast is as amazing as the story itself. Three 90-minute episodes.
The 39 Steps (encore) – March 27, 2011
Filled with intrigue, romance and humor, this adaptation of the popular John Buchan adventure novel, set on the eve of World War I, stars Rupert Penry-Jones (Captain Wentworth in Persuasion 2007) as Richard Hannay, a mining engineer caught up in a conspiracy following the death of a British spy found in his apartment. The novel has been adapted into four major movies, most notably Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1935 film of the same name. Be sure to watch for the iconic scene where Hannay runs across a Scottish moor and is strafed by a bi-plane. It will trigger memories of Hitchcock’s later film, North by Northwest. This new adaptation by Lizzie Mickery literally ‘beefs up’ Buchan’s 1915 novel by giving us a sexy glimpse of Penry-Jones’ hunky bare chest and expands the romance considerably. The cast also includes Lydia Leonard as Victoria Sinclair, David Haig as Sir George Sinclair and Patrick Malahide as Professor Fisher. One 90-minute episode.
From 1971-1975, I was enthralled by the life of the wealthy Bellamy family and the servants of 165 Eaton Place in the British drama Upstairs Downstairs on Masterpiece Theater. Set in a large townhouse in London from the Edwardian period until post WWI, the series was, and still is, incredibly popular. I was delighted to hear that co-creators Jean Marsh and Dame Eileen Atkins were behind the updated version of one of the most-loved and most-honored series in television history. Both ladies will be part of the cast; Marsh returning as the only original cast member reprising her Emmy-winning role as Rose Buck, and Atkins will introduce new character Maud, the Dowager Lady Holland. The upstairs cast includes the master of the house Sir Hallam Holland (Ed Stoppard), his wife Lady Agnes Holland (Keeley Hawes), the debutant Lady Persie Towyn (Claire Foy); and downstairs the butler Mr. Pritchard (Adrian Scarborough), the cook Mrs. Thackeray (Anne Reid) and the secretary Mr. Amanjit (Art Malik). The script is by Emmy-nominee Heidi Thomas who brought us the delightful Cranford in 2009. Three 60-minute episodes.
Based on Winifred Holtby’s 1936 novel, South Riding has been adapted to the screen by the venerable Andrew Davies (Pride and Prejudice 1995, Northanger Abbey 2007, and Sense and Sensibility 2008). Directed by Diarmuid Lawrence (Emma 1996), this 20th-century classic is a rich portrait of a Yorkshire community in the 1930’s. In the devastating wake of WWI, unmarried Sarah Burton (Anna Maxwell Martin, Cassandra Austen in Becoming Jane 2007) leaves London and returns home to take up a position as headmistress at a struggling Yorkshire girls school. Robert Carne (David Morrissey, Colonel Brandon in Sense & Sensibility 2008) is also struggling as a gentlemen farmer who is destined to clash with Miss Burton. Among the others in the community are Councilor Mrs. Beddows (Penelope Wilton), school girls Lydia Holly (Charlie Clark) and Midge Carne (Katherine McGolpin), school mistress Miss Sigglesthwaite (Brid Brennan), and Councilor Huggins (John Henshaw). “South Riding is a rich, compassionate and humane story of politics in small places and, in the end, the indestructibility of the human spirit.” Three 60-minute episodes.
Sadly, there are no nineteenth-century bonnet dramas in the lineup this year, but readers will be happy to know that since Downton Abbey was such a resounding hit when it aired in the UK in the Fall of 2010, that producers are likely to be encouraged again to send some our way in 2012.
Be sure to check out the Masterpiece Classic PBS web site for additional information on casting, story synopsis and programs streaming free online, the day after broadcast.
All images courtesy of MASTERPIECE PBS, Downton Abbey image courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2010 for MASTERPIECE