Masterpiece, Icon of PBS, Turns 40: Downton Abbey, Prime Suspect, and 10 Other Greats

PBS’ venerable anthology series Masterpiece celebrates its 40th birthday today. Jace Lacob talks with executive producer Rebecca Eaton and picks 12 of the best shows from the last four decades.

PBS' Masterpiece—which turns 40 years old today—has offered U.S. viewers the very best of British drama, whether that be adaptations of the great novels of Jane Austen or Charles Dickens or contemporary stories rooted in modern society.

The obvious thread that links these stories is that they are all British, appealing to the Angophiles and drama buffs alike. But executive producer Rebecca Eaton, who has been with the franchise since 1985, points towards the fact that they're all just wonderful stories with universal appeal.

"They have all the elements you want in a good yarn," she told The Daily Beast. "Jeopardy, romance, betrayal, money, property, loss, forgiveness. They deal with all the biggest feelings we have as human beings and they're told in endlessly inventive ways. We've changed with the times, but we haven't lowered the bar."

Beginning this past weekend, the anthology series kicks off a season of Masterpiece Classic that is set to include the eagerly-awaited Downton Abbey (which launched last night); the resurrected Upstairs, Downstairs, now set in 1936; critically acclaimed drama Any Human Heart, about one man's life during the 20th century; and the heartbreaking South Riding, about the unmarried spinsters of post-WWI England whose fiancées were killed during the war.

Collectively, according to Eaton, the season offers a concise portrait of England's social and political history in the 20th century, spanning from 1912 to 2010.

But Masterpiece is more than just a collection of exquisite costume dramas. A successful 2008 rebrand transformed Masterpiece Theatre into three separate narrative strands as it absorbed sister series Mystery! Now operating year-round, Masterpiece is split into three distinctive cycles: Classic, Mystery, and Contemporary, each with its own host in Laura Linney, Alan Cumming, and David Tennant.

"We realized we had an asset that we needed to preserve and pay attention to," said Eaton. "I don't want to be the captain on whose watch the ship goes down. So off we went to find a way to make it easier for people to enjoy Masterpiece."

That slight name change—the removal of the word "theatre" from the title and its connotations—was the first step as well as grouping those clearly defined subject matters in various parts of the year ( Classic in Winter/Spring, Mystery in Summer, and Contemporary in the Fall), but Eaton said that PBS also embraced technology as well, offering online streaming of its programs after the broadcast, revamping its website, and embracing social networking sites like Facebook, all of which has helped bring in younger viewers.

"Let's not exaggerate," said Eaton. "They're not coming in droves, leaving American Idol to watch us… but we're not being dismissed as your granny's Oldsmobile or something your mom used to watch."

Jace Lacob: Downton Abbey Comes to MasterpieceBut they are coming, as the ratings have seen an increase and the age of the viewer has remarkably remained consistent over the years, according to Eaton. ("If we hadn't gotten new people, our older viewers would have gotten older and older and gone to Masterpiece Heaven," she said.) And Masterpiece continues to "cherry-pick the best of what's on offer in the U.K."

Eaton said that consistency and reliability are two of the long-running franchise's greatest strengths.

" Masterpiece is like the little black dress that every woman should have hanging in her closet," she said. "It never goes out of fashion."

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As Masterpiece looks towards the next 40 years, The Daily Beast takes a look back at 12 of Masterpiece's most memorable offerings, from Upstairs, Downstairs to Sherlock. A very honorable mention goes out to the beloved Brideshead Revisited, which many viewers incorrectly believe aired on Masterpiece Theatre: It actually aired on Great Performances, but that fact didn't stop Masterpiece viewers from ranking it the seventh favorite show in a poll conducted in 2006.

Upstairs, Downstairs (1973-1977)

The iconic address of 165 Eaton Place marked the locale for this revered 1970's drama which explored the lives of the wealthy Belamy family and their servants "downstairs," including head housemaid Rose Buck (played by co-creator Jean Marsh) and strict butler Hudson (Gordon Jackson). Over the course of five seasons, the plot moved from the original 1903 setting through to 1930, taking the Bellamys and their servants on a rollercoaster ride through Britain in the first third of the century. The series ended as Rose closed up the house and moved on with her life. BBC recently resurrected the format—clinching it from original broadcaster ITV—as three one-hour episodes, set in 1936, which will air on Masterpiece in April. Marsh reprises her role as Rose, who now runs an employment agency for domestics, and is joined by her co-creator Dame Eileen Atkins, as well as Keeley Hawes, Ed Stoppard, Claire Foy, Adrian Scarborough, and Anne Reid.

Prime Suspect (1992-2006)

The critically acclaimed suspense thriller, created by Lynda La Plante, starred Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison, a hard-drinking female police detective in a man's world, who would—over the course of seven seasons (airing in the U.S. from 1992 to 2006)—rise to the rank of Detective Superintendent after nabbing an array of villainous scum, serial killers, and sex traffickers. Dark and gritty, Prime Suspect redefined the police procedural, shifting real-world issues (sexism, child abuse, prostitution, alcoholism, war crimes, among others) into the mix and delving into the psychology of both Tennison and the perpetrators she doggedly chased. In Tennison, television had a tough-as-nails female detective who turned to alcohol in an effort to cope with the harsh demands of her job and the emptiness of her life outside of the Metropolitan Police.

Downton Abbey (2011)

The recent Downton Abbey, an original Edwardian drama created by Julian Fellowes, employs a similar set-up to Masterpiece's own Upstairs, Downstairs, charting the lives of a well-heeled family and their domestic servants. Here, the action is moved to a great English country estate whose future is in jeopardy when the next two heirs to inherit perish in the sinking of the Titanic. With the family's home and fortunes tied up in a legal entail, they're shocked to learn that the next to inherit Downton Abbey is a middle-class solicitor whom none of them know. Overflowing with intrigue, conspiracies, scandal, and shocking twists, Downton Abbey challenges expectations of what a costume drama can and can't be, delivering a gripping plot that's high on the sort of romance, jealousy, and rivalries that take place in a grand house such as this. The ongoing series, already commissioned for a second season, stars Hugh Bonneville, Dan Stevens, Dame Maggie Smith, Elizabeth McGovern, and Michelle Dockery.

Bleak House (2007)

Adapted as a 15-episode saga (which aired as six longer episodes in the U.S.), this sensational 2005 adaptation of Charles Dickens' landmark novel captures the serialized magic of the original, doling out the intricate storyline in soap opera-style piecemeal installments. Written by Andrew Davies ( Pride & Prejudice) and directed by Justin Chadwick and Susanna White, Bleak House not only manages to convey the mix of social classes—represented here by dozens of characters—but also the central lawsuit in Chancery Court, Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, which manages to infect—and in some cases kill—nearly all of the characters in the plot. Murder, intrigue, betrayal, they're all in the mix as well as Gillian Anderson's breathtaking performance as the Lady Dedlock, whose haughty demeanor hides a terrible secret. Not to be missed.

Sherlock (2010)

There is no literary character who has been translated in film and television more often than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's sleuth Sherlock Holmes. But in Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss's spellbinding Sherlock, Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and trusty sidekick Dr. Watson (Martin Freeman) are yanked into the 21st century, where they must contend with serial killers, egos, and the constant threat of Moriarty. Across the three feature-length episodes of the first season, Sherlock brings to vivid life the adventure, suspense, and intelligence of Conan Doyle's consulting detective, resulting in a thriller that's at once technologically advanced (they use iPhones and text messaging) and timeless.

Jeeves and Wooster (1990-1995)

The spry and quick-witted novels of P.G. Wodehouse were memorably adapted by Clive Exton to the small screen in the smart and cozy Jeeves and Wooster, which recounts the exploits of thick-headed and carefree playboy Bertie Wooster (Hugh Laurie) and his trusted valet Jeeves (Stephen Fry) during the inter-war period of the early 20th century. Given that this is Wodehouse territory, there are misunderstandings, mistaken identities, vicious rich aunts, and rapier-like wordplay. But at its center is the quick-thinking and life-saving Jeeves himself, always ready to save his employer at a moment's notice, with a smoothing of his cuffs and a "very good, sir."

Cranford (2009)

The rural English village of Cranford in 1840 is the setting for this bittersweet story of progress and industrial revolution, as the arrival of the railroad threatens to alter the tranquil setting and traditions of this sleepy berg. Based on the novels of Elizabeth Gaskill, Cranford offers a portrait of a year in the lives of the exceptionally eccentric residents of the town, played to perfection by Dame Judi Dench, Dame Eileen Atkins, Imelda Staunton, Barbara Flynn, Julia McKenzie, Philip Glenister, and a host of A-list British actors. As modernity intrudes on the borders of the town, each of the residents will be tested by the spirit of change. Masterpiece revisited Cranford with 2010's Return to Cranford, set at Christmas.

The Politician's Wife (1995)

This 1995 mini-series focused on the fallout of a political scandal when a family values-espousing British MP (Trevor Eve) is revealed to have been sexually involved with an ex-prostitute (Minnie Driver). But while Eve's Duncan Matlock is grappling with what impact the breaking news will have on his career, it falls to his dutiful wife Flora (Juliet Stevenson) to pick up the pieces of her fractured marriage as she's pressured to do by everyone from her husband's party to her own father. But will Flora stand by her husband or will this politician's wife enact a bitter revenge against the man who betrayed her? At times provocative and suspenseful, Paula Milne's The Politician's Wife presaged CBS' The Good Wife and captures the front-page politico sexual scandals of both the U.K. and the U.S. of the mid-90s.

The Forsyte Saga (2003-2004)

Marking the second time that John Galsworthy's trilogy was adapted for the small screen, the 2002 version of The Forsyte Saga depicts the passions and frustrations of Britain's ruling class in this multi-generational family saga about scandals and secrets. Starring Damian Lewis and Gina McKee, it's a sumptuous and lush period drama about thwarted desire and the chains of matrimony. As Lewis' Soames woos and then marries the disinterested Irene, despite the difference in their status, he makes her a promise: if she's unhappy in their marriage, he'll release her. But when the time comes—as it does when Irene falls for the architect (Ioan Gruffudd) building Soames' dream house—Irene is denied her freedom. What follows is a depiction of the price of pride. The series also starred Rupert Graves, Corin Redgrave, Barbara Flynn, Amanda Root, and Ben Miles.

House of Cards (1991)

Andrew Davies' sublime House of Cards trilogy (based on the novels by Michael Dobbs) revolves around mercenary political climber Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson), the Tory Party's Chief Whip who is hell-bent on becoming Britain's Prime Minister in the days after Margaret Thatcher's resignation. Urquhart is only too willing to do whatever it takes—blackmail, deceit, or the manipulation of a naïve journalist (Susannah Harker) with whom he becomes sexually involved (at his wife's suggestion)—in order to achieve his ends. Drawing upon William Shakespeare's Macbeth and Richard III, House of Cards is a dynamic political potboiler at its very best, offering an incisive and scathing indictment of politics and the players who strive to sit in the top seat.

Our Mutual Friend (1999)

Another Dickens adaptation, this late 90s miniseries written by Sandy Welch and directed by Julian Farino manages to successfully shoehorn Dickens' sprawling plot into a six-hour format. Starring Paul McGann, Steven Mackintosh, David Morrissey, Keeley Hawes, and Anna Friel, Our Mutual Friend offers the very best Dickensian plots, where stories of murder, greed, and obsession (including a terrifying homicidal teacher-turned-stalker) jostle against romantic courtship, mistaken identity, and the Thames itself, a place of death and disease that flows right through the heart of London. Revolving around the diverse economy in all its forms, from the dust heaps to the corpses pulled from the river, Dickens' last completed work—and this gripping adaptation—ask questions of commerce and romance, marriage and madness, fidelity and betrayal.

Traffik (2000)

The basis for Steven Soderbergh's 2000 film Traffic (and a subsequent 2004 USA miniseries), this 1989 British miniseries offered a series of interwoven stories about the drug trade, focusing in turn on the Pakistani opium growers, the German heroin smugglers, and the British consumers who pay for their deadly fix. The series starred Bill Paterson as a high-ranking British government official whose stance on the war on drugs alters overnight when he learns that his daughter (Julia Ormond) is an addict; other stories revolve around an impoverished opium poppy grower who loses his land, an arrested businessman and his Olympian wife, a tyrannical drug lord, married drug traffickers, and police officers on the front lines of the war on drugs. Gripping and eye-opening in equal measure.

Jace Lacob is The Daily Beast's TV Columnist. As a freelance writer, he has written for the Los Angeles Times, TV Week, and others. Jace is the founder of television criticism and analysis website Televisionary and can be found on Twitter. He is a member of the Television Critics Association.