What’s Your Favorite Masterpiece Series?

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On January 10, 1971, the PBS series Masterpiece Theatre first aired in the U.S. Now known simply as Masterpiece, this anthology show has broadcast dozens upon dozens of amazing historical costume dramas over the years. Before streaming TV services and on-demand video, heck, before there were hundreds of cable channels, Masterpiece was how American audiences had access to the finest frock flicks, usually from the U.K.

Let’s celebrate the best of PBS and pick our faves! We’ve winnowed the many, many Masterpiece Theatre classics down to a highly subjective list — now you battle it out. Note the dates are when the shows premiered in the states, because that’s how we roll.

 

Tell us why you picked your favorite (or how hard it was to choose just one or if we left off your real fave)!

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Three historical costumers who decided the world needed a podcast and blog dedicated to historical costume movies and everything right and wrong with them.

44 Responses

  1. MoHub

    It was a hard choice between Elizabeth R and I, Claudius, but I eventually opted for the former simply because there’s never been a better Elizabeth than Glenda Jackson.

    Reply
  2. Gail

    This is hard, because you forced us to vote for only one.
    Been watching Masterpiece since “The First Churchills” … through the Alistair Cooke years, the Russell Baker years …. it introduced me to British dramas, costume dramas, and great acting. The quality has ebbed and flow over the years as the production values increased. “I, Claudius” was the water cooler talk of the day, ditto when Lady Marjorie went down on the Titanic. Can’t rememebr if Forsythe Saga (the original, again with Susan Hampshire) was on Masterpiece or not.

    But what does it say that I own dvds of 90% of the shows you selected?

    Reply
    • MoHub

      The Foresyte Saga (no h) was not a part of Masterpiece, although many viewers thought so. Rather, it was the precursor to Masterpiece. Alistair Cooke used to joke about the viewers’ misperception.

      Reply
  3. Rhonda L. Stannard

    Of the ones you’ve listed, Wolf Hall and Cranford but my favorite of all time is Little Dorrit, with Forsythe Saga a close second.

    Reply
  4. toranut97

    I am stubborn and stupid enough to still want to vote for the Forsyte Saga, since it was the series that got me started on period drama, and I so loved it. But if I can’t have that, it will have to be Henry VIII. So so good!

    Reply
    • Lynn S

      I voted for Henry VIII for the same reason, my first taste of period drama. The movies The Lion in Winter and Beckett sealed my love of historical drama.

      Reply
  5. Joanne

    No “First Churchills”? I chose Wolf Hall because it was so perfectly done and I love Mark Rylance, but it was a close tie between that and Elizabeth R. I remember going to The Tower of London and seeing the water gate and remember Glenda Jackson going up those stairs reciting the Magnificat. Masterpiece Theater has been such a huge part of my television viewing and I continue to look forward to new series.

    Reply
  6. Saraquill

    Instead of choosing a favorite show, I’ll pop in a favorite memory associated with the series. It was an early weekend morning, I wanted some fun background noise in the form of TV, but what can be on in this non-cable, prestreaming house? A Masterpiece Theater rendition of Pollyanna. Not a bad way to while away the time.

    Reply
      • Trystan L. Bass

        Yup, if it weren’t for Elizabeth R, I wouldn’t have gotten into history, costume, renfaire, the local costumers guild, wouldn’t have met Kendra & Sarah, & this blog wouldn’t exist!

        Reply
    • thedementedfairy

      Me too- I always quote the travelling exhibition of the costumes as the start of my addiction! It had to be this one, even though I loved Elizabth R and I Clavdivs [as we always call it]. Everyone at school was obsessed with Poldark [all our future children were going to be Ross or Demelza]. Many years later I got to mess about with some of the Poldark costumes at the BBC cos-hire warehouse. Angharad Reese was TINYYYYYYYY

      Reply
  7. Karen S.

    Downton, Cranford, Wives & Daughters. Also a soft spot for The Duchess of Duke Street — my mom would let me stay up let on Sunday nights to watch with her, to the chagrin of my father. (In the days before VCR). I’m in Germany now and I have a British satellite dish but I really miss my Sunday nights with Masterpiece.

    Reply
  8. broughps

    Was North and South (Gaskell) on Masterpiece theater, because if so I’d have to vote for that. Started me on my Richard Armitage fanning.

    Reply
  9. Kimberly Rose

    There are many so great series on this list that it’s hard to choose! I am young enough so that Downton Abbey and before that Poirot and Miss Marple(which are technically Masterpiece Mystery, l know)
    were my exposure to Masterpiece, but I have since then watched Upstairs, Downstairs, I, Claudius, Duchess of Duke Street, and Jeeves and Wooster and plan to watch the others too! Also l second Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South as one of my favorites! Was the 1995 Pride and Prejudice on Masterpiece because that’s a favorite of mine as well!

    Reply
    • Karen K.

      The 1995 P&P was on A&E — surprising, it feels very Masterpiece-ish to me. They did show a bunch of new Jane Austen adaptations in 2008.

      Reply
      • Jill

        Yes and I love them all, I could watch them all over again. Never can get enough Jane Austen movies in mho.

        Reply
      • MoHub

        There’s a 1980 P&P that aired on Masterpiece, with Elizabeth Garvie as my definitive Lizzie. My only quibble was that they cut Kitty out, which made Lydia a bit less effective.

        Reply
  10. Kathleen Norvell

    Definitely Elizabeth R. Glenda Jackson was perfect. And as a treat, I saw Janet Arnold do a talk about the costumes of Six Wives and Elizabeth R, and how they differed in technique and costuming “cheats.”

    Reply
  11. Laurie Wanat

    Hands down Poldark (the original, all though I love the new version as well). Close second would be Elizabeth R. But there were so many others. Masterpiece informed my teen and early adult years, and very much helped make me who I am.

    Reply
  12. Colleen Crosby

    Wow. I only watched about half of one episode of Poldark. I feel like I might have to give that another try.

    For me Jeeves and Wooster is just so witty, that I <3 it. Second place is a tie between the Buccaneers and Downton Abbey, but DA lost me when Anna was in the basement, and I never went back. :(

    Reply
  13. Deborah Anderson

    I almost equally adore Upstairs Downstairs and the 70’s Poldark. I think I like a few more scenes from Upstair Downstairs. The new Poldark lasts character development. I like it but not obsessed like I was with the 70’s version.

    Reply
  14. Brandy Loutherback

    Downton Abbey is hands down the best Masterpiece Classics series! Just the attention to the historical details, costumes, and characters is just stunning, not to mention the acting! Victoria was a poor replacement! Ironically Young Victoria is one of my favorite movies and it was pinned by… none other than Julien Fellowes! Sarcasm Gee I wonder if there’s a correlation? I also enjoyed Upstairs Downstairs, which Downton Abbey seems to have copied a lot from, even though Elizabeth Bellamy the daughter was a lot closer to Rose, the brat from Titanic, than my favorite character Sybil who sense of rebellion was about votes for Women but also genuine desire to help people and improve their lives, that’s why I enjoyed her friendship with Gwen! Elizabeth was just a brat!

    Reply
  15. Susan Pola Staples

    I’m going to have to go with Dame Glenda Jackson portrayal of Elizabeth I in Elizabeth R. Her Elizabeth is the benchmark for all the Elizabeth actresses since. It gave me a lasting love for a fellow redhead and of English history.

    It’s closely followed by Six Wives of Henry VIII with the wonderful Annette Crosbie and Dorothy Tutin, First Churchills with Susan Hampshire, I Claudius and The Palisers.

    Reply
  16. Terry Towels

    Had to vote for “I, Clau-clau-claudius”– for Derek Jacobi and Sian Phillips (and John Heard as Caligula). If I had a second vote, it would have been for “Elizabeth 1” and Glenda Jackson (and costumes). For costuming alone, “Upstairs, Downstairs” (It’s such a soaper, but it really did catch the costumes of each era and, in a way, why they were emblematic of the era).

    I’ve been watching Masterpiece Theater from the beginning, and young folk will never understand how revolutionary it was to have literate programming on the TV, not to mention shows that attempted to be honest to the period in terms of costuming and sets. It was an eye-opener for many.

    Of course, back then everyone who watched it was considered elitist and a snob. (Is that still true?)

    Reply
    • SarahV

      I’ve always pined for a historical piece covering this period of Roman history from the perspective of Livia. Was she evil evil, or just evil but misguided. She had her reasons, but was she also insane?

      Reply
  17. ADoyle

    It’s hard to pick a single favorite, but I had to give it to I, Claudius as it had so many amazing performances. I was raised on the show, as it was something my family all watched on Sunday nights.

    Reply
  18. Dorothy Spiczak

    Every thing about Poldark is absolutely outstanding. The drama including the romances and relationships , the cast and their acting, the time period, the Cornwell location and scenery. Such and entertaining education. However, Downton Abbey is my second favorite. I never thought I would be so attached to a TV series again after Downton, but then came Poldark! Thank you PBS!

    Reply
  19. Northcountrygal

    Well I’d vote for the First Churchills if you listed it! (Keep wishing you’d cover it – it does have an incredible Charles II) It completely changed my life. I was 13, loved American history, but knew little about British history – I just fell in love with the series (especially Sidney Godolphin!) Hard to pick from what is there ( I love them all!), but I guess Elizabeth R would be my choice

    Reply
  20. Penny H

    I voted for Wives and Daughters because I’ve seen it most recently and it’s clearest in my memory, but as far as series I’ve been fond of, I have to put on the same level I, Claudius, Jeeves and Wooster, and of course, The First Churchills, since it was the first. Some I saw in their entirety some 35 years later than when they came out (dated makeup and hair in the first Poldark), and I haven’t seen Elizabeth R and Six Wives since they came out, so I’ve mostly forgotten them. Wolf Hall I haven’t seen because I thought the casting against type would drive me nuts. But mostly, very hard to choose.

    Reply
  21. Rita

    Downton Abbey but only because it ran for so many years. Poldark is a very close 2nd choice here!!!
    Love A Place to Call Home, The Durrells of Corfu, Home Fires….too many to name😉

    Reply
  22. Margaret Budge

    I want to know what happened to Home Fires? It ended right at a very important scene. I understand they’re not going to finish the series. There are many of us who are very disappointed.

    Reply
  23. cruisemama98

    I loved DA but you have to admit it was a high class soap opera. My favorites were the really ones like the first Poldark (hubba hubba Robin Ellis!), The Barchester Chronicles, The Pallisers, and I, Claudius. I voted for the original Upstairs, Downstairs and, yes, I have the entire DVD set.

    Reply
  24. Jill

    As much as I love Poldark, both old and new, Downton Abbey was truly the best ever. I have watched the entire series three times now….time for a fourth!

    Reply
  25. Adam Lid

    I Claudius for me- I was a sucker for all things Roman when I was in high school. I grew up with the show starting with the Forsyte Saga (although I didn’t understand much of it at the time).

    Reply

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