Frock Flicks is, by definition, for fans of historical costume dramas. So in the United States, we owe a huge debt to PBS for it’s long-running showcase for these series: Masterpiece Theatre, now known simply as Masterpiece. Since January 10, 1971, Masterpiece has been THE place on American television for high-quality drama and particularly for historical costume shows, often ones imported from the UK.
Today, we have Netflix, Amazon, and other streaming or video on-demand services that let us watch movies and TV series from around the world any time we want. But back in the day, the only option was to watch TV live exactly when it was broadcast in the country that played it. In the U.S., until the 2000s, you could only watch those amazing British costume dramas on PBS thanks to Masterpiece Theatre (unless you bought the show on VHS tape or later DVD). Kids these days are so spoiled.
The first 22 seasons of Masterpiece were hosted by Alistair Cooke, who passed away in 2004. The original Masterpiece format with Cooke inspired many parodies, including Alistair Cookie on Sesame Street. In 2008, the show changed to simply “Masterpiece,” while also splitting the content into Mystery!, Contemporary, and Classic, the latter being where all the historical costume series live. The hosts have included Gillian Anderson and Laura Linney, although their segment has lessened to almost be invisible in recent years.
Despite these changes and the impact of streaming video, Masterpiece continues to be a major force in TV viewing and especially for historical drama fans. After all, in 2011, PBS was where Downton Abbey first made a splash in the U.S. — repeating the same success that Upstairs, Downstairs had in 1974. Far from being just an importer of fine British drama, in recent years, PBS has created the Masterpiece Trust to help fund these costume productions. Masterpiece Theatre is one of the producers for series such as Downton, Wolf Hall and the new Poldark.
So let’s remember some of the big hits of Masterpiece Theatre over the years, approximately in order of when they aired in America, and give PBS the thanks it’s due!
Elizabeth R – 1971
THE best 16th-century costume drama ever produced, bar none. I will hear no disagreement on this, don’t even try. Go read my full review, and glory in the spectacular gowns reproducing portraits of QEI so precisely. Glenda Jackson is just perfect as the queen, and despite the stagey 1970s interiors, this production holds up quite well, so look for it on DVD or streaming.
Upstairs, Downstairs – 1971-1975
AKA, the original Downton Abbey. And also a mega-hit on both sides of the pond. This historical soap-opera told the tale of the upper-crust Bellamy family and their servants. They all live in a posh London townhouse, and the story follows them through from 1903, through World War I, and to 1930. Hmmm, familiar much?
Poldark – 1976-1978
Robin Ellis didn’t need to take off his shirt to set ladies’ hearts afire as rakish Ross Poldark. This was not only a huge hit for Masterpiece Theatre, but on video, the series outsold every costume drama until the 1995 Pride and Prejudice came along.
I, Claudius – 1977-1978
The original bitchy Roman saga, starring Derek Jacobi and a cast of thousands including Siân Phillips, Patrick Stewart, Brian Blessed, and even John Hurt as Caligula. Check this sample dialogue — Tiberius talking about his mother Livia: “They say a snake bit her once … and died.” It’s all that and more.
The Jewel in the Crown – 1985
Set in the 1940s and looking back on the end of the British rule in India, this sprawling 14-part miniseries was part of a 1980s obsession in Britain with their own colonial empire (see also: Ghandi, 1982, A Passage to India, 1984). While us Yanks may not get the cultural undertones, we can appreciate the history and costumes, as Kendra did in her full review.
Jeeves and Wooster – 1991-1995
Hi-larious! Stephen Fry plays the all-knowing butler to Hugh Laurie‘s upper-class twit in this 1930s romp based on P.G. Wodehouse’s book series. If you don’t ROTFLOL watching this, you must be made of stone.
Middlemarch – 1994
Our beloved Rufus Sewell‘s first big historical costume drama, and one of my very favorite Victorian novel adaptions ever. The costuming is spot-on, and the story has a handful of fascinating little plotlines to follow, none of which go in ways you’d expect (thank you, George Elliot).
The Virgin Queen – 2005
Sure, it’s another take on Queen Elizabeth I’s life, but it had been a few decades. The costumes are excellent and veer more towards the end of her reign with mad ruff action. Anne-Marie Duff and Tom Hardy make for a good pairing as Her Maj and Dudley. See Kendra’s full review for more.
Cranford – 2008
Even if the weird 1840s costumes (and bonnets, ugh) aren’t your bag, the acting and utterly charming storyline will suck you in. Starring Judi Dench and everybody else who is good and great from British stage and screen.
Downton Abbey – 2011
This mega-hit kicked the golden age of historical costume drama into high gear. Between Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones, it’s doubtful we’d be seeing so many costume series on TV these days. Even if you haven’t gotten sucked up into the trials and tribulations of the Crawley family, you have to admire the incredibly high quality of the costumes and set dressing for this 1910s to 1920s series.
Mr. Selfridge – 2013
A love-it or hate-it show for some, but the hats and hairstyles are to die for. Lots of soapy fun with Jeremy Piven as the eponymous Selfridge, running his department store in teens-era London.
Wolf Hall – 2015
We here at the Mark Rylance Fan Club were super impressed by the acting and the costuming of this Tudor miniseries. We really had to stretch to nitpick anything! C’mon, Hilary Mantel, finish writing the last book so we can have series two soon.
Poldark – 2015
Making shirtless scything a thing and Aidan Turner every girl’s wet dream. Prepare yourselves for another Poldark, probably in 2016 or early 2017.
Downton Abbey – 2016
The final season! Yes, it’s already aired in the UK, but even fans who’ve spoiled themselves with the plotline can eek out one more cry-fest with the Crawleys, thanks to PBS.
These are just the highlights — what’s your favorite historical costume drama that’s aired on Masterpiece?
I have so many, starting with the glorious Glenda Jackson as my all-time favourite Elizabeth Gloriana, muse to authors, musicians – you name it in ELIZABETH R. Then I Cla-Cla-Claudius. Middlemarch, Cranford, Wives and Daughters, Jewel of the Crown, Downton Abbey, Upstairs Downstairs. Also Mr Selfridge, sure missed Lady Mae this year. Only one I didn’t care for was original Poldark. Like new one tons. Team Demelza all the way.
Yes yes yes! I love Masterpiece! I hear Lady Mae is coming back to the next season of Selfridge (the actress was pregnant so she didn’t missed the last season).
The original Poldark was Alistair Cooke’s least liked of all the Masterpiece programs he hosted.
Wives & Daughters – yes! I need to do a TBT on that one.
Not only does W&D have one of my all-time favourite actresses: Francesca Annis, it has a young Keeley Hawes, Justine Waddell who hold their own against Ms Annis’ Hyacinth. Also Rosamund Pike as the marquess’s daughter, who admires Molly. Super costumes NY Deirdre Clancy are eye candy.
I love so many of these, but I have to vote for I, Claudius as my favorite show. I actually didn’t discover it until last year, but I ended up watching it all the way three times in a row in a month. I’ve never done that before with anything.
Costume-wise, Downton Abbey is my current favorite, though I feel like the quality of the show itself has declined.
Agreed – Downton has had a good run, & now it’s time to go. I really need to watch I, Claudius again, it’s been a few years.
Definitely! I still watch Downton and enjoy it as a guilty pleasure, but I feel like it’s really starting to show its age.
I liked the original Anna Karenina. Can’t remember what year it was on. Not a multi-year series, but a beautiful mini-series.
The version with Francesca Annis and Eric Porter?
There have been quite a few adaptations of Anna. As far as I know however none with Francesca Annis. I think the version you are referring to is the excellent 1977 version with Nicola Paget and Eric Porter, unless he was in more than one version. That is still my favourite adaptation. I would be interested to hear how the costumes compare with those of the 1997 version.
You must be referring to 1977’s Anna Karenina with Nicola Pagett and Eric Porter but it’s not difficult to confuse her with Francesca Annis in Those lovely costumes I believe they even recycled some from Francesca’s Beautiful Madame Bovary (1975) So good I didn’t mind rewatching it in Russian to see it’s full restored glory
All you listed were (and are) wonderful. I would add “Six Wives of Henry VIII:, “By the Sword Divided”, “Sharpe”, “Lillie”, “Disraeli” and “Shoulder to Shoulder”.
I thought I was the only one who remembered Shoulder to Shoulder. Loved that series. And By The Sword Divided covered a period of English history about which most American know very little.
Shoulder to Shoulder is also a favourite. The suffragette movement with the Pankhursts as leads made me want to see Meryl, Carey and Helena in Suffragette.
That’s right! Sharpe premiered on Masterpiece – thanks for more Sean Bean :)
The original “Forsyte Saga,” “Six Wives of Henry the 8th” and “the First Churchills” would round out my list!
Not only some more favs, but I became a Susan Hampshire fan after her Fleur Forsyte, Sarah Churchill, and her Glencora in the Pallisers. Also Barchester with her, and a very young Severus, er, Alan Rickman, Donald Pleasance in his tour de force performance as a minister who sees God in music and last but not least Sir Humphrey Applegate, er the late great Sir Nigel Hawthorne
The Forsyte Saga was actually not officially part of Masterpiece Theatre although it was the jumping-off point for it. Alistair Cooke used to frequently point out that Forsyte was independent and came before Masterpiece and used to chuckle at those who got it wrong.
I loved the Sharpe series too. Six Wives of Henry the VIII, and The Duchess of Duke Street would be added to those already mentioned.
And P & P! Pride and Prejudice in 1995 was on rewind and repeat when I was 16! The pond diving was for me, like many, very important to me as I entered womanhood!
I believe the ’95 P&P first aired in the states on the A&E network, of all places!
I *loved* the first season of The Paradise. I thought it was so much better than Mr. Selfridge! It was a shame it got cut, although season 2 wasn’t nearly as good as season 1.
Hello, I just found your blog. I think I’m among kindred spirits. I watched Masterpiece Theatre from when I was a tot. I met Alistair Cook once and it was awesome. He was a wonderful man. I think most of my masterpiece favorites have been named but I’ll do a role call anyway
Six Wives of Henry the VIII
In the Shadow of the Tower (I don’t think it was shown in the US, discovered it via Youtube)
Upstairs, Downstairs (the original of course)
Duchess of Duke Street
Edward the King
The First Churchills
Danger UXB (couldn’t stand the hair of the woman Anthony Andrews’ character falls in love with, I can’t abide by 80s hair in dramas set in the 1940s)
Shoulder to Shoulder
By the sword divided (trying to get ahold of the second season was an exercise in frustration ,but someone finally uploaded it to youtube)
The Rolls Royce episode of the Edwardians
Love the costumes, the historical accuracy of plots, backgrounding… the incredible ability of the actors, and the fact that you saw a whole bunch of actors showing up in different series, and doing each of those roles very well , for example: Robert Hardy, Annette Crosby, Patrick Stewart, etc…
I have to say that Poirot will always be my favorite! I love the way the costumes and actors evolved over the years.
Poirot aired on Mystery!, not Masterpiece Theatre.
I wish I could have the cast of the original Poldark in the new Poldark, if that makes sense. The new one sticks to books so much better, but the casting in the original (especially Elizabeth!) was spot on.