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Masterpiece Theater: 50 Fantastic Years

By Mary Simon

Who remembers Upstairs, Downstairs or I, Claudius (with Sir Derek G. Jacobi as the stuttering emperor)? Since public TV viewers in the United States first began watching Masterpiece Theater back in 1971, the series has dazzled us with British-made literary adaptations, costume dramas, and the occasional comedy. Yes, Downton Abbey was universally watched and loved, season after season, but all of the Masterpiece productions have been wonderful. My list includes recent productions we have in the library collection, either as a disc or streaming. These selections have stood the test of time and are yours for the borrowing.

  • All Creatures Great and Small: Season 1

    2021

    James Herriot’s adventures as a veterinarian in 1930s Yorkshire get a glorious new adaptation, a seven-part series based on his beloved books. Delightful, full of eccentric characters, and one of the funniest families around. Exciting newcomer Nicholas Ralph made his television debut as the iconic vet who became renowned for his inspiring humor, compassion, and love of life.

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  • Beecham House: Season 1

    2020

    Gurinder Chadha’s six-part drama series is set on the cusp of the 19th century in Delhi before the British ruled in that region. Tom Bateman steps into the role of enigmatic, soulful John Beecham, a handsome former soldier who has purchased the magnificent mansion, Beecham House, to begin a new life with his family. The setting and the house alone make this worth watching, but the costumes and makeup are equally incredible. One of my favorite Masterpiece productions.

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  • The Long Song

    2021

    This three-part miniseries based on Andrea Levy’s award-winning novel about the end of slavery in Jamaica follows July, an indomitable, young slave who works on a sugarcane plantation with her detestable mistress, Caroline Mortime. Their lives change with the arrival of the charming new overseer, Robert Goodwin, who sets out to improve the plantation for both the slaves and the mistress. “A beautiful, moving, horrifying adaptation of Levy’s unsimple tale.”—The Guardian (London)

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  • The Durrells in Corfu: The Complete First Season

    2016

    This series, based on the trilogy by Gerald Durrell, is sunny, funny, hilarious, and filled with characters as vibrant and colorful as the ocean that surrounds Corfu. The four children, in addition to their British mother, find themselves by living a spartan life on Corfu, and the island is richer because of their presence. I actually cried when they were forced to return to Britain (because of WWII). Emotionally appealing, especially during troubling pandemic times.

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  • Victoria: The Complete First Season

    Jenna Coleman stars as her fearless Majesty Queen Victoria. The series was a runaway hit during its first two seasons, with The New York Times calling it “tremendously engaging…immediately gratifying.” The Boston Globe pronounced it, “captivating,” and Paste Magazine proclaimed, “Victoria is a royal masterpiece.” You will learn so much about the royal family that when you watch The Crown, it will echo with you.

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  • Downton Abbey

    2011

    Passion, romance, history, intrigue, fabulous English country houses, gorgeous clothes, unforgettable characters, impeccable attention to detail, and wit made this production an absolute joy to watch. You'll be swept away by its total commitment to escapism, sumptuous costumes and set decoration, and affection for its characters' flaws and foibles. The cast is first-rate and the storytelling balanced, tenderly handling tragedy with crisp humor. And let's face it, any series that brings us a chance to watch Dame Maggie Smith deliver lines like "What is a weekend?" with such witty style deserves to be hailed as a classic.

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  • Elizabeth Is Missing

    2021

    Returning to television for the first time in nearly three decades, two-time Academy Award winner Glenda Jackson stars as a woman desperately trying to solve two mysteries as she declines ever deeper into dementia. Elizabeth Is Missing, an adaptation of Emma Healey’s acclaimed novel, follows a family striving to come to terms with an incident from their past that has haunted them ever since. Having just finished watching this, I was mesmerized by Jackson's performance: it is truly outstanding!

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  • Endeavour: Series 1

    2013

    Shaun Evans charms audiences with his portrayal of the cerebral and solitary Detective Constable Morse in Endeavour, written by Inspector Lewis creator and Inspector Morse writer Russell Lewis. We see his growth both professionally and personally as he pursues crime in beautiful, cerebral Oxford. Seven seasons strong and more to come.

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  • Grantchester: Series 1

    2015

    Set in the English countryside’s most idyllic village, Grantchester follows two unlikely allies as they solve a series of cases that reveal the dark side of early 1950s England. Grantchester is based on the acclaimed novel Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death by James Runcie, which was called “the coziest of cozy murder mysteries” by the New York Times Book Review. A delightful series.

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  • Indian Summers: The Complete First Season

    2015

    Set in a subtropical paradise during the twilight era of the British Empire, Indian Summers explores the collision of the ruling class English with their Indian subjects and the intricate game of power, politics, and passion that ensues. Julie Walters stars as Cynthia Coffin, the glamorous doyenne of an English social club, and is joined by a cast of outstanding actors to bring this story to life. The scenery and period reproductions are outstanding.

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  • Poldark: The Complete First Season

    2015

    The original Poldark was a crowd-pleasing success back in 1975. The new Masterpiece version is an unpretentious, melodramatic, enjoyable tale set in the late 1700s, featuring a dashing hero, Ross Poldark (Aidan Turner), a fiery heroine named Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson), romantic intrigue, suspenseful showdowns, and more. Ross Poldark is a redcoat who returns to Cornwall after battle to discover that his father is dead, his lands are ruined, and his true love is engaged to another. Can Poldark change his destiny, restore his lost fortune, and reclaim his love? You will be swept away not only by the storyline but also by the beautiful scenery and exquisite costumes.

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  • Sherlock: Season One

    2010

    The venerable adventures of consulting detective Sherlock Holmes and his associate, Dr. Watson, got a jet-propulsion boost when moved to the 21st century, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, respectively, assuming the lead roles. The 2010 premiere was a sensation, and fans and critics alike were thrilled at the fast pace and witty updates. Sherlock helped make Cumberbatch an international star and raised Freeman's profile considerably. This is Sherlock and Watson as you have never seen them before.

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  • Van der Valk

    2020

    Amsterdam: city of bikes, boats, and bodies. At least, that’s the way steely-eyed cop Piet van der Valk sees his murder-infested beat. Marc Warren stars as the title character in Van der Valk, a three-part series based on Nicolas Freeling’s legendary crime thrillers. Together, the hard working, driven team of officers and forensic pathologists face a trio of challenging cases that give a new slant to Amsterdam’s renowned sophistication. It appears that the city’s stylishness and toleration go hand in hand with murder.

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  • World on Fire: Season One

    2020

    World on Fire is an adrenalized, emotionally gripping, and resonant World War II drama that follows the intertwining fates of ordinary people in five countries as they grapple with the effects of the war on their everyday lives. Set in Britain, Poland, France, Germany, and the United States, the seven-hour series takes place during the first year of the war.

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