The New `Masterpiece Theatre'

Article excerpt

TELEVISION'S "Masterpiece Theatre" is celebrating its 25th year with a revamped image. The anthology series is not exclusively for the smart and stuffy Anglophile anymore.

If it ever was.

TV's haven of English literacy is presenting more contemporary works, airing programs on a speeded-up schedule and carrying a dual passport with American-accented projects.

"If people cling to the belief that this is their parents' television rather than their own, they'd be surprised to actually watch," says Rebecca Eaton, the series' executive producer for a decade.

"Masterpiece Theatre" launches its new season Sunday through Tuesday with Edith Wharton's "The Buccaneers," the first adaptation of an American novel since Henry James' "The Golden Bowl" aired during the 1972-`73 season.

For years, sounding even a few bars of the durable "Masterpiece Theatre" theme music was enough to set the hearts of would-be Britishers and costume-drama fans aflutter.

"Upstairs, Downstairs," they might murmur, invoking the glory of series gone by. "Elizabeth R," "Poldark," The Jewel in the Crown," "Jeeves and Wooster" - British series recounted with loving sighs.

Others, however, would recoil like high schoolers reminded that their book reports on "Wuthering Heights" were due.

That kind of attitude ignores the lively storytelling, sharp writing and acting that has always been the core of "Masterpiece Theatre," Eaton says.

"What `Masterpiece Theatre' has become over the years is the only reliable place on either - television or in movies, I would argue, where viewers can find a first-rate adaptation of literature with some regularity," Eaton says.

Created and presented by Boston public TV station WGBH, "Masterpiece Theatre" is the longest-running prime time dramatic series on television.

But acknowledging the changing medium, audience tastes and the value of home-grown culture, "Masterpiece Theatre" has been evolving.

More contemporary, hard-edged series are airing, including the incomparable police drama "Prime Suspect," starring Helen Mirren, which this season moves over from PBS's "Mystery!"

There are also headline-ready political dramas such as "Final Cut," the third and final series about ruthless British politician Francis Urquhart, and "The Politician's Wife," about a sex scandal. Both air next year.

"We used to draw the line at World War II, even at 20th-century drama," Eaton says. …