PBS 'masters' 30 years of superior storytelling

Like an old and trusted friend, "Masterpiece Theatre" still drops around on Sunday evening with marvelous tales to tell. The series has graced the airwaves for 30 years now, and there's nothing else quite like it - nothing else that routinely mines the great works of literature and then presents them with such brilliance. Other venues, like Hallmark Entertainment on commercial television, have more money and do their best, but the results are uneven.

From the very first strains of the "Masterpiece Theatre" theme (the Rondeau from "Symphonies and Fanfares for the King's Supper," by Jean-Jacque Mouret), the viewer is assured that there will be stories with clear plots, compelling characters, and something meaningful to say. The famous melody signals that the next one, two, or 10 hours will likely not be a waste of time - intellectually, aesthetically, or emotionally.

I remember the first "Masterpiece Theatre" I ever watched: "Elizabeth R" (1971), starring Glenda Jackson, sparked a life-long interest in the Elizabethan Age. Then "Upstairs, Downstairs" (1973) helped me understand my English grandparents.

But it was "The Golden Bowl" by Henry James (1973) that has stayed with me all these years as a kind of moral touchstone for a TV drama. In that solidly creative interpretation of an enormously complex novel I saw what television could do that no other art form could manage: a kind of mini-epic that feels as personal to watch as anything you can read.

"I think serial drama has an appeal stemming back to Homer," says "Masterpiece Theatre" executive producer Rebecca Eaton. "Dickens wrote serial dramas for magazines. A fictional continuum can be reassuring and exciting in reliable storytelling week after week. It can be a group or family activity, but it can also be enormously fulfilling to engage [in] alone, to live with the characters, to enter into another world. A lot of people love that time travel."

One of the reasons "Masterpiece Theatre" is still so good after so many years is the guiding intelligence behind it. Executive producers on this side of the Atlantic (Ms. Eaton and her staff) and the other (mainly at the British Broadcasting Company) not only seeks out great stories that seem to "fit" the television screen, they are obsessed with the "mise en scene," admits Eaton - the way the film looks, costumes, sets, flower arrangements, hair - all the details of composition and the emotional tone of the images.

Then, too, the acting is usually top notch, the cream of the British stage. Remember Derek Jacobi as the title character in "I, Claudius"?

"These actors work in this kind of material all the time - in theater, film, and on TV," Eaton says. "The English just do more period drama than we do because they love their history."

The acting and attention to detail are significant ingredients. But there are others. "One of the secrets is choosing the right books and resisting the temptation to choose the wrong book, even a classic. There are books that are iffy for adapting to television," says Eaton. "Moby Dick," "The Scarlet Letter," and "The Great Gatsby" have all been disasters on film.

At the core, though, the secret is in writing the screen adaptations of the novels. Eaton explains that there was a time in the 1980s when even British television resisted doing costume dramas, disdaining them as "tea-time television." Eaton says her team tried to interest the BBC in George Elliot's "Middlemarch" and couldn't. Eventually they went directly to Andrew Davies, one of the most respected television writers Britain.

"He said, 'Yes, please!' It was a runaway success and started them up again with 'Pride and Prejudice' and 'Moll Flanders,' Eaton says. "Davies has a knack for making 19th- and 20th-century novels ultimately watchable."

Writers in England are honored in a way they are not in the US, Eaton says. Davies can do anything he likes. "And that's not just a few powerful writers," she says. "That's true of many English writers." Davies's exquisite adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's "Wives and Daughters," which will air in four parts on Sundays in April, is as wondrous as his "Pride and Prejudice." He does not impose a 20th-century sensibility on his 19th-century heroine, Molly Gibbons, though his own vitality injects spirit and grace in his marvelous adaptations.

"Andrew is a genius," Eaton says. "He loves strong women characters. He has an ear for dialogue that is true to the language of the books. But he understands what is going on under the decorous surface."

For his part, Davies is enthusiastic about writing for "Masterpiece Theatre." "I think it's an excellent, wonderful organization," he says. "Certainly from the point of view of the writer. The notes I got were: 'Be as faithful as possible to the original work.' " And because there are no breaks for commercials, that restriction doesn't have to be considered in the writing either.

"I've done work for all the networks and the needs of the networks are different than for public television. PBS raises the bar a little higher," says author Joseph Maurer, whose poetic adaptation of Willa Cather's "Song of the Lark" premieres on "Masterpiece Theatre" this spring.

"My marching orders were to tell the story honestly and truly, summoning Willa Cather and her vision," Mr. Maurer says.

"One of the hardest things to do," Eaton says, "is to decide what size the [film] can be, should be." In the case of Cather's densely descriptive autobiographical novel, the decision went toward the essential story, when the young Mid-western girl becomes an opera singer, just about to spread her wings and fly.

At one point in the story the girl is alone in remote Arizona, and she finds an ancient Indian pot. She feels a connection to the woman who so long ago had made it. It is a marvelous scene.

"She realizes that the women who made those things were the artists of their era, who communicated their love of life and their observations about life through these vessels," Maurer says. "She ... makes the connection that the artist is a vessel attempting to hold life, which runs like water through the fingers. We do try to get our hands and our hearts around the things that matter."

Next for "Masterpiece Theatre" is a tragic tale of love and madness. Leo Tolstoy's classic "Anna Karenina" (PBS, Feb. 18, check local listings) focuses on the domestic drama in the story, Eaton says, rather than on the grand tragedy. Some critic's may miss the large-scale story Tolstoy intended in this four-hour dramatization. But it is nevertheless riveting. The contrast between happy marital love and tragic, mad passion is inescapable. So are Tolstoy's observations about the destructive nature of outrageous social hypocrisy. ( It contains situations for mature audiences only.)

* * *

Also worth noting on TV this week is Mystery! The Remorseful Day: The Inspector Morse Finale (PBS, Feb. 22, check local listings). It's hard to bid the wise chief inspector goodbye. But he goes out solving a heinous crime.

Mulder returns in flashbacks to a really complicated X-Files (Fox, Feb. 18, 9-10 p.m.). It's one of the most beautifully made, alien-centered installments of the series. NBC offers The Princess and the Marine (Feb. 18, 9-11 p.m.), a slight romance based on a true story about a Muslim princess who escaped to America with a young marine she married here.

The Unfinished Civil War (History Channel, Feb. 19, 9-10 p.m.) asks, "What drives present-day Americans into the fervent hobby of reenacting the Civil War?" Is it still being fought in some sense?

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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