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(Soundbite of Mouret's "First Suite in D")


This music heralded the first episode of "Masterpiece Theatre" 40 years ago this month. What came next was the stately, well-dressed host, sitting in an armchair next to some dusty books.

(Soundbite of first "Masterpiece Theatre" Episode)

Mr. ALISTAIR COOKE: Good evening. I'm Alistair Cooke. We open, tonight, a new television theater which in the next year, will show you plays adapted from...

MONTAGNE: Notice he said next year. Alistair Cooke was a respected journalist at the time, and he refused offers to host the new series. When he finally agreed, he signed a one-year contract. Here's "Masterpiece's" executive producer, Rebecca Eaton.

Ms. REBECCA EATON (Executive Producer, "Masterpiece Theater"): After he saw the first show, he was so dubious about the possibility that the whole thing could be a success, that he thought it would just fade away after one season.

MONTAGNE: Fade away, it did not. And Alistair Cooke hosted for 21 years. The show originally came to America through the PBS station WGBH in Boston. It was a way for the station to fill up the roster of a very new, public television network. Robert Thompson is a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. He says "Masterpiece Theatre" appealed to audiences looking for a change from the commercial fare of the '60s.

Professor ROBERT THOMPSON (Television and Popular Culture, Syracuse University): In 1971, we'd gone through a decade of talking horses and genies, and witches that were housewives...

MONTAGNE: In contrast, the programs broadcast on "Masterpiece Theatre" were adaptations of great literature, and original dramas. They had top-notch production quality, with the BBC's funding power behind it. And they featured British acting giants previously unseen by American audiences - the likes of Judi Dench, Helen Mirren and later, Colin Firth in "Pride and Prejudice."

(Soundbite of "Pride and Prejudice")

Mr. COLIN FIRTH (Actor): (As Mr. Darcy) I believe every disposition has a tendency to some particular evil.

Ms. JENNIFER EHLE (Actress): (As Elizabeth Bennet) Your defect is a propensity to hate everyone.

Mr. FIRTH: (As Mr. DARCY) Well, yours is willfully to misunderstand them.

MONTAGNE: Colin Firth, for one, is still reaping the benefits of that early exposure as Mr. Darcy. Over the decades, executive producer Rebecca Eaton says "Masterpiece" has garnered fans ranging from Whoopi Goldberg to Michael Bloomberg, to the Tea Party's Christine O'Donnell. It has gone through changes from the theme...

(Soundbite of revised "Masterpiece Theatre" theme music)

MONTAGNE: To the name - from "Masterpiece Theatre" to just plain "Masterpiece."

Ms. EATON: We were scaring people off, with the theater. Particularly theater spelled the British way, which is T-H-E-A-T-R-E.

MONTAGNE: The content has also changed to embrace the contemporary. There was the police procedural "Prime Suspect" and the miniseries "Traffik," about the drug trade, which became a blockbuster movie as well.

Still, "Masterpiece" is, today, the home of costume drama. And like any icon, it will always have imitators - like, say, another famous PBS name.

(Soundbite of TV show "Sesame Street")

Unidentified Man: (As Cookie Monster) Good evening. Alistair Cookie here, welcome to "Monsterpiece Theatre."

(Soundbite of music)

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