Picks and Pans Review: Masterpiece Theatre: a Celebration of 25 Years of Outstanding Television

updated 02/05/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/05/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Terrence O'Flaherty

It may shock die-hard fans with dim memories that the first miniseries ever aired on Masterpiece Theatre, PBS's prestigious showcase of British dramas, was no masterpiece. The First Churchills, a 1971 potboiler about boudoir intrigue in Restoration England, was, according to MT's host emeritus Alistair Cooke (who exited the show in 1993), "probably the worst series we've ever done."

But as the lavish photographs in this retrospective remind us, Masterpiece Theatre soon lived up to its title by producing such smart, elegant crowd-pleasers as Upstairs, Downstairs (1974-77), I, Claudius (1977) and The Jewel in the Crown (1984). Among actors who won a U.S. following from MT appearances were Jeremy Irons {Love for Lydia), Ian Richardson (the House of Cards trilogy) and John Hurt (I, Claudius), all of whom recount their experiences in lively fashion here. Hurt says he and costar Derek Jacobi kept cracking each other up while trying to get through a scene in which Caligula (Hurt) asks, "Do you think I'm mad?" and his stammering uncle Claudius (Jacobi) archly replies, "I think you're the m-m-model for s-s-sanity t-t-throughout the whole world."

MT itself is a model for how to bring classic literature vividly to life, but in recent years it has drawn upon more contemporary sources. Danger UXB (1981) followed a British bomb-disposal unit in World War II; Traffik (1990) tracked European drug smugglers; The Politician's Wife (which aired in January) skewered the British power elite. Traditionalists may frown, but the author, a former TV critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, seems to have no quarrel with MT's eclecticism. He heaps praise on costume dramas and modern morality plays alike, sprinkling his synopses with fascinating production factoids. (Before the filming of A Town like Alice could begin in Langkawi, Malaysia, he tells us, the native gods had to be appeased with "a $100 nondeductible contribution to the local witch doctors".... Sounds like a PBS Pledge Week.)

But if this isn't an erudite (Alistair) Cooke's tour, it remains a sumptuous banquet. Come feast your eyes and savor your memories of some of TV's finest hours. (KQED Books, $24.95)

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