'Masterpiece Theatre' opens 30th season on PBS

Rebecca Eaton, the executive producer of PBS' Emmy Award-winning dramatic showcase "Masterpiece Theatre," remembers watching the series' first-ever installment, "The First Churchills," in 1971.

"I watched the first 'Masterpiece Theatre' in my nightie on the couch," she says, laughing. "I remember that moment. I watched with my mother, who has since died."

Eaton repeated that moment this spring when she and her daughter, 14, viewed the "Masterpiece Theatre" presentation of Charles Dickens' "David Copperfield" together.

Celebrating its 30th anniversary this season, "Masterpiece Theatre" has become a "cultural through-line for many people," Eaton says.

"There are not many cultural through-lines. I think there will never be such a thing again."

For 35 weeks a year for 30 years, "Masterpiece Theatre" has presented such acclaimed British imports as "Upstairs, Downstairs," "I, Claudius," "The Duchess of Duke Street," "The Jewel in the Crown," "Elizabeth R," "The Six Wives of Henry VIII," "Lillie," "Anna Karenina," "Danger UXB," "Prime Suspect" and "House of Cards."

The PBS series has drawn British acting titans such as Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Alec Guinness, Diana Rigg, Maggie Smith, Wendy Hiller, Ian Richardson and Derek Jacobi.

The dramas also offered early glimpses into the careers of popular stars such as Alex Kingston, Jeremy Irons, Ralph Fiennes, Emma Thompson, Kenneth Branagh and Anthony Andrews.

"Sooner or later, everybody is on 'Masterpiece,"' Eaton says.

The 30th season opened Sunday with a lavish three-part, six-hour production of Dickens' "Oliver Twist."

Among the other programs set for the season thus far include the TV premiere of the 1997 film "Mrs. Brown" (Nov. 5), "The Railway Children" (Nov. 12) and "Stiff Upper Lips" (Nov. 19).

A new version of "Anna Karenina" and the miniseries "Wives and Daughters" � the latter already aired on BBC America � are scheduled for 2001.

"We tried to design this (season's) series to have some real bell ringers � some things you would spot as a 'Masterpiece' at 20 paces," Eaton says.

Although the entire season hasn't been mapped out, Eaton says there won't be any repeats of classic "Masterpiece" presentations, as has been the case during previous anniversary years.

"We had so much new programming coming down, we decided to keep going with the new stuff," Eaton says.

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