Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Tuesday's Forgotten TV: THE FIRST CHURCHILLS

In 1971, MASTERPIECE THEATER began it 43 year run with THE FIRST CHURCHILLS, a BBC costume drama based on Winston Churchills' family memoir. I remember being filled with excitement about this 12 part series, one of the first tastes of British TV I had had.  It was perhaps the only TV show that academics would admit watching.

If you look at the first few seasons of the show, most series were based on great works of literature: James, Balzac, Dickens, Zola, Collins, Wharton. It was not until UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS perhaps that they reached out to a broader audience and offered, what seemed at the time, a more raucous story.

As you can see, these were not lavish productions even by the standard of the day. But you could watch TV believing you were being educated as well as entertained if that made a difference to you.

After several seasons, I found that no matter what book the series did, who the author was, the results were fairly similar and static. They all had much the same look to them and much the same sort of characters. I am sure it is me who was lacking and not the series. The introduction of MASTERPIECE MYSTERY added a new ingredient, but the results are often too similar in tone for me. A writer's style is lost as the same production teams, directors, set designers, etc, take hold of them and give them the BBC feel.

I am sorry to offend and clearly most US series are inferior to what we find here. But I can't help but think it could be better.

Here is a list of all the series, they did. 


Margot Kinberg said...

Interesting point you make, Patti, about how an author's style can get lost in translation, so to speak. I didn't see this particular production, but I know just what you mean.

Anonymous said...

I would agree that the later series often seem samey and don't have the same excitement of the early years. I remember this well and we even went to Blenheim one year. The interesting thing was, even though the Churchills were the "heroes" of the story I remember then as not being particularly nice people.

I think my favorite characters were James Villiers as Charles II and John Standing as Sidney Godolphin. Susan Hampshire and Margaret Tyzack were both in THE FORSYTE SAGA a couple of years earlier, the precursor to Masterpiece Theater in this country.

Jeff M.

Charles Gramlich said...

Where in the world do you find these shows? Never heard of it.

Anonymous said...

Was "Nana" part of those early Masterpiece Theatre presentations? I remember being quite surprised at how explicit it was. That was sometime in the mid-1970s. I used to watch MT religiously until Alistair Cooke retired and then I sort of retired from it. Don't get me started on current offerings like Call the Midwife--totally wrong in tone and spirit.


Kelly Robinson said...

I didn't know there was a series based on anything by Zola. He's one of my favorites, so I may have to dig it up, even if it is lackluster.

pattinase (abbott) said...

They did THERESE RAQUIN in Season Ten, 1981, I think, and it was terrific. Don't know if it would hold us but at the time....

Yvette said...

An interesting point, Patti and maybe I do understand what you mean. But I kind of don't agree. I always loved the 'feel' of BBC productions so I was usually happy with most of their work.

I think ELIZABETH R (From the first season) with Glenda Jackson is the benchmark of all Elisaabethan dramas (About the queen.)I've seen anywhere at any time. The updated Cate Blanchett film did not even begin to compare though it was pretty enough.

I loved their version of THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS though production values on it were not as strong as they might have been.

I think BRIDESHEAD REVISITED was the best television show of all time except for maybe THE WEST WING.

Also loved: THE SIX WIVES OF HENRY XIII, HEDDA GABLER (also, if I remember correctly, with Glenda Jackson), VANITY FAIR, UPSTAIRS,DOWNSTAIRS (of course), THE UNPLEASANTNESS AT THE BELONA CLUB, MADAME BOVARY, THERESE RACQUIN, ANNA KARENINA, THE POLITICIAN'S WIFE,I,CLAUDIUS, POLDARK, PERSUASION, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE,...well, you get my drift. I was and am a Masterpiece Theater freak even if lately I haven't kept up with things (except for the occasional MYSTERY) because I no longer have cable.

Anonymous said...

Deb, yes they did do NANA. But no, it was not on Masterpiece Theatre. I think it was a little explicit for that series. It was run in 1968 in Britain but ran here several years later, I believe.

Jeff M.

Todd Mason said...

Yes, and CALL THE MIDWIFE isn't under the MASTERPIECE rubric, either (for that matter, MYSTERY! was its own series for more than two decades...now the MASTERPIECE package is divided rather clumsily into CLASSIC, CONTEMPORARY and MYSTERY, since ExxonMobil apparently wants to pay for one series rather than two (MT and MYSTERY!). No, Patti, the fault often lay in the productions, and the ones chose for this package, as Mobil wasn't interested in supporting anything that would shake anyone up...that was, as a result, left to other PBS series when it occurred on the network at all...consider HOLLYWOOD TELEVISION THEATER and AMERICAN PLAYHOUSE (and such fine, now obscure series as VISIONS). Certainly THE FORSYTE SAGA, the earlier production (as opposed to the remake a decade back that was run on MT) that began in the US on the NET (National Educational Television) network and continued on PBS when the newer network was formed was more compelling than almost anything on MT at the time.

Todd Mason said...

PBS was definitely able to run more explicit material than other US networks, though they, too, had their moments, not least with the likes of ABC's ROOTS, at least till they all started quaking at W's retrograde FCC.