When I was in high school in the 1970s, I remember wandering into the living room while my mother was watching some TV show filled with gowns, starched maid uniforms, white gloves and British accents.
I wish I could say I was instantly captivated by the comings and goings of the Edwardian society folk and their servants at 165 Eaton Place, in the posh London home of the Bellamy family. But “Upstairs, Downstairs” just didn’t grab me at the time.
My viewing tastes ran more to the lives of contemporary folk, such as Mary and Rhoda on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and Felix and Oscar on “The Odd Couple.”
Occasionally, I’d sit with Mom and listen to the urbane Alistair Cooke introduce the latest British import to engage fans of a relatively new Sunday night public television series, “Masterpiece Theatre.” But once Cooke had finished his spiel, I’d wander off and let Mom be alone with her mysteries and dramas from across the pond.
What a difference a few decades has made.
From 2011 to 2016, I wouldn’t have missed a PBS-aired episode of “Downton Abbey” for the world.
Gowns. Maid uniforms. White gloves. British accents.
“Masterpiece” is observing its 50th anniversary next month, and I’m thrilled that the show has thrived for so many decades beyond my initial indifference.
It has grown in its offerings just as my shrugs over college classmates going gaga for Derek Jacobi in “I, Claudius” evolved into my enthusiasm for Jacobi as the 12th-century crime-solving monk, Brother Cadfael, or as famed World War II mathematician and cryptographer Alan Turing in the marvelous “Masterpiece” movie “Breaking the Code.”
I’m not sure when I started watching and enjoying “Masterpiece,” but I’m pretty sure goofy British sitcoms were my gateway series.
I eventually turned from philistine to fangirl when it came to “Masterpiece” and all its spinoffs — its “classic,” “contemporary” and “mystery” iterations.
Finally, I’d sit with Mom, listening to Cooke’s replacement, Russell Baker, offer context to some adaptation of a classic novel like Daniel Defoe’s “Moll Flanders.” And this time, I’d stick around to watch actress Alex Kingston navigate Moll’s many misfortunes in life.
Over the years, I’ve had many “Masterpiece” favorites that left me anxiously waiting for 9 p.m. Sunday to roll around. I’ve loved the clever, Oxford-set “Inspector Lewis” mysteries; the tech-savvy rendition of “Sherlock,” as inhabited by Benedict Cumberbatch, and the beautifully written cold-case detective stories of “Unforgotten.”
Watching Alan Cumming arch his eyebrow as the sly host of “Masterpiece Mystery” or seeing a petulant teen turn into a long-reigning queen on “Victoria” have been recent delights, as well.
Lancaster even has at least one connection to “Masterpiece”: McCaskey High School alumna Rya Kihlstedt, who can currently be seen in FX on Hulu’s “A Teacher,” was featured in “The Buccaneers,” a 1995 adaptation of Edith Wharton’s final novel.
A recent anniversary special, “Masterpiece: 50 Fabulous Years,” disappointed me only in that it didn’t go on for six hours and show clips of all my favorite “Masterpiece” series and shows — and my mom’s.
(Pro tip: If you become a contributing member of local public TV station, WITF, you can sometimes binge-watch a couple of episodes in advance via PBS Passport.)
My most recent “Masterpiece” watch was last month’s “Roadkill,” a political drama featuring Hugh Laurie as an ambitious British cabinet minister.
It took me back 30 years to watching Laurie and Stephen Fry in the “Masterpiece” valet-and-idle-rich-gentleman dramedy of the “Jeeves and Wooster” series.
What I probably love most about “Masterpiece” is that it connects me to my mom, who passed away nearly two decades ago. When I hear orchestral brass rip into Jean-Joseph Mouret’s “Fanfare-Rondeau” — the old “Masterpiece Theatre” opening theme, I never fail to vividly remember sitting with Mom in the living room, watching “Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple” or reruns of “Rumpole of the Bailey.”
Mom was mad about “Inspector Morse,” played by John Thaw, and I think she’d appreciate that her daughter loves the prequel series, “Endeavour,” in which Thaw’s real-life daughter, Abigail, portrays a journalist.
According to the “Masterpiece” website, the series has won 83 Primetime Emmy Awards, 18 Peabodys and seven Golden Globes. Not too shabby for a series I once eschewed in favor of “Mannix” and “The ABC Sunday Night Movie.”
“Unscripted” is a weekly entertainment column produced by a rotating team of writers.