Masterpiece Theater first began airing in 1971 and has, over its different iterations, aired hundreds of series. There have been so many that it's fairly easy to forget and lose track of some of the earlier, more obsure - but no less magnificent - shows from the early years. Some have stood the test of time, and are considered to be The Best of Masterpiece Theatre. But what about those shows which never quite rank in the Top Ten? We've combed the archives to find a few forgotten gems of the early Masterpiece Theater era for viewers to discover.
The following six series are ones not voted as part of The Best of Masterpiece Theatre, (though we highly recommend those too!) Let us not let these be left behind in the dustbin of TV history.
The Duchess of Duke Street
For those looking for a Downton Abbey-type series but have already gone through all the Upstairs/Downstairs adaptations to be found, there's The Duchess of Duke Street. Originally made in 1977, it was created by John Hawkesworth, who produced Upstairs, Downstairs.
The two-season series is based on the true story of Rosa Lewis, who was known as "Duchess of Jermyn Street," and ran the Cavendish Hotel at the corner of Duke St, St. James’s in London. Set from 1900 through the Great War to the mid-1920s, Lewis is rechristened Louisa Leyton here, and played by Gemma Jones years before she went on to star in Sense and Sensibility, Bridget Jones, and Harry Potter. The show ran two seasons, with 31 episodes all told.
The Barchester Chronicles
Victorian writer Anthony Trollope is best known for his Chronicles of Barsetshire, which spawned his first hit novel, The Warden, and went on to run six more books, including Barchester Towers. These two formed the basis for Masterpiece's The Barchester Chronicles from 1982.
Technically, the story revolves around a scandal at the local hospital in town, but it's really about the drama between the clergy and the landed gentry and the political rivalries that exist between the two in the county. The great Nigel Hawthorne stars as Archdeacon Grantly alongside Donald and Angela Pleasence as Mr. Harding and Mrs. Grantly respective. Bonus cookies: Young Alan Rickman as Obadiah Slope.
Fortunes of War
Fortunes of War is the series where Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson met and married. This 1987 adaptation of Olivia Manning's cycle of World War II novels starred both as married couple Guy and Harriet Pringle.
The story starts with them as a newly married couple in 1939, living in Bucharest and subsequently follows their travels from Romania to Greece to Egypt and finally the Middle East in 1943. Unlike more modern adaptations, this is notable for how very faithful it is to the original books, enough though it only ran seven episodes. But Branagh and Thompson each won BAFTAs for their roles.
The 1990s series Doctor Finlay is a rebooted series that existed long before reboots were fashionable. It follows up Doctor Finlay's Casebook from the 1960s and 70s, which never aired here in the United States. The original 1960s-era series was an interwar period piece set in the 1920s, the new one, which is far better in production value is set in the aftermath of World War II, and focuses on the initial creation of the NHS.
Unlike many of today's reboots, however, it does not bring back the original cast. Instead, the titular Finlay is played by David Rintoul, who recently appeared in both Game of Thrones and The Crown. For those looking for period hospital drama that shows how much better life got after the NHS was implemented, this is execellent stuff.
For those looking for a hospital drama with a female lead, Bramwell is here for you. Starring Jemma Redgrave as Dr. Eleanor Bramwell, this is a show one might consider a predecessor to Call The Midwife, set in the same slums of the East End of London, though about a hundred years prior in the late Victorian era.
After being treated as an inferior by male doctors of the day, Bramwell teams up with Lady Peters (Michele Dotrice) to start the free hospital, The Thrift. The show co-stars Ruth Sheen as the primary Nurse, Ethel Carr, and David Calder as Bramwell's husband, Dr. Robert.
Slightly lost in all the hoopla of 2007's final Masterpiece Theater season before its rebranding, Jane Eyre starring Ruth Wilson in the title role and Toby Stephens as Rochester is probably the closet thing anyone has ever made to a definitive on-screen version of Charlotte Bronte's famous novel. No, it's not an exact adaptation, but it's one where the added scenes play to the book's themes of repression, pulling the subtext forward. It's also the miniseries that pushed Wilson into the upper tier of current British actresses, even if it was Luther that made her a household name.