MASTERPIECE Premieres its 40th Season with Downton Abbey

Created by Oscar-winning writer Julian Fellowes

Sundays, January 9 through January 30, 2011 on PBS

A new Upstairs Downstairs starring Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins to air in April

MASTERPIECE, the longest-running series on primetime television, takes a bow and blows out 40 candles in January 2011 as it celebrates 40 years as one of the most watched, honored, and innovative programs on PBS. Featuring the best of British actors, including Helen Mirren, Judi Dench, Kenneth Branagh, Keira Knightley, Daniel Radcliffe, and scores of others, the series has won 51 Primetime Emmys, 17 Peabodys, and 31 BA FTA s, while airing some 2,000 hours of programming. That's a lot of drama!

Continuing this illustrious tradition, the 40th season premieres with a quintessentially MASTERPIECE production, Downton Abbey, an Edwardian-era spellbinder created by Oscar-winning writer Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) and airing in four 90-minute parts on Sundays, January 9 through January 30, 2011, at 9pm ET on PBS (check local listings).

Starring Hugh Bonneville (Notting Hill), Maggie Smith (Harry Potter), Elizabeth McGovern (A Room with a View), Dan Stevens (Sense & Sensibility) and a country-house full of other great actors, the miniseries set audience records during its recent UK broadcast and was hailed as “a sumptuous, instantly riveting glimpse of a world—and family—on the verge of profound change” by the London Daily Telegraph.

Plus the London Times had this to say: “Very occasionally a television program comes along that makes almost everything else on the schedules seem bland and two-dimensional. Downton Abbey … is without question one such program … if you enjoy subtle, well-crafted drama with purpose and meaning, you're in for a real treat!”

The cast of Downton Abbey
The cast of Downton Abbey. Photo credit: 2010 ITV/plc for MASTERPIECE.

The plot of Downton Abbey is straight out of Jane Austen, updated to the era that introduced electric lights and telephones. It is 1912. The Titanic has just gone down in the north Atlantic, taking with it the two male heirs to Downton Abbey, whose current Lord Grantham has only daughters—albeit marriageable ones. His nearest male relative is a lowly lawyer—and bachelor—living in Manchester, who duly arrives with his mother to learn the ropes of managing a sprawling country estate, with its army of devoted, sometimes bickering servants, its hunts, garden parties, and sexual intrigues.

In its depiction of the intertwined lives of servants and aristocrats, Downton Abbey recalls one of television's most beloved programs, Upstairs Downstairs, which aired on MASTERPIECE (then MASTERPIECE THEATRE) in the 1970s. One of the thrills of MASTERPIECE's 40th season is a new three-part revival set in the same house at 165 Eaton Place, taking the Upstairs Downstairs story from 1936 to the outbreak of World War II.

The 40th MASTERPIECE Classic season also includes: Any Human Heart, February 13 through February 27: William Boyd adapts his acclaimed 2002 novel about a man—at various times a writer, lover, art dealer, and spy—making his often precarious way through the 20th century. Matthew MacFadyen, Gillian Anderson, Hayley Atwell, Kim Cattrall, and Jim Broadbent star. (A Carnival/Channel 4/MASTERPIECE coproduction).

Upstairs Downstairs, April 10 through 24: A revival of one of the most-loved and most-honored series in television history, starring Jean Marsh in her Emmy-winning role as Rose, original series co-creator Dame Eileen Atkins (Cranford), Keeley Hawes (MI-5), Ed Stoppard, and Art Malik (The Jewel in the Crown). The script is by Emmy-winner Heidi Thomas (Cranford). (A BBC/MASTERPIECE coproduction).

South Riding, May 1 through May 15: Anna Maxwell Martin (Bleak House) and David Morrissey (Sense & Sensibility) lead the cast in Andrew Davies's (Bleak House, Little Dorrit) three-part adaptation of Winifred Holtby's moving love story, which provides a panoramic portrait of a Yorkshire community in the 1930s. (A BBC/MASTERPIECE coproduction).

For forty years, MASTERPIECE: the drama of your life.

Downton Abbey is a Carnival/MASTERPIECE coproduction, written and created by Julian Fellowes. The directors are Brian Percival, Ben Bolt, and Brian Kelly. The series producer is Liz Trubridge. The producer is Nigel Marchant. The executive producers are Gareth Neame, Julian Fellowes, and Rebecca Eaton.

The Downton Abbey DVD will also be available from PBS Home Video:

MASTERPIECE is presented on PBS by WGBH Boston. Rebecca Eaton is executive producer. Funding for the series is provided by public television viewers.


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