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50 Years of 'Masterpiece,' by the Author

Julia Maish
Henry Wilcox (Matthew MacFadyen) and Margaret Schlegel (Hayley Atwell) in 'Howards End.' Photo: Courtesy Starz Entertainment
Matthew MacFadyen as Henry Wilcox and Hayley Atwell as Margaret Schlegel in the 2020 'Howards End.' Photo: Courtesy Starz Entertainment

As the Masterpiece series continues to celebrate its 50th anniversary this year, we hope you enjoyed our overview of some of its best-known British dramas and drama series based on classic novels.

Some authors have proven to be so popular with audiences that several of their works (and sometimes their life stories as well) have been adapted for television, with some reimagined more than once. Here are a few of those authors—some of whose works are available to stream in their Masterpiece adaptations by WTTW Passport members.

Jane Austen

Charlotte Heywood (ROSE WILLIAMS) and Sidney Parker (THEO JAMES). Photo: Courtesy Red Planet Pictures/ITVRose Williams as Charlotte Heywood and Theo James as Sidney Parker in 'Sanditon.' Photo: Courtesy Red Planet Pictures/ITV

Everyone’s favorite acerbic female author from the Regency era, Jane Austen (1775-1817) enjoys the distinction of having had ALL of her books turned into films or series on Masterpiece – including one unfinished novel (2019’s Sanditon, which is eventually returning with new seasons and is available to stream) and a mystery written by a modern author featuring Austen’s characters (Death Comes to Pemberley in 2013). Others are Persuasion (1995 and 2007); Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park (both 2007); Sense & Sensibility (2008); and Emma (2009). In 2008, the acclaimed Pride and Prejudice series starring Colin Firth aired on Masterpiece as part of its Jane Austen festival, which also included the loosely biographical Miss Austen Regrets. To paraphrase Pride and Prejudice, it is a truth universally acknowledged that films based on Austen’s works are sure winners.

The Brontë Sisters – Charlotte, Emily, and Anne

Published under the gender-ambiguous pennames Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell during their heartbreakingly brief lifetimes, the works of Victorian sisters Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë have been adapted for television and film many times. As part of Masterpiece, Anne’s novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall appeared in 1994; an adaptation of Emily’s Wuthering Heights followed in 1998; and Charlotte’s Jane Eyre made its debut in 2006 with Ruth Wilson in the title role. A poignant biopic about the family, To Walk Invisible: The Brontë Sisters, premiered in 2016.

Fun casting trivia: Toby Stephens, who starred in both The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Jane Eyre, is the son of another Masterpiece mainstay, Dame Maggie Smith.

Agatha Christie

Jonah Hauer-King as archaeologist Max Mallowan and Lyndsey Marshal as Agatha Christie in 'Agatha and the Curse of Ishtar.' Photo: Courtesy Darlow Smithson ProductionsJonah Hauer-King as archaeologist Max Mallowan and Lyndsey Marshal as Agatha Christie in 'Agatha and the Curse of Ishtar.' Photo: Courtesy Darlow Smithson Productions

Hercule Poirot. Miss Jane Marple. Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. Those well-known characters were dreamed up by the prolific mystery writer Agatha Christie, whose work has been adapted numerous times for film and television, and they and many others have been a part of the Masterpiece series over the years. Christie herself has appeared as a character in British drama, most recently in Agatha and the Truth of Murder, Agatha and the Curse of Ishtar, and Agatha and the Midnight Murders. (All of them are available to stream.)

Fun casting trivia: Actor David Suchet has headlined adaptations of all 70 of Christie’s Hercule Poirot stories, and reflected on this amazing feat in the 2013 documentary Being Poirot.

Charles Dickens

This celebrated Victorian author, satirist, and social reformer (1812-1870) was widely celebrated during his lifetime and remains so today. Masterpiece adaptations of his books have included A Tale of Two Cities (1989); Great Expectations (1999 and 2011); David Copperfield (2000); Bleak House (2005); and Oliver Twist, The Old Curiosity Shop, and Little Dorrit (all 2009).

Fun casting trivia: Daniel Radcliffe (of the Harry Potter films) made his acting debut as young David Copperfield; Gillian Anderson starred in Bleak House along with Carey Mulligan in only her second film role; and Claire Foy played the title role in Little Dorrit, long before she was the first to don Queen Elizabeth’s jeweled headgear in The Crown.

George Eliot

This contemporary of Dickens may have gone by the masculine pen name of George Eliot, but she was a woman whose real name was Mary Ann Evans; her literary persona was likely adopted due to the prevailing belief that women authors were limited to producing light romantic fluff, and Evans wanted to be known for anything but. (Also, in clear defiance of Victorian sensibilities, she was openly cohabitating with a married man, which explains a lot.) Almost all of her novels have been adapted for television and shown as part of Masterpiece: Adam Bede (1991), Middlemarch (1994), The Mill on the Floss (1997), Silas Marner (1987), and Daniel Deronda (2002).

Fun casting trivia: a young Rufus Sewell starred in Middlemarch (swoon!) with Dame Judi Dench narrating as George Eliot. In Daniel Deronda, Hugh Bonneville (the genial Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey) plays against type as a sadistic villain.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The cast of the final season of 'Sherlock.' Photo: Todd Antony/Hartswood Films 2016 for MASTERPIECEThe cast of the final season of 'Sherlock.' Photo: Todd Antony/Hartswood Films 2016 for MASTERPIECE

Doyle’s stories, featuring the iconic Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, may well be the most “adapted” works of literature ever, with countless films, radio programs, stage plays, and television programs inspired by them. In the mid-1980s, Masterpiece brought American audiences The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes starring Jeremy Brett, and over the next decade, he memorably played Holmes in 36 episodes and five specials. A new adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles followed in 2002; seven years later came Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as a very contemporary Holmes and Watson in the wildly inventive Sherlock (featuring the late Una Stubbs as the landlady Mrs. Hudson); and Doyle himself popped up as a character drawn into detective work in Arthur & George (2015).

Fun casting trivia: in the latter project, Holmes was played by Martin Clunes in a big departure from his best-known character, the irascible Doc Martin.

E.M. Forster

While this English writer’s film adaptations are well known—A Passage to India, Maurice, A Room with a View, and Howards EndMasterpiece brought Americans new versions of the latter two – A Room with a View in 2008, and Howards End in 2020, which is available to stream.

Fun casting trivia: a prominent supporting role in A Room with a View is played by Elizabeth McGovern, who went on to star in Downton Abbey three years later. And the cast of Howards End included Tracey Ullman – much better known as a comedienne and singer.

Thomas Hardy

Five novels by this Victorian author have received the Masterpiece treatment: Jude the Obscure in 1971 as part of the very first season; The Mayor of Casterbridge (1979), Far from the Madding Crowd (1998), Under the Greenwood Tree (2006), and Tess of the D’Urbervilles (2008).