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Two Quite Different Masterpieces : Television: 'Masterpiece Theatre' and 'All in the Family' have both enriched the medium in infinite, striking ways. They debuted 20 years ago this week.

January 11, 1991|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Light the birthday candles and flash back 20 years.

Although their arrivals at the start of 1971 were separated by just two days--and each would be epic in the evolution of U.S. television--"Masterpiece Theatre" and "All in the Family" were as different as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito in "Twins."

Or Alistair Cooke and Archie Bunker.

Socially, they became the upstairs/downstairs of prime time, each taking us for wonderfully exhilarating rides and enriching television in infinite, striking ways.

Just how striking, in terms of the still-running "Masterpiece Theatre," is available for all to see in fragments, starting Sunday (7 p.m. on Channel 24, 8 p.m. on Channel 50, at 9 p.m. on Channels 28 and 15). That's when PBS begins a 10-week retrospective of its signature series, teasing us with partial reruns of nine "Masterpiece Theatre" productions dating to its first year, capped by an anniversary gala starring some of the best-known cast members.

There may be no alternative, yet the value of showing these out-of-context series chunks is open to question. Only Sunday's opener--a three-episode reprise of that beloved Edwardian soap opera, "Upstairs, Downstairs"--is ample enough to give first-time viewers a meaningful taste.

While "Masterpiece Theatre" is the longest-running series in PBS history, "All in the Family" today exists only in reruns. That Nielsen-minded CBS is delaying its own Archie Bunker TV birthday party a month until February--a ratings sweeps period--dramatizes the philosophical gap still separating public and commercial TV, even though PBS has edged closer toward its commercial counterpart in recent years.

If ever a series has earned a party it's "Masterpiece Theatre," the brainchild of Englishman Christopher Sarson while a producer at WGBH-TV in Boston. Although the late producer Joan Wilson was the creative soul of "Masterpiece Theatre," it was Sarson who believed that American viewers needed an interpreter of sorts. Hence, the emergence of Cooke, who offered his first refined "Good Evening" to "Masterpiece Theatre" viewers on Jan. 10, 1971, introducing an unpolished costume saga titled "The First Churchills."

Thereafter, Cooke and "Masterpiece Theatre" were to become virtually the face of PBS.

Cooke was an English aesthete who had become Americanized by his long residence in the United States, but not such that he didn't perfectly fit a Sunday-night series that presented much of the cream of British drama.

For his part, Cooke became the prototypal urbane TV host, so good at his task and so recognizable that PBS through the years has unwisely persisted in trying to clone him for other series.

For its part, "Masterpiece Theatre" became not only a metaphor for excellence--"I, Claudius," "The Jewel in the Crown," you name it--but also one for public TV's runaway Anglophilia. It was simply cheaper to import quality period drama than to produce it domestically, the embarrassing irony being that the best American TV had a British stamp.

No wonder, then, that many PBS viewers got the mistaken impression that all of British TV was superior to ours, not realizing that they were watching only the very best of the Brit's.

Besides the "Upstairs, Downstairs" trilogy, other repeat "Masterpiece Theatre" episodes scheduled for subsequent Sundays are from "The Flame Trees of Thika," "On Approval," "I, Claudius," "All for Love: A Dedicated Man," "Elizabeth R," "The Jewel in the Crown," "The Tale of Beatrix Potter" and "The Six Wives of Henry VIII."

Only five of these would make my own "Masterpiece" Top 10:

"The Jewel in the Crown" was possibly the best TV miniseries ever, and "I, Claudius," which PBS is planning to rerun later this year in its 13-hour entirety, is not far behind. No miniseries was ever more intimately involving or seductive than "Upstairs, Downstairs," and "The Six Wives of Henry VIII" and "Elizabeth R" were superbly mounted Tudor spectacles.

The rest of my Top 10: The relatively recent "A Perfect Spy," "A Very British Coup" and "After the War" and, from earlier in the '80s, "The Good Soldier" and "Testament of Youth," Vera Brittain's aching World War I memoir whose peace message has special relevance today.

Norman Lear's "All in the Family" deserves ranking near the top of anyone's Top 10 list of comedy series. Archie had his own British connection, for "All in the Family" was spun from the hit BBC series "Till Death Do Us Part."

The CBS series was its own "Masterpiece Theatre," moreover, not only funny in ways that contemporary TV comedies rarely even approach, but also a creative earthquake whose coarseness regarding race and bigotry--Did Archie really say that ?--made prime time rumble and convulse.

Not long ago, Lear sat in his Hollywood office recalling the day 23 years ago that he talked with Mickey Rooney about playing Archie Bunker in the "All in the Family" pilot that was then just a dream.

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