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Saturday, January 5, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Television

`Masterpiece Theatre' In Flux On 20Th Anniversary

Newhouse News Service

``Masterpiece Theatre'' marks its 20th anniversary Thursday. In celebration, a 10-week retrospective begins Jan. 13 at 10 p.m. on KCTS. Here is a look at the series, along with some fun facts.

Not everything on ``Masterpiece Theatre'' has been a masterpiece - including its humble beginning 20 years ago.

In a deadline froth to finish his award-winning series, ``America: A Personal History,'' Alistair Cooke wanted no part of this thing called ``Masterpiece Theatre.'' He rejected several offers before his daughter persuaded him to try it only a few days before the program went on the air Jan. 10, 1970.

Cooke, host of the ``Omnibus'' series in the 1950s, knew a dubious proposition when he saw one. His worst fears were realized when the premiere production, ``The First Churchills,'' turned out to be a bewigged bore in 12 parts.

``I sometimes marvel that it did not strangle the program in its cradle,'' the 82-year-old Cooke admits today. He credits ``Upstairs, Downstairs'' with boosting it over the hump in its third year.

Today there are a lot of grumbles that it isn't what it used to be. Where, bleat longtime supporters, are the starched collars and stiff upper lips that propelled the program to 25 Emmys and 57 nominations?

Collars and lips will be much in evidence as the series celebrates its two decades with repeats of some of its best programs, beginning at 10 p.m. Jan. 13 with episodes of ``Upstairs, Downstairs,'' and including ``The Flame Trees of Thika,'' ``I, Claudius,'' ``Elizabeth R,'' ``The Jewel in the Crown'' and others.

Ironically, the critics are on target: It isn't what it used to be. That's the plan.

The series is in the process of what producer Rebecca Eaton calls ``re-inventing'' itself, or ``trying to make ourselves available to more people while keeping those people who already watch us.''

Today's viewers are less inclined than viewers of 20 years ago to stick with stories over many weeks, so Eaton responded by programming more single and two-part shows. Tomorrow night's ``A Room of One's Own'' (9 p.m., KCTS), for example, is a one-hour, one-woman show.

The series also is eschewing its former made-in-England tone and is offering international co-productions.

Finally, ``Masterpiece Theatre'' is weaning itself away from the literary period piece that once was its specialty and presenting contemporary drama.

So far, it's working. According to Eaton, the audience increased by 5 percent during the 1989-'90 TV season, a good showing in today's turbulent TV world.

Anytime a program runs two decades, it picks up a passel of trivia. Here are some ``Masterpiece'' facts:

-- Christopher Sarson, who produced ``Masterpiece's'' first three years, discovered its theme song - J.J. Moret's ``Fanfare for the King's Supper'' - used as a loudspeaker wakeup call at the Club Med in Palermo, Sicily.

-- Alistair Cooke can't pick a favorite from all the stories over the course of the show's 20-year history. But he can name one he disliked most: ``Poldark.''

``Bored stiff'' by the swashbuckling tale set in Cornwall, Cooke dismisses it as ``a bunch of cardboard figures going through the motions of love and hate.''

-- As public TV's longest-running drama series, ``Masterpiece Theatre'' has presented 121 productions and 709 hours of programming, almost 500 miles of videotape.

-- If you think you've seen someone's face before on ``Masterpiece Theatre,'' you probably have. The same actors and actresses keep showing up in different stories:

Susan Hampshire was in ``The First Churchills,'' ``Vanity Fair'' and ``The Barchester Chronicles.''

Rosalie Crutchley holds the record with seven series - ``Cold Comfort Farm,'' ``The Possessed,'' ``Country Matters,'' ``Testament of Youth,'' ``By the Sword Divided,'' ``The Six Wives of Henry VIII'' and ``Elizabeth R.''

Others who've made multiple appearances include Ben Cross, Nigel Havers, Jeremy Brett, Sian Phillips, Gordon Jackson and Anthony Andrews.

-- While Cooke is thought of as an Englishman, he's been an American citizen for 50 years. He came here as a student in 1932 on a fellowship to study at Yale and was naturalized in 1941.

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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