What's Next for 'Masterpiece': More 'Grantchester,' a 'Sanditon' Update & More

Masterpiece PBS 2020
Ed Miller/Playground Television (UK) Ltd.

PBS’ Masterpiece celebrates its upcoming 50-year anniversary with a November 29 retrospective special featuring clips from some of its most popular British hits. Think, of course, of sweeping period pieces and addictive, character-driven dramas such as The Jewel in the Crown and Downton Abbey.

And with a slate of returning favorites (Grantchester) and highly anticipated new offerings (Magpie Murders), the next era starts strong. Executive producer Susanne Simpson, about to complete her first year in Masterpiece’s top post, previews what’s ahead for 2021’s 50th anniversary season and beyond.

What are you most looking forward to?

Susanne Simpson: We’re probably most excited about All Creatures Great and Small [premiering January 10 and featuring the late Diana Rigg in her last role], which is a new adaptation based on the James Herriot books about a young veterinarian [in 1930s Yorkshire]. It’s very heartwarming, community-based, softly romantic. It’s a great show for January when we’re all hunkered down and probably watching a lot of television.

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You kick off January 3 with the Glenda Jackson movie Elizabeth Is Missing. Tell us about it.

Her character, Maude, believes her best friend has gone missing. But Maude is also showing signs of dementia, so people aren’t sure whether she’s imagining it. It’s a tour de force by Glenda, her first TV appearance in 27 years. This will be a bookend for us, because she was in [the historical drama] Elizabeth R almost 50 years ago on Masterpiece.

Has the pandemic made programming the upcoming season a challenge?

Very. We’ve just had a group of returning shows begin production so we expect we’ll have new seasons of [the mysteries] Grantchester, Baptiste, and Unforgotten coming back next fall rather than summer. The only show that’s had a delay is Endeavour, and a lot of it has to do with cast who were in the middle of shooting other shows. We usually have an Endeavour every year, but the schedule got pushed.

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Endeavour (Mammoth Screen)

And you’ve announced a series based on the acclaimed, and twisty, novel Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (Foyle’s War). When is that due?

We hope to start filming early next year. It’s a contemporary murder and also an Agatha Christie-like murder from the 1950s. So you get double your murder pleasure.

Will Victoria get another season when more time has passed and Queen Victoria Prince and Albert are a little older?

This is a show that we have been saying is on hiatus because there are a lot of different factors that have to come together to do another season. We’re not saying it’s not coming, but there is no plan at the moment to begin filming the show.

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Masterpiece programs often air a few months after they premiere in the U.K. Have you thought about trying to sync up the airdates?

We did that with Sherlock. The reason our shows come a little later to the U.S. is that oftentimes the U.K. broadcaster needs that window of exclusivity.

I ask because Sanditon was canceled by its U.K. broadcaster before it aired in the U.S. If it had been airing at the same time in both places and they had seen how popular it was in U.S., might it have gotten another season?

That has the biggest fandom we’ve seen for one of our shows recently! [But] the U.K. broadcasters make decisions based on their audiences, they don’t really make decisions based on worldwide appeal, so I don’t believe it would have changed anything for them if it had broken out in the U.S. shortly thereafter.

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Sanditon (PBS Masterpiece)

When people think of Masterpiece, they usually think of period dramas. But this fall, you’ve had a slate of contemporary programs, including the political drama Roadkill with Hugh Laurie. Is that by design or just the way it worked out?

It’s a bit by design. We think of ourselves as having these beautiful costume dramas, something our core audience absolutely loves. But at the same time, we love doing shows that are about contemporary issues. One thing that's changed for Masterpiece after all these years is we have two audiences — our loyal core audience that watches us on Sunday nights and a newer audience who are finding us only through streaming. We’ve found that shows like Baptiste have done really well in streaming. We expect Roadkill will probably do well not only for our core audience, but for these newer streamers as well.

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Roadkill (PBS Masterpiece)

Fifty years ago, Americans didn’t have a lot of outlets to watch British TV. Now it’s available on so many streaming sites. Why do people keep tuning in to Masterpiece?

I think the Masterpiece brand really tells the audience this is going to be something worth your time. Masterpiece has taken the approach that drama is like great literature: There are emotional truths, love, death, betrayal. Those are the things our viewers know they’re going to experience each week.