What Becomes a 'Masterpiece' Most?


The longest-running drama series on television began in 1971 with the lavish costume epic "The First Churchills," starring John Neville and Susan Hampshire.

Over the years, PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre," which has been solely supported by the Mobil Corp., has presented such gems as "The Jewel in the Crown," "Upstairs, Downstairs," "I, Claudius" and "Poldark." Of course, not every series has been a "masterpiece"; remember the campy Daniel Day-Lewis-less "The Last of the Mohicans"?

"Masterpiece Theatre" kicks off its 25th season Sunday with the ambitious "The Buccaneers." The five-and-a-half hour miniseries, which airs on an unprecedented three consecutive nights, is based on the unfinished 1938 work of Edith Wharton's--America's landmark novelist of manners. The sweeping, tragic story follows the adventures of a group of spirited American girls who are ostracized by 1870s New York society because they are deemed too nouveau riche . They "invade" the aristocratic circles of England in hopes of landing both social respect and titled husbands. Though they get what they want, they give up much more in the bargain.

"I suppose in life there is this quid pro quo, " explains director-producer Philip Saville ("Family Pictures"). "You get [what you want], but you have to give something. People don't understand that you have to give something. For me one of the most telling moments in the piece is when the girl Virginia [Alison Elliott] gets married and she realizes that he [an impoverished titled aristocrat] married her for her money. He says to her, 'I think it was a fair exchange. What's your problem?' I suppose she was wanting more--a great spiritual love."

"The Buccaneers" was adapted by Maggie Wadey, who provided an ending to the story left incomplete when Wharton ("The Age of Innocence") died in 1937. The lavish production was shot in Newport, R.I., and in such grand ancestral British homes as Castle Howard (of "Brideshead Revisited" fame), Burghley House, Grimsthorpe Castle and Stanway House.

The large British and American cast features Carla Gugino ("Miami Rhapsody"), Mira Sorvino ("Quiz Show"), Cherie Lunghi ("Kean"), Jenny Agutter ("The Snow Goose"), Connie Booth ("Fawlty Towers"), Michael Kitchen ("To Play the King"), Alison Elliott ("The Underneath") and Greg Wise (the upcoming "Sense and Sensibility").

"I'm a Wharton fan," Seville offers. "I'd like to do a film about her. What's interesting is there are two kinds of people: those who express and those who have dreams but don't have the ability to express. She's the latter. She expressed it very beautifully in writing. She wrote about a bygone age."

Unlike the era of "The Buccaneers," the English can "be who we want to be," says Greg Wise, who plays Guy Thwaite, the young man in love with the unhappily married Nan St. George (Gugino). "The strata of society you were born into, that is where you stayed. You couldn't get a job. Even in the upper strata, gentlemen didn't work. You had to keep the house going so you ended up selling all of your [art] work.

Wise, though, was surprised the aristocracy still must spend the majority of its members' time supporting their lavish homes. These days, most families live in a small wing of the estate. Money is earned by opening the homes to tourists and renting the estates out to film crews. "For the first time at Burghley, I really got to see that these people's lives and energies are directed at purely keeping the house dry and warm," Wise says.

"These people in the 1990s spend all their time and energies making money so they can put a new roof on the west wing. ... Things haven't changed. That's what they are born into," he adds.

Gugino, the youngest "Buccaneer," recalls having the same experience at Castle Howard. "The Howards would come and visit us," she says. "They also live in a very small wing of the house. It's a museum for most of the people who come through. It was shocking to me. ... We all know that material things never really give you happiness, but you still have some illusion that if you live in this castle with lakes and mountains ..."

Saville says the miniseries took very few liberties with Wharton's novel. "The only thing we did was introduce, which was apparent at the time, but she couldn't write about it because she couldn't get it published, was the homosexuality" of Nan's husband, Julius Folyat, the Duke of Trevenick (played by James Frain).

When the miniseries aired with much success earlier this year in England, Saville says, "some of the more scholarly members of the press took umbrage" with the decision to out Julius. "There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing in the press. We kept on saying she couldn't write this [back in the '30s]. It was like E.M. Forster and that novel 'Maurice.' It was years and years [before it was published]."

The British press, Saville says, also charged the director was perpetuating "the female breast" because almost every dress in the production has a plunging neckline. "I was surprised," Saville says. "I kept on saying, 'That's not true,' " noting that female ancestors depicted in paintings in the houses he visited had extremely ample decolletage.

"It was exactly like watching 'Baywatch,' " he quips.

"The Buccaneers" airs Sunday-Tuesday at 9 p.m. on KCET.

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