If a certain presidential candidate had his way, Big Bird would be fired from one of the most educational programs for children in the history of television. Sesame Street is an institution, and anyone that threatens its existence, and the rest of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, (aka PBS), is in for a fight. The very thought of wiping out PBS got me thinking about the decades of television we have all but taken for granted. Growing up in DC, I happily dined on a steady diet of great programming on WETA, Howard University's WHUR and WMPT, Maryland's Public Television out of Annapolis. I've got a personal, top ten list of some of the programs that inspired my generation, and my hope that many more like them will continue to positively influence generations to come.
10. The 1972 World Chess Championship Match
We were riveted when chess masters Shelby Lyman and Jimmy Sherwin brought us those live updates of the Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky World Chess Championship match in Iceland. Chess had never been seen or heard on that kind of scale before, and the drama and hope for an American champion is now the stuff of legend. Nowadays, you can follow it all on the internet, with Grandmaster commentary from around the world; but back then it was new, exciting, and history was being made right before your very eyes.
9. Sesame Street, the Electric Company and Reading Rainbow
Can anyone doubt the significance of these groundbreaking programs for children? Literacy improved under the watchful eyes of Big Bird, Ernie, Bert, Grover, Oscar the Grouch and the Cookie Monster. For the older kids, the Electric Company and Reading Rainbow, featuring a young Levar Burton, brought a plethora of wonderful stories into our living rooms and dens. My brothers and sisters loved them as much as my parents did.
8. Nova and Secrets of the Dead
Einstein, Hawking, Madame Curie, nebulas, dwarfs, black holes, you name it, Nova had it. The wonders of science, technology, exploration, history and archeology, Nova took you places you never knew existed, asked and answered questions about life, the universe and everything. Nova is still going strong today, and its companion program Secrets of the Dead, takes you into the forensic worlds of our past. Narrated by the amazing Liev Schreiber, it too remains one the most compelling shows on PBS.
7. Soundstage and the Austin City Limits
For some strange reason, I got a huge dose of music from around the world on PBS; Jazz, Rock, Folk, Blues, Reggae and World. In those pre-MTV and VH1 days, all we had were Don Kirschner's Rock Concerts and Wolfman Jack's Midnight Specials. PBS would bring you concerts like Miles Davis and his proteges; Chick Corea, Billy Cobham, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and many, many others. Fela Kuti, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Y'oussou N'dour, Yanni, you name it. No shortage on folk acts like Pete Seeger, Peter Paul and Mary, Carole King, James Taylor and anyone else the thoughtful programmers could bring you, PBS had them.
6. Ken Burns
Say what you will about Burns; his documentaries were amazing. The Civil War series set the bar mighty high, launching even more series, on Baseball, Jazz, World War II and others. Burns' narrator was the great David McCullough, and the guest stars he employed were a who's who of Hollywood's greatest actors and actresses.
5. WGBH and the British Invasion
WGBH in Boston really led the way, and its got to be acknowledged that Rebecca Eaton had a lot to do with it. With the late Alastair Cooke as host, Masterpiece Theater and Mystery have become Sunday night staples. The Duchess of Duke Street, Upstairs Downstairs, Agatha Christie's Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot; Conan Doyles' Sherlock Holmes are among the very best. Shows like EastEnders weren't part of the Masterpiece family, however series like: As Time Goes By with Dame Judy Densch, Monarch of the Glen and many others would show a wonderful, contemporary side of British life. All of which brings me to a few of my top favorites…
4. Doctor Who, Monty Python's Flying Circus, Mr. Bean and Blackadder
It was the sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison who helped educate the American public to the world of Doctor Who, following the cult successes of Star Trek and the subsequent runaway hit known as Star Wars. Doctor Who actually premiered, rather ominously on November 23, 1963 in England, the day President Kennedy was assassinated. Nevertheless, England would soon be introduced to the evil Daleks and a gentleman who traveled throughout time and space in a British Police Box, fighting evil across the galaxy. When the Doctor first appeared in the US in the mid '70s, it starred actor Tom Baker, (the fourth of eleven Doctors), where it became a hit on PBS stations across America and Canada. It continues today on BBC America and is the longest running show in British TV history.
The genius of the Monty Python gang featuring Graham Chapman, Terry Gilliam, John Clesee, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, and Terry Jones has been well documented, so I won't go into much detail here, but suffice it to say, Python was another PBS comedy staple, (so was Benny Hill, but "that's not for here"). From 1969 to 1974, these iconic comedians paved the way for Saturday Night Live, Little Britain and so many, many others. "No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!!"
Rowan Atkinson is one of the funniest, physical comedians you will ever see, and his character Bean still stands the test of time. Two major films and an animated series later, Bean lives on and continues to crack me up no matter how many times I've seen him. Blackadder is also a comedy gem, as Atkinson with Tony Robinson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Miranda Richardson and Tim McInnery, traverse through five different eras and series, including the Middles ages, the Elizabethan, WWI and modern day England, showcasing the hilariously evil Atkinson as Blackadder and his idiotic sidekick Baldrick, (Robinson), as they "cunningly plan", scheme, connive and swindle their way throughout history.
3. Sharpe and The New Adventures of Horatio Hornblower
Sean Bean stars as Colonel, Richard Sharpe, a rifleman during the Napoleonic wars. The music is wonderful, the stories and political intrigue are second to none. Bean would go onto to star in sixteen episodes from 1993 to 2006, alongside Daragh O'Malley as Sergeant Harper. From Spain and France to India, and based on the novels by Bernard Cornwell, Sharpe was a gritty, glimpse into the struggle between Napoleon and Wellington and the conflict that led up to Waterloo. One of my all time favorites and one of the best war series ever to appear on Masterpiece Theater.
Hornblower with Ioan Gruffyd was another fabulous series that takes place in the years before the Hornblower film of 1957 with Gregory Peck begins. If you like Sharpe, you will love Hornblower. Gruffyd later would go on to star in the film Amazing Grace, the story of the famed song that signaled the end of the British slave trade.
2. Downton Abbey, Lark Rise to Candleford and Cranford
Eaton, BBC and Masterpiece outdid themselves on this one, and I haven't enjoyed anything like this since the The Duchess of Duke Street with Gemma Jones. With an all star cast that features Maggie Smith, Downton Abbey has all the ingredients of a real Masterpiece drama; love, jealousy, betrayal, humor, and war. Many of these series tend to feature a lot of the same actors; Julian Fellows, the creator of Downton, was one of the co-stars of the aforementioned Monarch of the Glen; (Brendan Coyle is in Downton and Lark Rise, and Julia Sawalha in Lark Rise and Cranford); Both Larkrise and Cranford are coming of age, romantic dramas with all the classic plot twists and ultimately, happy, and at times, bittersweet endings.
1. Inspector Morse and Prime Suspect
What can I say about these two fine, British detectives that hasn't already been said? The late John Thaw was fantastic as that "bastard, but a straight bastard", Morse. Morse loved his Oxford (but not its people), his beer, his crossword puzzles, his opera, his vintage black and burgundy, 1960s Jaguar Mk II, and if they weren't guilty or an accomplice to a murder, his women. After over thirty episodes and Thaw's death, the series sadly came to an end; a spin-off with Morse's partner Inspector Lewis, (played by Kevin Whatley) will conclude its final season this year. With the fantastic morse-code-like end theme music by composer Barrington Pheloung, and an array of British guest stars and complex plots, Morse was one of the finest shows ever to come to PBS.
Dame Hellen Mirren was equally fabulous as Superintendent Chief Inspector Jane Tennyson in the series Prime Suspect, from 1991 to 2006, Tennyson fought male cronyism and prejudice from within the police force, her alcoholism and solved murders like no woman detective on television had ever done before. Prime Suspect had Tennyson in London, then Manchester and by series end, back to London. Bosnia death squads, serial killers, drug dealers, you name it, "Guv" had 'em. Recently, there was an ill-fated attempt to turn Prime Suspect into an American version; they don't work. They tried the same thing with the critically acclaimed Life on Mars and once again with the new version of Sherlock. The PBS version is amazing and I don't have any hope the new CBS version will succeed.
The list of quality BBC/PBS series is virtually endless, and nothing on HBO, Showtime, FX, Starz, AMC or USA will ever be anything like them. Don't get me wrong, a lot of shows on those networks are great, but they aren't PBS and they never will be. We need to keep someone's "mitts" off of our beloved PBS programming. If we don't, next thing you know, we could end up with an American version of Downton Abbey and no Sesame Street.
Next time on Nova...