In 2020 PBS celebrates its 50th anniversary; in 2021 Masterpiece joins the party. We thought it a perfect time to look back on the period dramas that have aired on Masterpiece, season by season, one post at a time. 

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Below, we list the period drama line-up for season fifteen of Masterpiece Theatre, which aired in 1985 – 1986. 

Some of the earliest PBS Masterpiece programming is still available to stream or own, and in the following descriptions, we will let you know when it is (and we’ll also link to the books that inspired the adaptations).

Let’s take a stroll down memory lane, and see how the choice of British costume dramas and historical series on Masterpiece has evolved over the years. Titles are listed in order of their air date.

For some history of PBS Masterpiece, and the programming in other seasons, see this page.





Period Dramas on PBS Masterpiece Season 15 

Diana Rigg in Bleak House, courtesy BBC / PBS

 

The Last Place on Earth (1985)

Based on the book by Roland Huntford, “The Last Place on Earth” is an exploration of the rivalry between Captain Robert F. Scott and Ronald Amundsen as they attempt to reach the South Pole. The epic race between Scott and Amundsen is one of the greatest adventure stories of the 20th century.

The Last Place on Earth, courtesy Renegade Productions

To reach their goal, English Captain Robert Falcon Scott and Norwegian Roald Amundsen undertook in 1911, an awesome 1,500-mile trek across the desolate frozen wastes of Antarctica, facing danger, extreme suffering and death. Their motives and methods were quite different, but their aim was the same, to be the first to plant their country s flag at the South Pole.

Episode 1: Poles Apart: Currently in disfavor, Captain Robert Falcon Scott is an explorer without an expedition. Finding rivalry not only abroad but amongst his peers at home, he is secretly overjoyed when Shackleton’s expedition to the South Pole fails spectacularly.

Episode 2: Minor Diversions: Preparing for an expedition to the North Pole in defiance of government opposition, Amundsen confides to his brother his secret plans to take the South Pole. This coup would sway public opinion in his direction and sweep away the negative comments of the government hardliners.

Episode 3: Leading Men: Scott discovers that Amundsen is also heading for the Pole and the race is on. Friction amongst the crew is growing and the horses are found to be unsuitable but more bad news is yet to come.

Episode 4: Gentlemen & Players: The rivalry between the two expeditionary teams increases and they both discover just how harsh and unforgiving Antarctica can be.

Episode 5: The Glories of the Race: When the spell of bad weather breaks, Amundsen’s team manages to surge ahead, though they have no choice other than to start eating their dogs. Scott reasserts his authority as frustrations cause friction amongst the members of his team.

Episode 6: Forgone Conclusion: Scott’s team is gradually disintegrating and resentment amongst its members runs high. Scott intends to split his team in two – one travelling onwards to the Pole while the other returns to base.

Episode 7: Rejoice: Amundsen has beaten Scott to the Pole and Scott’s team is in a bad way – one member of the team has gone mad and died, rations are low and heavy snows are closing in.

Starring Martin Shaw, Sverre Anker Ousdal, Sylvester McCoy, Hugh Grant, Bill Nighy.

Available to STREAM

First aired on Masterpiece in 1985


Bleak House (1985)

BBC’s BAFTA-winning mini-series adaptation of Charles Dickens’ 1852 classic novel. The great case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce drags on, an obsession to all involved. Then a question of inheritance becomes a question of murder.

Bleak House, courtesy BBC

Orphan Esther Summerson is summoned to London by her guardian’s solicitors. There she meets wards of the court Richard Carstone and Ada Claire who are involved in a long-running court case “Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce.”

With this plot Dickens’ novel of social reform attacks the absurdities of Victorian England’s judicial system. The court case, which has dragged on through two generations, ensnares the two young wards and those around them.

Episode 1: Upon the order of the High Court of Chancery, Esther Summerson, together with Ada Clare and Richard Carstone, wards in the Jarndyce case, travel to meet their guardian, John Jarndyce, at Bleak House.

Episode 2: Tulkinghorn inquires into the death of Nemo, whose handwriting was recognized by Lady Dedlock. Later, Gumpy expresses his feelings for Esther, to her discomfort. Finally, the wheels of justice at the Chancery are displayed.

Episode 3: Esther meets Dr. Woodcourt, who plans to be a ship surgeon. Lady Dedlock visits Jo concerning Nemo and later meets the Jarndyce wards. Charley is hired by Jarndyce, who later learns of the plans of Ada and Richard.

Episode 4: Jarndyce tells Esther about an old letter of her aunt. Smallweed then visits Sgt. George and seeks a handwriting sample letter for Tulkinghorn. Finally, Guppy reveals to Lady Dedlock that he may acquire some old Hawdon letters.

Episode 5: Upon the death of Krook, Smallweed examines the personal effects, including letters reviewed by Tulkinghorn. Later, Esther becomes seriously ill with the pox. Finally, Tulkinghorn has a frank conversation with Lady Dedlock.

Episode 6: After Esther recovers from her illness, Jarndyce proposes marriage to her. Later, Lady Dedlock confesses to Esther and asks for forgiveness. Young Jo expires, and Tulkinghorn is surprised and shot in his study.

Episode 7: Inspector Bucket jails George for murder and tells Sir Leicester everything he has learned. Lady Dedlock denies to her husband that she is a murderess. Bucket solves the case but now searches with Esther for Lady Dedlock.

Episode 8: Now married to Ada, Richard is sick with despair but excited by good news. A new found will enables the Chancery to conclude the case. Guppy proposes again, and Woodcourt does so also. Still engaged, Esther is to marry for love.

Starring Diana Rigg, Denholm Elliott, Suzanne Burden, Jonathan Moore, Robin Bailey, Peter Vaughan.

Available to STREAM

First aired on Masterpiece in 1985


Lord Mountbatten: The Last Viceroy (1986)

Based on the book Lord Mountbatten: The Last Viceroy by David Butler, who won an Outstanding Writing in a Miniseries or a Special Primetime Emmy for his adaptation. In this 6-part British mini-series set in 1946 through 1947, a great grandson of Queen Victoria, nephew of the Tsar, and cousin of the Prince of Wales, Lord Louis Mountbatten had proven his mettle as Supreme Allied Commander in Southeast Asia during World War II. But his toughest mission came after the war, when British prime minister Attlee tapped Mountbatten to oversee India’s transition to self-rule.

Lord Mountbatten: The Last Viceroy, courtesy Brent Walker PLC

At midnight on 14th August 1947, an event took place that would change the world. That moment marked the dawn of Independence for India, the birth of Pakistan and the end of the British Raj—the last days of the greatest empire in history. The circumstances surrounding that epoch-making event: the conflicts, the intrigues, the pomp, the ceremony, are the theme of Mountbatten, The Last Viceroy. Through the force of his remarkable personality, and despite the conflict and intrigues, Lord Mountbatten altered the course of history, leaving a legacy that continues to this day.

Episode 1: Mountbatten decides to attempt the challenge of becoming Viceroy of India with the aim of fulfilling the Labor Party’s promise of Indian independence. He is optimistic, despite news of escalating violence between Muslims and Hindus, and his wife, Lady Edwina, shares his enthusiasm for returning to India.

Episode 2: The fight over the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan heats up. Gandhi believes partition would make a mockery of his life’s work and suggests turning over all of India to Jinnah to avoid dividing the country. Mountbatten believes partition is inevitable and the only way to avert civil war.

Episode 3: Mountbatten accelerates the timetable for withdrawal and settles on a date just months away. The princely states clamor for independence, providing another stumbling block. To establish boundaries for the partition, Mountbatten calls on Sir Cyril Radcliffe and gives him only five weeks for the task.

Episode 4: After the jubilation of independence day, tensions continue to mount. Mountbatten agrees to stay on as governor general as long as he is needed. A refugee crisis erupts as Hindus flee Pakistan. Gandhi goes on a hunger strike to protest the violence.

Episode 5: As whole sections of Delhi rage out of control, Nehru calls on Mountbatten to head an emergency committee to quell the insurgency. When the tribesmen loyal to Jinnah invade Kashmir, Nehru begins to lose hope and falls ill.

Episode 6: Edwina facilitates supplies to the refugee camps, but with up to 1,000 new refugees arriving every day at each camp the situation is dire. Pakistan will not recognize the accession of Kashmir to India, tipping the scales toward war. Then the unthinkable happens.

Starring Nicol Williamson, Janet Suzman, Ian Richardson, Sam Dastor, Nigel Davenport, Wendy Hiller.

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First aired on Masterpiece in 1986


By the Sword Divided (1983) Season 1

The highly acclaimed 2-season television series from the BBC set during the seventeenth century. The English Civil War and and the Interregnum are seen through the eyes of two families; the Laceys, loyal to King Charles I, and the Fletchers, loyal to Oliver Cromwell.

By the Sword Divided, courtesy BBC

The aristocratic Lacey family and their servants are living peacefully in Arnescote Castle until the onset of the English Civil War in 1640. Sir Martin Lacey, the patrician head of the house, is steadfastly loyal to the King. However the family is devastated when his eldest daughter Anne weds John Fletcher, the idealistic son of a merchant family who support the forces of Oliver Cromwell.

A portrayal of a noble family torn apart during a civil war that divided loyalists in support of King Charles I and parliamentarians supporting Cromwell, this British period drama is a lavish production that has drawn comparisons to the original adaptation of BBC’s historical drama “Poldark.”

In the first episode of “By the Sword Divided”, all of Arnescote Castle prepares for a wedding. John Fletcher arrives amidst a fanfare of trumpets and parties, and everyone’s eyes turn in the direction of the couple to be wed. However, behind the scenes, Fletcher’s father nearly comes to blows with Lord Lacey over the subject of finances.

10 episodes

Starring Sharon Maughan, Andrew MacLachlan, Lucy Aston, Tim Bentinck, Rosalie Crutchley, Julian Glover, Peter Guinness.

Available on DVD

First aired on Masterpiece in 1986


The Irish R.M. (1984) Season 2

The second season of the 3-season period drama based on the turn-of-the-century stories by Somerville and Ross. Peter Bowles stars as Major Sinclair Yeates, a retired English army officer appointed Resident Magistrate for the West of Ireland in the days before Irish independence. The mutual misunderstanding between the English and the Irish leads to hilarious complications as the major tries to bestow order and make friends in his eccentric community.

The Irish R.M. courtesy Acorn Media Group

Shot entirely on location in County Kildare, this classic PBS Masterpiece Theatre series affectionately captures life in rural Ireland at the turn of the century.

You may also want to know about Mrs Cadogans Cookbook: Recipes for the Irish R.M. At the heart of the worldwide success of the television series “The Irish R.M.” lies Mrs Cadogan; at all times of crisis or comedy she is there, putting her inspired dishes before her boss, his family, and guests. This cookbook contains the recipes she has created, inherited, or collected from her own inimitable circle. When you want to escape from the kitchen, the book also offers stories and anecdotes of Irish country life.

Episode 1: A Horse! A Horse!: Mrs. Cadogan leaves for a funeral and a job cook is hired to replace her. Flurry and Sally return from their honeymoon in Paris, and Flurry is up to his old tricks again. He convinces Major Yeates to go on a hunting trip that turns out badly for the Major.

Episode 2: The Dispensary Doctor: On the eve of the annual local regatta, the rivalry between the Callaghans and the Foleys heats up and the Foleys wind up in court. The major sets off to carry out his duties as patron of the regatta but gets sidetracked when Flurry’s friend persuades him to help raid the butcher shop

Episode 3: Holy Island: A ship with a full cargo of rum runs aground near Shebawn, and the locals engage in broken revelry as the barrels wash ashore. Of course, the subsequent police search reveals practically no signs of rum.

Episode 4: Oweneen the Sprat: Christmas proves a tense time for the Yeateses when Philippa collides with Oweneen while driving the carriage. When it’s discovered that one of the people injured in the carriage accident is an evil mountain man known as Oweneen the Sprat, the family is overcome with fear.

Episode 5: A Royal Command: The Maharajah and his Indian polo team, visiting Skebawn, accept a “friendly” challenge from Flurry. To ensure he comes out ahead, Flurry sells a seemingly docile filly to John Cullinane.

Episode 6: The Aussolas Martin Cat: Flurry and Sally are threatened with being put out on the street after they discover that the landlord of Aussolas Castle wants to rent it out. Their time to deal with eviction is lessened by a telegram detailing the impending arrival of the new tenant. It appears Mrs. Knox is serious in her intent.

Starring Peter Bowles, Bryan Murray, Doran Godwin, Lise Ann McLaughlin, Anna Manahan.

Available to STREAM

First aired on Masterpiece in 1986


If you enjoyed this post, wander over to The Period Films List. You’ll also want to check out our list of Masterpiece Classics Streaming on Prime Video.