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Old rivals gain from TV peace pact

Both sides of the Atlantic see success in imported Brit dramas

HOLLYWOOD — It’s a good thing America and Blighty kissed and made up after the Revolutionary War, for it allowed both to benefit from Stateside importation of sterling British drama series.

Arguably, it all began before the Public Broadcasting Service when its precursor, National Educational Television, aired the 26-part BBC adaptation of John Galsworthy’s novels, “The Forsyte Saga,” in 1969.

Two years later, with the underwriting support of Mobil, WGBH-TV Boston and “Masterpiece Theatre” created a cultural landmark.

Rebecca Eaton, exec producer of “ExxonMobil Masterpiece Theatre” and “Mystery!” since 1985, recalls early co-productions began with “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” and “The Jewel in the Crown.”

“We have put over a quarter of a billion dollars into British drama,” says Eaton. “Either into the production of it or the advertising of it when it’s aired in this country.”

Eaton cites “Brideshead Revisited,” “I, Claudius” and “Upstairs Downstairs” as exemplary series.

“I think the long-running miniseries genre really changed the landscape because ‘Forsyte Saga’ was pre-‘Roots’ and there was no such thing as the dramatic miniseries or the adaptation of the classic novel.”

Programming “Masterpiece Theatre” on Sunday nights, she says, influenced the airing of Sunday night telepics, hit series and the Sunday-Monday scheduling of network minis.

Reaping its own smashing success with British series in the Colonies is the A&E Network, with hits including the swashbuckling “Horatio Hornblower,” which landed the 1999 Emmy for outstanding miniseries, and “Pride and Prejudice,” a Jane Austen adaptation that won the George Foster Peabody Award and is A&E’s highest-rated drama.

The cabler’s latest excursion across the pond has brought to these shores the four-hour mini “Shackleton.” It earned Emmy noms for miniseries, as well as for actor Kenneth Branagh, portraying the intrepid explorer Ernest Shackleton, and a scripting nod to writer-director Charles Sturridge.

Delia Fine, VP of film, drama and performing arts at A&E, has come to rely on Sturridge’s abilities in longform. He penned and helmed their mini “Longitude,” featuring Michael Gambon as 18th-century British rural clockmaker John Harrison, whose clock was a major stride in navigating the globe.

“Charles, who I think is so brilliant,” effuses Fine, “interwove a 20th-century parallel story into the Harrison story about a man in World War II (Jeremy Irons) who became obsessed with the idea of Harrison and (restoration of) his clocks. The personal sacrifices that he made in his marriage and his relationships oddly mirrors what happened to Harrison over his lifetime.”