Heeding the Lamplighter’s Whistle

He’s gone. He’s been gone for some time. I’d still come running, though, at the very first note. Just one little round of the Masterpiece Theatre theme, and I’m all his, that little gas-lighting corporate mascot.

Gillian Anderson is coming undone. Her eyes roll back in her head, her chest heaves under her elegant décolletage, and the slender line of her carotid artery strains against her proud white throat. In a moment she will swoon—it will be the first and only faint in this episode of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House.

I’m watching Gillian Anderson play Lady Dedlock not because I need Dickens in my life tonight, but because I need Masterpiece Theatre. Masterpiece Theatre doesn’t have fans. It has suckers. And I am one of them.

I am a sucker for lush green meadows, empire waists, and grim mansions of yellow stone. I am a sucker for soot-covered urchins and mysterious grooms and bilious benefactors snoring over their port. I rue the departure of Russell Baker in his armchair, and even of the top-hatted lamplighter who shamelessly represented the jollier side of ExxonMobil’s massive riches.

Of the hundreds of literary classics that have been adapted by Masterpiece Theatre, I have watched more than a few: a handful of Austen, a Hardy or two, several modern love triangles played out during the blitz, and more Dickens and Forster than I will ever read.

Though I have enjoyed them all, I can recall none clearly.

That’s because Masterpiece Theatre manages to obliterate a work of literature even as it realizes it in flesh, blood, and artificial fog. Unique and nuanced novels are sucked into the orbit of its high cinematic standards and emerge smaller, rounder, and smoother than they went in. They come out as beautiful and clever period pieces, indistinguishable from one other. It’s true: Turn the volume down and Boston easily becomes Brighton or Bath. Masterpiece Theatre is the great equalizer of the literature of the last millennium.

I’m pissed if I miss even the opening brass flourishes of whatever that melody is that’s not Handel’s Water Music. Faithful viewers rarely are disappointed. We take comfort in the fact that ours is a repertory theater with an endless repertoire. We are like the locals who attend You Can’t Take It With You at the summer stock theater to see if our neighbor can play a good drunk—Masterpiece Theatre-goers regard drama as an event, and its players are our exclusive celebrities. (That lovely young thing who was the ward of that fellow who was once a barrister but who now appears to be a mad vicar? He’s ours.) When outsiders like Ms. Anderson and Judi Dench sneak in, we’re not surprised. For we know they are suckers too.


* * *

Of all the qualities that Masterpiece Theatre has to recommend itself, the strongest is this: Sunday evenings at nine.

I am watching Bleak House tonight, as I have every Sunday for the last five weeks, because I have heeded its call, which began, “Expect a masterpiece.” Then there was some ominous truck about no family keeping its secrets forever, and then “Charles Dickens’ Bleak House…an all-new presentation by Masterpiece Theatre, starting Sunday.”

That was six weeks ago. I made a beeline to my calendar and planned accordingly. Since then I talk about “mis novellas” like a Spanish grandmother. Nine p.m. Sunday is now a sacred deadline—my family is warned. Brunch plans are encouraged, for there can be no dinner commitments. Supper, if it exists at all, is on the table at seven and I’ve been known to have my son’s bath drawn by 7:30. With an hour to go, my mental countdown slips into an unwelcome, audible zone. At 8:45, I’m making popcorn and telling my dilly-dallying, wet-headed six-year-old he’s on his own. I’m pissed if I miss even the opening brass flourishes of whatever that melody is that’s not Handel’s Water Music.


* * *

The fact is, I’m a TV hater. I’m one of those insufferable people who not only watches Masterpiece Theatre but sometimes announces that it is “the only thing to watch on TV.” I realize that a low opinion of commercial television does not exactly set me apart from fellow suckers, but there it is. I mention it because although I’m a curmudgeon about TV’s present offerings, I do at least know, generally, what they are.

I am thinking of how many lovers will have children whose lovers will not even possess a thing like handwriting because there will no longer be a need to employ it. For example, I know there are cable channels via which one can access any episode of any program at any hour of the night or day. As a hater, I find this a fairly repulsive idea, and not one that would be made any better by some nebbishy cable executive’s decision to launch a Masterpiece Theatre OnDemand channel. Quite the contrary: Masterpiece Theatre is the grande dame of the TV serial. She was not made to be on call. Her charms are meant to be savored, not binged upon—what degenerate would order up all seven episodes of The Flame Trees of Thika on Netflix?

No—the secret of Masterpiece Theatre’s allure is its reliability. I speak not just of its production quality, but also of its dismal timeslot, reserved among an ever-changing lineup of Desperate Housewives, America’s Funniest Home Videos, and the second half of a Tom Hanks movie. This strength alone defies the age of TiVo. Strip Masterpiece Theatre of its scheduled parameters and you reduce it to accessorized Cliff’s Notes; try to subvert it to your own schedule and you are left with, well—subservient entertainment


* * *

Gillian Anderson is being furtive among long shadows. She has burned the cause of her Part-One swoon. It is a single sheet of paper covered in a beautiful, meticulous script—a script in which a “J” descends in a flourish of ornamentation like a jeweled pendant.

I am watching Masterpiece Theatre’s adaptation of a novel in which there is nothing contrived in the notion of a woman learning the fate of a lost lover through his distinctive handwriting. I am thinking of how many lovers I have had whose handwriting I couldn’t possibly recognize. I am thinking of how many lovers are parting even now, not knowing each other’s handwriting because they have never had the occasion to see it. I am thinking of how many lovers will have children whose lovers will not even possess a thing like handwriting because there will no longer be a need to employ it.

And I realize now that only someone who rues the obsolescence of handwriting, who prefers fountain pens to word processors and broadcasts to podcasts, only latter-day Luddites like me, can get hooked on this stuff.

As I watch Gillian Anderson’s expression melt from ice to frost, my husband is missing some gold-medal event, just as he missed the last quarter of the Super Bowl. He knows better than to protest. He knows I have a date with a dramatic conclusion. He knows I am a sucker.


TMN Contributing Writer Elizabeth Kiem is the author of Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy. More by Elizabeth Kiem