Category: PBS

Ken Burns' 'The Dust Bowl' highlights PBS fall lineup

Ken burns
PBS has announced a fall lineup that will include a Ken Burns documentary and a British historial drama.

"The Dust Bowl,' a two-part, four-hour documentary by Burns ("The Civil War," "Baseball") on Nov. 18 and 19, chronicles the enviromental disaster that devastated the farmlands of the Great Plains and unleased deadly dust storms in 1930s America. The PBS will also celebrate the centennial of Woody Guthrie's birth with a repeat of Burns' "American Masters" profile on the artist Nov. 16.

The network's season will launch Sept. 30 with the premiere of "Call The Midwife," which depicts midwifery in 1950s London. The series, already a hit in Britian is based on a bestselling trilogy by the late Jennifer Worths. The six-part series will air on consecutive Sundays.

Also coming is "Broadway or Bust," a three-part documentary premiering Sept. 9 that tracks the real-life stories of America's top high school musical performers competing in the National High School Musical Theatre Awards. The second season of Masterpiece Classic's "Upstairs Downstairs" will debut Oct. 7.


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— Greg Braxton

 Photo: Ken Burns. Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times.

'Downton Abbey' star: Season wasn't entirely 'to my taste' either


"Downton Abbey" star Elizabeth McGovern said the second season of the British costume drama contained many soap-opera elements, and that she's looking forward to a third season with quieter moments in the Yorkshire estate
After garnering huge buzz in its first season, Julian Fellowes' "Downton Abbey" alienated some critics and fans during its second season. Skeptics pointed to a barrage of soapy plot lines and implausible events (Matthew Crawley's post-war trauma, anyone?)

Surprisingly, at least one of the show's stars also feels ambivalent about what went down recently in Grantham-land.

Elizabeth McGovern, who plays the countess Cora Crawley in the costume drama, says she wasn't entirely pleased with the recent direction of the series about the aristocracy in turmoil, which wrapped up its most recent stateside run on PBS this past February.

"There is a slightly different tone to the second season, partly because the show had to deal with this huge elephant which is the First World War, and in some ways 'Downton Abbey' wasn't set up for that," McGovern told Show Tracker. "What's made the show successful and different is that attention to character detail and that's what the audience likes. ... Writers [in the second season] had to do a lot of glossing over the domestic life, and some of the small moments between characters that characterized the first season."

Then, acknowledging that fans felt a little fatigue at all the fast-moving events, McGovern said, "I was feeling that a little myself. It's kind of a taste thing, and the show in the first season was more to my taste than the show in the second season."

Speaking to promote her Tribeca Film Festival costume drama "Cheerful Weather for the Wedding" (more on that shortly), McGovern said  that "Downton Abbey's" third season will return to the character-oriented roots, as the series picks up after the Great War in 1920. The new season has been shooting in England this spring.

McGovern waved aside reports that new BAFTA nominee Maggie Smith, who plays the scheming Violet Crawley, could be off the show anytime soon. "You're going to see a lot of her in the third season, a real collision of worlds between Maggie and Shirley MacLaine," McGovern said, alluding to the Oscar winner's new part as Cora Crawley's mother.

Born in Illinois, McGovern had a successful run as a film and theater actress in the U.S. before moving to Britain and becoming a television star. She says she is as confounded as anyone by the stateside success of "Downton," which attracted more than 5 million American viewers for its finale.

But she does have a few theories about its success -- namely, that it's a reaction to much of what's on American basic cable.

"Maybe it's an escape from what I perceive as the nastiness of a lot of television that's just trying to be cutting edge, the things very prevalent on TV today with everyone trying to outshock each other," she said. "There's a nastiness that's happened. I think there's something about 'Downton Abbey' that people find it to be relieving -- essentially that these characters are quite nice."

She paused. "And the lack of texting and mobile phones. I think people find that to be a real relief too."


"Downton Abbey" draws crowd for PBS

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Maggie Smith grabs BAFTA nomination for "Downton Abbey"

-- Steven Zeitchik in New York

Photo: Elizabeth McGovern and Jim Carter in "Downton Abbey." Credit: PBS

Martha Stewart turns up the heat in tweet about Hallmark Channel

Martha Stewart

Martha Stewart turned up the heat in a tweet about her former business partner.

Stewart plans to give viewers a "culinary master class" with her new weekly PBS series, "Martha Stewart's Cooking School," which is based on her best-selling book.

But in making the announcement, Stewart also took a swipe at her former network, the Hallmark Channel, which is regrouping after its failed 2-year-old partnership with Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. The cable network is phasing out Stewart's programming.

"The response to our announcement for a PBS cooking school series is wonderful," Stewart tweeted. "Easy access to PBS as opposed to Hallmark will be wonderful."

"Martha Stewart's Cooking School" will debut this fall, and feature Stewart demonstrating cooking techniques and basics.


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--Greg Braxton

Photo: Martha Stewart. Credit: David Bowers / Getty Images





'No truth' to reports of Maggie Smith leaving 'Downton Abbey'

Downton AbbeyHow much longer will the Dowager Countess of Grantham be hanging around Downton Abbey?

That's the question prompted by a report in Britain's Daily Mail that Dame Maggie Smith wants out of "Downton Abbey" after its third season. According to the report, Smith asked series creator Julian Fellowes to write her acid-tongued character out of the series so she could return to her career on stage and screen.

However, a representative for Carnival Film and Television Limited, co-producers of the hit PBS series says, "Series 3 is currently filming with Maggie along with the other cast. We do not comment on future story lines, however there is no truth in the story that Maggie is leaving the show."

What is assured is that someone will get written out of the show during the now-filming season. "Masterpiece" executive producer Rebecca Eaton was recently speaking to PBS supporters in Florida and revealed that the new season of "Downtown Abbey," taking place in the 1920s, would feature a birth and a death. "Somebody pretty key in the cast, unfortunately is not going to make it," she said according to the Orlando Sentinel.

She also addressed the status of Smith herself, whose on-set behavior doesn't sound too far off from that of the Dowager Countess herself. According to Eaton, "Maggie Smith is a handful, it's true. She's very difficult. She knows her worth, and she's tricky on the set, but she delivers when the time comes."

The new season, which will air in the U.S. in January 2013, will also feature Shirley MacLaine as the American mother of Lady Cora (played by Elizabeth McGovern).


Shirley Maclaine to join 'Downton Abbey' cast

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-- Patrick Kevin Day

Photo: Maggie Smith on "Downton Abbey." Credit: PBS

'Doc Martin' star Martin Clunes on the making of the British series

Caroline Catz as Louisa and  Martin Clunes as Martin in "Doc Martin"

"Doc Martin," the globally popular British series about an antisocial big-city surgeon working as a general practitioner among boundary-disrespecting neighbors in a Cornwall fishing village, has just begun its fifth season. Over the last couple of years it has become a staple feature of American public broadcasting -- the second episode of the new season premieres locally tonight on KCET -- and has been widely available online, offered free to subscribers of Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus. Acorn Media, which has released the previous four seasons on DVD, will add the fifth in June. (I earlier wrote about the series here.)

Martin Clunes (whose "William and Mary," an earlier series in which he plays a cuddly undertaker, has also become a PBS favorite) stars as Martin Ellingham, the eponymous doctor. Caroline Catz is Louisa, the teacher he inarticulately loves, nearly marries and, at the close of Season 4, has a child with. This year also sees the arrival of the great Eileen Atkins ("Cold Comfort Farm," "Cranford" and a co-creator of "Upstairs Downstairs") as Martin's Aunt Ruth, a psychiatrist who shares his dry, logical, suffer-no-fool-gladly temperament.

I spoke with Clunes recently, by phone to his home in England. He is clearly a different man from the one he currently plays on television. You should imagine hearty laughter coloring his responses below.

Your character is unusual, in that it's a variation on a different Cornwall-based doctor named Martin you played in the film "Saving Grace" and two subsequent TV movies. Can you talk about how you got from there to here?

Martin Clunes: It was quite simple and sort of market-led. Sky, which is Fox I guess over here, had some money in "Saving Grace," and Elizabeth Murdoch, Rupert's daughter, set up a thing called Sky Pictures, which was terrific because it meant the industry was very buoyant and lots of people were making films [for television]. And we got picked up -- they did some research and thought that the character of the doctor in "Saving Grace" had legs, and so they asked us if we'd make some films based on him. And then they folded while we were making them. We sort of knew somebody at ITV, which is an independent broadcast channel over here, and said, "Are you interested in picking up this franchise, 'cause we're kind of set up." We'd made these two films ["Doc Martin" (2001) and "Doc Martin and the Legend of the Cloutie" (2003)]. The tone of it, the kind of dope-smoking aspect, didn't appeal to them, and they didn't think it would suit their audience. But they said they didn't mind me being a doctor in that place. So we had the license to take it apart and create something from the ground up. We didn't want to do the "Doc Hollywood" thing of "smart town city doctor being amazed and bemused by his quirky neighbors"; we kind of wanted to turn that on its head, and that was a small community united in horror by this vile GP.

Were you aware of the American show "Northern Exposure"?

MC: Well, yeah, we were, and it was tonally in the back of our minds. Although we couldn't say it flat out loud, because if we'd said, "We're going to do a kind of 'Northern Exposure thing'," I don't think ITV would have gone for it. But in our minds it was that kind of thing, and maybe a little bit of Twin Peaks," too. Both shows I loved, and I loved the kind of -- is otherworldly the right expression, I don't know -- not off-planet, but its own little world.

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Titanic's 100th anniversary will go on and on -- on TV

Titanic leaves Southampton on April 10, 1912
The RMS Titanic sank below the icy waters of the north Atlantic in the early-morning hours of April 15, 1912. Now, 100 years later, it's considered one of the greatest disasters of the 20th century, the basis of one of the biggest movies of the 20th century and the cause of everyone's problems on "Downton Abbey."

To commemorate the anniversary, director James Cameron gave a multimillion-dollar 3-D face-lift to his movie epic, "Titanic" and re-released it into theaters. But for those watching the small screen, there are still lots of ways to relive those moments without heading out to the theater.

National Geographic Channel is, quite understandably, all over the anniversary. After all, Cameron is an explorer-in-residence, along with Robert Ballard, the man credited with discovering the wreck of the Titanic in the modern era. Both men are getting new specials on National Geographic Channel, both premiering a week before the anniversary and both re-airing during a nine-hour Titanic marathon on Sunday.

TIMELINE | Titanic: A century in TV and film

"Titanic: The Final Word With James Cameron" features the director and sometime deep-sea diver working with engineers, architects, historians and a 42-foot replica of the ship itself to solve all the remaining mysteries behind how and why the massive vessel sank like it did.

Meanwhile, "Save the Titanic With Bob Ballard," looks at the very real jeopardy the ship is in today, as treasure hunters are slowly but surely looting the wreck. He also travels to Ireland to meet the descendants of Titanic's Guarantee Group, the nine men who helped build the ship and were selected to sail on its maiden voyage.

National Geographic will also air five hours of the "Rebuilding Titanic" series, in which modern-day craftsmen attempt to re-create portions of the mighty ship using the practices that were used to build it in the first place.

On PBS on Tuesday, "Dancing With the Stars" judge Len Goodman goes back to his roots as a welder at Harland & Woolf, the company that built Titanic, and interviews the descendants of the ship's passengers -- both the survivors and the victims. "Titanic With Len Goodman" airs at 8 p.m., so it won't interfere with Goodman's other appearance on the "Dancing With the Stars" results show on ABC.

ABC has its own "Titanic" film on the way on Saturday, with the two-night miniseries, titled "Titanic." What sets this production apart from Cameron's big-screen extravaganza is the name on the scripts: Julian Fellowes. Fellowes is the man behind the PBS hit "Downton Abbey," and this miniseries looks to be taking many of the class issues from the show and bringing them to sea.

Turner Classic Movies will air two Titanic-themed movies on Saturday: the 1958 version of the Titanic's final voyage "A Night to Remember" and the 1964 Debbie Reynolds musical, "The Unsinkable Molly Brown," about the Titanic survivor.

Discovery will air a trio of Titanic-themed documentaries on Saturday: "Last Mysteries of the Titanic," featuring James Cameron's return dives to the wreck, "Titanic: Birth of the Legend," about the construction of the mighty ship, and "What Sank Titanic?" about the ship's final moments.

On Sunday, History will air three Titanic documentaries: "Titanic's Final Moments: Missing Pieces," recounts a 2005 trip to the wreck to attempt to determine exactly how the ship sank. "Titanic's Achilles Heel" follows experts to the wreck of the similarly designed ship, the Brittanic, as they investigate whether the ship had a fatal flaw in its design. And then comes the premiere of "Titanic at 100: Mystery Solved," which presumably will answer every other question left unanswered about the wreck. Which, judging from the number of people on Twitter who weren't even aware it was real, should mean there are still plenty of questions out there.


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-- Patrick Kevin Day

Photo: Titanic leaves Southampton on April 10, 1912. Credit: AFP / Getty Images

A chat with Robin Ellis, the man who was Poldark

Robin Ellis as Ross Poldark

A few weeks back, I wrote about "Poldark," a BBC series from the mid-1970s that had recently been released in a complete-set package on DVD (by Acorn Media), as a cure for "Downton Abbey" withdrawal. A tale of romance and class war, of tradition and nonconformity in Cornwall before and after the turn of the 18th century, it's hugely romantic, highly intelligent and continually suspenseful.

Coincidentally, Robin Ellis, who played the proud, dashing and sometimes thick-headed Capt. Ross Poldark and lives now in the South of France, was in Los Angeles not long after to tour to promote a cookbook he'd written, "Delicious Dishes for Diabetics" (Skyhorse Publishing). (His 1978 memoir of the series, "Making Poldark" is also about to be republished in an expanded form.)

We met over breakfast to talk about the series that in 2007 American fans of "Masterpiece Theatre" voted their seventh favorite ever, but whose debut, recalled Ellis, was not universally well received at home. 

Robin Ellis: Do you know Clive James? Wonderful writer poet and a provocative TV critic at the time. His review on the Sunday after the first program came at the end of three columns reviewing something else at great length, and read, "And, oh yes — there is 'Poldark,' which I notice is an anagram for Old Krap. I rest my case."

No critics were taking it seriously?

 The press had a different attitude to "Poldark" in Britain as opposed to America. In Britain it was a Sunday night comfort television series, of which there are many. It got fairly good reviews, I think, and the audience built over a period of two months from 5 to about 15 million. So it was a success it terms of the public, a big success, but it never had the cachet of a "Downton Abbey." It wasn't one of those must-see programs.

Were you aware of the books beforehand?

 No. I suppose I must have heard of Winston Graham. He was a very considerable storyteller. He wrote "Marnie," which Hitchcock made into a film. His high writing time was maybe 20 years before, but then this revived it, and he wrote another eight Poldark books. The last one he wrote at the age of 92. It's called "Bella Poldark," and it's about Ross's youngest daughter and it's really good. Graham fell in love with Bella as he had fallen in love with Demelza [the series' heroine, played by Angharad Rees], and it revived his juices. She ends up playing Ophelia at the Old Vic! It's absolutely wonderful. I mean, that's an author having fun, at the age of 92. He wrote the first Poldark book in 1945, and attempt after attempt was made to make a film. But because it was four books originally, I think they just thought, "This is too difficult to compress into one two-hour movie." And eventually in 1975 the BBC picked it up and went ahead.

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PBS reveals who's really watching 'Downton Abbey'

Dan Stevens as Matthew Crawley, left, and Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham in 'Downton Abbey'.

Who's really watching "Downton Abbey"? Believe it or not, teenage boys and long-haul truckers.

Just kidding. PBS released Nielsen data on Wednesday that revealed pretty much what you'd expect: The drama about stiff-upper-lip British aristocrats circa 1912 packed the most punch with women ages 35 to 49.

An average of 7 million total viewers tuned in to the second season, a huge 40% gain over last year.

"Downton" at least doubled PBS' typical prime-time average in all the important demographics, but among women 35 to 49, it was up 370%. For men in the same age group, the viewing was roughly doubled.

Meanwhile, the online response seems to bode well for Season 3. According to a PBS release, the second-season shows "were streamed 7.1 million times on the PBS Video Portal and the 'Masterpiece' website — nearly seven times more full-episode streams than  for 'Season 1.'" 

Will you show up for Season 3 of "Downton Abbey"?


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-- Scott Collins (

Photo: Dan Stevens as Matthew Crawley, left, and Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham in "Downton Abbey." Credit: Nick Briggs/PBS

DVD review: 'Poldark,' a cure for your 'Downton Abbey' blues


Without doing any real research into the matter, I imagine we are going to experience a flurry of articles/lists/promotions on the subject of what to watch now that "Downton Abbey" is, for the moment, done. A Google search of the words "what to watch now that 'Downton Abbey' is done" does in fact fetch back some hits.

Given that a wealth of old television is perennially available by DVD or download, there is no lack of candidates for this position, not least because "Downton Abbey" is as much of an expression of a tradition of British television as it is of a British way of life. Indeed, its very success recalls the way that High-Class British Period Dramas of the '60s, '70s and '80s invaded the cultural consciousness; some came with literary pedigrees, some were pretty soapy, and all, like "Downton Abbey," were imported to these shores via "Masterpiece Theatre" (now simplified and complicated as "Masterpiece," in three flavors: Contemporary, Mystery and Classic). These included "The Pallisers" (adapting six novels by Anthony Trollope), "The Forsyte Saga" (three novels and two "interludes" by John Galsworthy), "Jewel in the Crown (Paul Scott's "Raj Quartet"), "The Six Wives of Henry VIII" and, of course, "Upstairs Downstairs," that proto-"Downton" drama of relations among and between the served and serving classes in the early 20th century.

One of the most successful of these series was "Poldark," originally broadcast here in 1977 and 1978 but which I am just now watching for the first time, at a gallop, in a 25-hour, eight-disc DVD set from Acorn Media. (Its two seasons have been available on DVD separately since 2010 but have just been boxed together under that irresistible term, "complete.") Based on a series of novels by Winston Graham and set in Cornwall — England's far-flung southwestern extremity — in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, it is a big box of chocolates that was reportedly so popular in its initial British run that some vicars rescheduled Sunday evening services in order not to compete with it

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'Foyle's War' returns with three new films slated for 2013


"Foyle's War," the World War II-set British detective series last seen here in 2010 under the banner of PBS' "Masterpiece Mystery," will return for an eighth season in 2013, with three new feature-length episodes. Creator Anthony Horowitz, producer Jill Green and star Michael Kitchen, as Det. Chief Supt. Christopher Foyle, are all back on board, with costar Honeysuckle Weeks, as Foyle's former driver, Samantha Stewart, "expected to return." I suppose that means she might not, but she ought to; this has been a marvelous show, rich in character, local color and period detail. (Kitchen's official statement of enthusiasm: “It’s great to be wanted and a pleasure to be back.”)

With its first six seasons set during World War II mostly in and around the English seaside town of Hastings, "Foyle's War" mixes the usual stuff of detective shows (i.e., murder) with what might be called historical topicality. The last season -- which saw the show brought back to life after a much-protested 2007 cancellation and a later change in management at ITV, the producing network -- took place in the months after VE Day; the new films, set in 1946-47, will take Foyle, now a "senior intelligence officer," into the early days of the Cold War. We are promised tales of atomic spies and government corruption, "firmly based on true stories."

As he did in season seven, Horowitz -- who also created the temperamentally similar "Midsomer Murders," writes novels (for kids and for adults) and is slated to script the next big-screen "Tintin" adaptation -- will pen the opening and closing episodes, with David Kane writing the second. In reviewing that last season, I wrote of its hero, "Though he is small and quiet for a TV cop, he possesses a fearsome decency, not to be swayed by rank or authority, that borders on the superheroic. He's clear-sighted and dogged, courteous where it's merited and cutting where it's not, and it is pure joy to watch him go."


Television review: 'Foyle's War' and 'Ashes to Ashes'

-- Robert Lloyd

Photo: Michael Kitchen as Christopher Foyle. Photo: Acorn Media

'Downton Abbey' season finale draws crowd for PBS

Downton Abbey

"Downton Abbey" keeps expanding.

The PBS hit about the decline of the British aristocracy circa 1912 wrapped up its second season with a two-hour finale Sunday that drew 5.4 million total viewers, according to Nielsen.

That was up 28% over last month's season premiere and gave PBS its best numbers since the premiere of Ken Burns' "National Parks" series in 2009.

Overall, season 2 of "Downton" more than doubled PBS' typical prime-time average. And it drew a much younger audience: women aged 18 to 34 rocketed 251% over the 2010-11 average for the "Masterpiece" banner under which the show airs.

" 'Downton Abbey' has become a cultural phenomenon," Rebecca Eaton, the executive producer for "Masterpiece" at Boston station WGBH-TV, said in a statement.

What did you think of the season?


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-- Scott Collins

Photo: Dan Stevens and Michelle Dockery in "Downton Abbey." The show's second season drew big numbers for PBS. Credit: Associated Press

'Downton Abbey' recap: It was LUST, Matthew!

Michelle Dockery in Downton Abbey

By the time the two-hour grand finale of "Downton Abbey" Season 2 is over, the only one who doesn't know about the dead Turk in Lady Mary's bed is the yellow Lab Isis. And that's because she was too busy being dognapped to get the news.

The secret slips out because Lady Mary is so darn miserable with Sir Richard. He's so serious! And controlling! "The awful truth is," she tells Matthew, "he's starting to get on my nerves." Hint: if your serious, controlling fiance is bugging you, don't go talking to your ex about it -- the fiance won't take it well.

Lord Grantham nobly asks his wife why Lady Mary is sticking with Sir Richard if he's so un-fun, and Lady Grantham spills the dead-lover beans. Luckily, we don't have to hear the story over and over again: Instead, we see that the news is being passed along.

PHOTOS: Highclere Castle, the real Downton Abbey

Lord Grantham confronts Lady Mary, and she is both relieved and ashamed. This gives Michelle Dockery a chance to do what she does really well, which is act two conflicting emotions all but simultaneously. It gives Lord Grantham a chance to say what may be the best line of the night. They'll deal with the scandal, he says, and she should go visit her grandmother in America, maybe meet a man who truly loves her: "Find a cowboy!" (OK, maybe that's not quite a good a line as "It was lust, Matthew!" More about that after the jump).

All in all, Lord Grantham takes the news of Mary's dead lover cover-up way better than the fact that chaste Sybil wanted to marry the chauffeur. Go figure.

We hear, by the way, that Sybil and Tom have gotten married in Ireland. And she's pregnant! Lady Grantham is happy; Lord Grantham says, "So that's it then. No return. She's crossed the Rubicon." His wife interrupts to remind him that all happened when they got married, while also deftly sparing him from piling on another tired cliche.

This is the thing about "Downton Abbey": Sometimes it is just not good. Sometimes the lines are limp; some of the roles are miscast (Sorry, chauffeur Tom); sometimes the plot veers, in classic soap-opera style, from the obvious to the ridiculous. And yet: it's still hard to give up, and easy to forgive. Look at that lovely house! Those lovely dresses! Maggie Smith! And Lady Mary and Matthew -- will they ever get together? 

Can we understand its flaws and love it anyway? Could this be, perhaps, the theme of this very episode?

The Crawley family and guests do country-estate holiday things: play charades, go on a hunt, hold a servants' ball. The servants are in less high spirits, because Mr. Bates has been found guilty of murder.

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