Remembering ‘Mystery’ on PBS before mystery was cool….

PBS Mystery series from 1980. Photo: PBS / WGBH

For those PBS Mystery series fans that are currently experiencing the Sunday evening greatness that is Miss Scarlet and the Duke, Magpie Murders and Annika and who have been anxiously awaiting each Summer for the new seasons of Endeavour and Grantchester for the better part of the last decade, you may not be aware of the root history of ‘mystery’ on PBS that needs to be recognized for those that remember way, way back into the 80’s, back when the Earth was beginning to cool from the Ice Age.

Mystery was originally created as a mystery, police and crime drama spin-off series of the long-running PBS series, Masterpiece Theatre. Long time viewers of British drama on PBS will remember that Masterpiece Theatre, hosted by Alistair Cooke, aired on Sunday nights and Mystery, with a variety of hosts including Vincent Price, Dame Diana Rigg and the first host of the series in 1980, Gene Shalit, aired on Thursdays.

From 1980-2006, Mystery fans on PBS were treated to weekly television greatness with the adventures and exploits of such classics characters as Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Rumpole of the Bailey, Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Reilly: Ace of Spies, Lord Peter Wimsey, Inspector Morse, Prime Suspect and Brother Cadfael.

Each week, the brilliance of Jeremy Brett, John Thaw, Sam Neill, Helen Mirren, Geraldine McEwan, Joan Hickson, David Suchet, Derek Jacobi would grace the small screen in both classic mysteries and future classic series.

Even the hosts read like a who’s who with Vincent Price, Dame Diana Rigg and, for one season, Gene Shalit, as they would provide a bit of insight and background into the creation of the character and storyline you were about to see.

The animated opening and closing title sequences based on the drawings of Edward Gorey with animation from Derek Lamb were every bit as much a part of the weekly experience as the acclaimed hosts, actors and classic mysteries. Here, from 1984, the great Vincent Price does his best Ben Mankiewicz imitation, introducing the first in the series of Sherlock Holmes, starring Jeremy Brett.

In 2008, Mystery was ‘absorbed’ into Masterpiece as Masterpiece Mystery, airing on Sunday evenings with Alan Cumming as host and the rest, as they say, is history. Anyone else remember watching Mystery on PBS before mystery was cool?


In: Mystery

  • I remember this era fondly. The Edward Gorey/Derek Lamb animated opening in particular served as the ideal appetizer to get a young Texan viewer, savoring the last moments of the weekend, ready for an uninterrupted hour of English sleuthing and intrigue. Here’s hoping they restore the full animated introduction and tone down the coy Alan Cummings’ host remarks. Happy to pass down appreciation of this tradition to our family today from the Benedict Cumberbatch/Martin Freeman “Sherlock” and up to “Endeavour”, “Grantchester”, and “Magpie Murders”.

    With the downturn in the British economy and with streaming services in the mire, this Yank is hoping for some drama bargains for PBS from Old Blighty.

    • alto2nn

      I remember it, too–but I also remember that Mystery! aired on Thursday nights, not on Sundays. The move to Sundays happened when Mystery! was subsumed by Masterpiece. I hadn’t realized it had been so long; I still miss it being its own independent bit of mid-week programming.

    • kidriki

      Every Thursday night, Mystery! on PBS was my weekly go-to back in the early 80’s. Back then, the first series/miniseries episodes I remember watching were Malice Aforethought, The Racing Game and Rumpole of the Bailey. Later in the mid to late 80’s, Mystery! series like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, Sherlock Holmes, Dalgliesh and Inspector Morse were appointment television as far as I was concerned.

      This didn’t happen with every broadcast, but occasionally an animated short called “Minute Mystery” would be shown following the conclusion of a Mystery! episode in the early 80’s. I believe these shorts were added to the PBS programming to fill the remainder of the broadcast hour when various episodes ran short. Each animated short consisted of a murder scenario to be solved by the viewing audience within a time limit/clock countdown. I would really like to find and watch these “Minute Mystery” shorts again for nostalgia’s sake.

  • I remember watching Mystery with my mom when I was a kid. In fact, I found this post while trying to confirm my memory that Mystery! aired on Friday nights in the 1980s. Either my memory is wrong, or it didn’t air on the same night on every PBS station. I had two PBS stations (Thirteen and NJN), but I’m not sure which channel we watched at the time. Does anyone else remember it on Friday?