‘Masterpiece’ Head Susanne Simpson Teases ‘All Creatures Great And Small’s Future, ‘Miss Scarlet’ on Streaming, and the Final Season of ‘Sanditon’

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2023 is poised to be a big year for Masterpiece on PBS. Fans have already enjoyed the returns beloved hit shows like All Creatures Great and Small and Miss Scarlet and the Duke, and the best may be still yet to come. Sanditon finally gets its (hopefully happy) ending later this spring, followed by the premiere of a new take on Henry Fielding’s classic rom-com Tom Jones. Helena Bonham Carter will also star in a new miniseries about 1960s soap star Noele “Nolly” Gordon and there’s a score of Masterpiece mysteries coming back, including the final season of Endeavour and returning hits like Grantchester.

One of the people responsible for balancing this busy schedule of cozy mysteries and spectacular costume dramas is Susanne Simpson, executive producer for Masterpiece. Simpson has had to juggle the tasks of keeping the classic Masterpiece brand alive while also staying relevant in the fast-evolving world of streaming.

Decider caught up with Simpson during PBS’s two days at the Television Critics Association’s Winter 2023 Press Tour, aka TCA. Simpson was there to promote Masterpiece‘s upcoming original series Tom Jones, starring Solly McLeod, Sophie Wilde, and Hannah Waddingham. Decider chatted with Simpson about Tom Jones, the future of hit show All Creatures Great and Small, the final season of Sanditon, and all thing Masterpiece in 2023…

Rose Williams as Charlotte Heywood and Cai Brigden as Ralph Starling in 'Sanditon' Season 3
Photo: PBS

DECIDER: I gotta start with Sanditon because my Twitter mentions are like, “Why isn’t [Sanditon] Season Three panelling at TCA?” Can you explain why you chose Tom Jones and not Sanditon Season 3?

SUSANNE SIMPSON:: Well, what we usually try to do is if we have new titles, we like to bring new titles to TCA. And, you know, Sanditon [Season] 3, we actually shot at the same time we did Sanditon [Season] 2. So the actors are off working on any other new projects. So we just felt that it was right to bring in a new show.

Speaking of which, is there anything you can give fans? Any kind of tease? Do you think they’ll be happy with the ending? Are you seeing any fan theories?

No, I have not seen any fan theories and I’m a little afraid to look. Here’s what I would say: That of all the Sanditon seasons, this is my favorite one. That I think it has all the wit and all the joy of what’s expected from Jane Austen. A lot of romance. So I think the audience is going to love this season as much as I do.

I’ve seen all four episodes of Tom Jones. So I do want to ask about the sexiness factor. I know that in talking about Sanditon, that there had been some Masterpiece viewers who didn’t like how sexy the first season was, and you kind of pulled back a little bit in Season 2. Was there ever any cold feet about Tom Jones, given that has a raunchy reputation? And how do you think Masterpiece viewers will approach that?

You know, the novel, Tom Jones, it truly is a romantic comedy. And the sexual encounters that Tom has with women characters are really comedic in a way. They’re meant to be funny. They’re meant to be joyful. And I think because these sexual encounters have that kind of comedic and joyful effect, they really come across very easily for the audience.

All Creaturs Great and Small
Photo: Everett Collection

All Creatures Great and Small is probably one of your biggest hits right now. How many seasons do you think it could go? Is there an endpoint in mind?

We have announced that we are doing Season 4. So we know we have a Season 4 coming. And I think everybody would like to keep it going as long as we could. But we have young cast members who are very talented and are beginning to do other projects. So we’re just hoping we can keep the cast together to keep it going.

I’m curious. I have heard that All Creatures is a bigger hit in the U.S. than in the U.K. Does that cause any problems when you’re dealing with UK producers who maybe don’t want to fund it as much? Does Masterpiece have to pay more if it’s a bigger hit in the U.S.? How does that work out?

I would say that Channel Five has been an excellent partner on this show with us. I think Channel Five believes it’s done very well for their audience, which is a smaller audience than Crumpe and ITV. But I think they’re quite happy with how it’s done for their channel. It is a big hit for us here in the US. And our viewers are letting us know how much they love it. So our commitment is to keep the show going as long as possible, but we’re fairly equal partners in this and just looking to make sure that it continues because people love it so much.

I’m a big nerd for Masterpiece. I grew up watching it and as I gotten older… You know, you see BritBox, you see Acorn TV, you see Prime Video investing in Crumpe and ITV dramas. Has it become more difficult in the past few years to sort of find titles that other streamers aren’t already pouncing on? And is that what has inspired you to sort of take lead on Sanditon Seasons 2 and 3 or Tom Jones? And where do you see the future of Masterpiece in terms of being the primary instigator for commissions?

I think it is true that there’s a lot of competition for British drama now. I’ve been actually pleasantly surprised that we’ve been able to find so many great shows. But it’s also clear that our usual partners, like ITV and Crumpe, are just not doing as much costume drama as we would like to. So a few years ago, we made a decision that we would invest in developing costume dramas. Because I don’t think our audience can get enough. And I think that’s going to be true for at least a few more years. What’s interesting to me is that it’s obvious to us, in the US, and even to Netflix and others, that costume drama, the audience loves it. And probably it’ll just take a few more years for the British broadcasters to recognize that’s always true.

A Place to Call Home
Photo: Everett Collection

Have you thought about expanding to Australia or Canada for period dramas? Because Acorn TV has Australian soaps like A Place to Call Home. There’s definitely other nations that you could do period dramas with. Or is it always going to be England?

That is exactly what I’ve been thinking. Which is, if UK partners aren’t interested in doing costume drama, then why not approach European partners? And in fact, we have one show called Around the World [In 50 Days] with David Tennant. And we’re going to be doing a second show, Race to the Pole, with them. And that is a consortium of European partners and a UK partner. And I think in the future, we may in fact, look to have not just a UK partner, but possibly a European partner when we develop the financing for our shows. So yes.

Speaking of which, yesterday there was a Marie Antoinette panel at TCA. That’s not a Masterpiece title, but it’s on PBS. Is there a reason why that’s not Masterpiece? What makes a period drama coming to PBS a Masterpiece title, as opposed to whatever Marie Antoinette is being filed under?

Well, I have to lock in shows sometimes two, sometimes three years ahead of time. So when Marie Antoinette was presented to us, I already had a locked schedule. I had already invested in Tom Jones and the other shows for our schedules, so it wasn’t possible for us to fit another drama in.

So it was just about [timing], not that Marie Antoinette didn’t fit the Masterpiece umbrella?

No, I think again, you know, it’s sits a little outside what we do because it is a French-based show. So we tend to go for more British-made shows. But no, it’s really a scheduling [issue]. We really have to lock our schedule in so far in advance.

Helena Bonham Carter in 'Nolly'
Photo: PBS

You just announed that Nolly, a Helena Bonham Carter show, is coming to Masterpiece. That was locked in a while ago, too?

We came into Nolly before it finished production, but we were not in early on that one. But we ended up having a hole in our schedule. And so Nolly was something we then took a look at and loved Helena’s performance. So things drop out as time goes on and Nolly was something that we could pick up.

I know that several years ago Masterpiece Theater broke into Masterpiece, Masterpiece Mystery and Masterpiece Contemporary. I know there haven’t been many Masterpiece Contemporary titles of late. Is that still in the cards? Or is the focus primarily on traditional mysteries and the costume dramas?

Probably the place we have the biggest financial competition is with contemporary dramas. And so we look for good contemporary dramas, but we’re often outbid. Just being straightforward here. And especially if those shows have the level of cast that we would be interested him. So I don’t think we have anything I can mention at the moment that’s coming through. What has worked very well for us are the contemporary mysteries. So Unforgotten and Van der Volk have turned out to be good shows for us.

Miss Scarlet and the Duke
Photo: PBS Masterpiece

Switching gears to streaming. I know Miss Scarlet and the Duke came out a little bit early on the Passport app. Did you see any kind of increase in engagement for that? And how was it received ahead of its broadcast premiere this spring?

It did very well in the streaming space prior to broadcast. And I think we’re looking to how to work with our stations as partners. And what we hear from the stations is that having a release on Passport early really brings in more members for them. And it’s not something we’re going to be doing all the time. But I think with a few special titles. We did Annika as an early release and Scarlet because it’s such a popular show for us.

In terms of streaming, there’s Passport, there’s the Masterpiece Channel on Prime, there’s the free PBS.org. Has there been a directive to try to create more of a library for streaming? And how does that sort of factor into what you do? Are you just more focused on the broadcast?

No, I have to say that we’re very focused not only on broadcast, but also on streaming, because I believe we have two very strong audiences. We reach a certain demographic on TV and we also reach a slightly younger demographic through digital. So it’s very important for us to be growing both audiences at the same time. And so that’s why we invest a lot in social media, because that seems to be the way that people know about streaming, right? And then we work closely with PBS to make sure people know our programs are on television. So digital streaming is very important to us. You know, I believe that Masterpiece programs are the most watched shows on Passport and the most watched dramas on the PBS Masterpiece Channel. So I think both the stations and the Channel are very happy to have the programs that we make. And then as part of a streaming business, which the Channel, is they need volume and so, of course, they’re always looking for other dramas, like Walter Presents, to be able to create a backlog for people to look at.

Tom (Solly McLeod) and Sophia (Sophie Wilde) in Tom Jones
Photo: PBS

You mentioned that you lock things in many years in advance. So when you’re looking at what’s coming out, are you thinking, “We need something to replace Sanditon,” or “We need our next Downton.” Are there calls to replicate the success of past shows? Are you looking for something that you can lock in year after year? Or do you also like the one-offs, like Tom Jones? What are you looking for in the future for Masterpiece?

I would say the strategy that I have for Masterpiece is that we always want to have a long-running period drama show. That’s just something I think our audience wants from us. And we’re always looking for that. Do we look for Downton? I’m not sure we look specifically for Downton, but it’d be lovely to have show that broke out like that. But right now, I think All Creatures Great and Small and Sanditon have been those long-running, returning shows for us. But I also love to have what I call tentpoles. Those are shows like Tom Jones that are fun, new titles. Something that possibly a person like yourself, or critics, would want to write about, that have an actor like Hannah Waddingham, who’s well-known. We want a couple of those a year if we can find them, just to bring some new titles into the mix.

And speaking of Tom Jones, what is your favorite part about this specific adaptation? What is it about Gwyneth Hughes’s script, this cast that you think resonates with a 2023 Masterpiece audience?

From the moment I read Gwyn’s first script, I thought this was one of the most joyful shows that had been presented to us in a long time. And I could see this being a program that our entire audience, possibly the older audience would love, because it was based on a novel that they had read and loved. But I think it appeals to everyone today, because at the heart of it is a love story. And because it’s funny, and it has that big, warm-hearted feel to it. I think that everybody’s going to enjoy it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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