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PBS's Masterpiece Theatre began business in 1971 with the American premiere of an engrossing, 12-part BBC series, The First Churchills, inspired by Sir Winston Churchill's biographical writings about 17th-century ancestors John Churchill and Sarah Jennings. Besides being a painless way to learn a few things about the revolving-door monarchy of the House of Stuart, The First Churchills is written with a stately air though its story flows like a steady stream of fresh gossip. A viewer needn't feel guilty about being entertained by intrigues at the royal court while listening to screenwriter's Donald Wilson's elegant and uplifting dialogue, rich in civility and courtly asides. John Neville (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) and Susan Hampshire (lauded for her earlier performance in The Forsyte Saga, a British series that helped launch public television in America) play John and Sarah, who meet in the court of Charles II (James Villiers) and defy family and friends by marrying for love instead of family fortune. (Neither has any money.) John, a military officer who built much of Charles's army and never lost a battle, and Susan, an aide and confidante to the Duchess of York, are trusted figures in the king's circle. But as with everyone around them, they are jostled by political and religious forces following the death of Charles, including anti-Catholic sentiments that drive the king's stubborn successor, James II (John Westbrook), to Ireland and see the latter replaced on the throne by William, Prince of Orange (Alan Rowe), and his vindictive wife (and James's daughter), Mary (Lisa Daniely). With a European war raging and British soldiers and resources mishandled by amateurs, a restless John is sidelined and even briefly arrested due to royal paranoia; meanwhile, Sarah's close friendship to the future Queen Anne (Margaret Tyzack) yields numerous dramas on its own. The First Churchills is really about a tumultuous period in English history which saw strains between Parliament, the citizenry, and the monarchy come to a head, several times over. The story of John and Sarah's survival and deep regard for one another offers a perfect, reassuring line to follow through all the epochal raucousness. Neville and Hampshire bask in their characters' good-humored intimacy and level-headedness while madness whirls all around. --Tom Keogh