Making Masterpiece: 25 Years Behind the Scenes at Sherlock, Downton Abbey, Prime Suspect, Cranford, Upstairs Downstairs, and Other Great Shows

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9780143126041: Making Masterpiece: 25 Years Behind the Scenes at Sherlock, Downton Abbey, Prime Suspect, Cranford, Upstairs Downstairs, and Other Great Shows

“[An] anecdote-filled memoir . . . Rebecca Eaton looks back on 25 fascinating years at Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery!” —USA Today

When Rebecca Eaton became the producer of Masterpiece Theatre in 1985, she hadn’t actually seen many of the episodes. Nor did she even like mystery novels, though she would be required to choose stories for Mystery! But the lifelong Anglophile seized her chance to make a mark in the budding public television system. Twenty-eight years later, Masterpiece is one of television’s hottest shows, and Eaton is responsible for its triumphant transition from the “quill-pen” era into the digital age.

Filled with anecdotes about (and the occasional interview with) the unforgettable hosts, the inspired creators, and the many talented actors she’s worked with over the years, Making Masterpiece is a compulsively readable treat for any fan of these beloved and iconic programs.

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

Rebecca Eaton regards her decades-long stewardship of Masterpiece as the ideal job for the daughter of an English professor and an actress. She has been the executive producer of the show for twenty-eight of its forty-two years on the air. Awards on her watch include forty-three prime-time Emmy awards, fifteen Peabody awards, two Golden Globes, and two Academy Award nominations.

At Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! she extended the programs' reach with contemporary dramas; initiated co-productions with the BBC (Middlemarch, The Buccaneers); co-produced feature films such as Jane Austen's Persuasion and Mrs. Brown starring Dame Judi Dench; and oversaw the rebranding of the series in 2008. Queen Elizabeth II awarded her an honorary OBE (Officer, Order of the British Empire) in 2003.

She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and spends time at the family house in Kennebunkport, Maine.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Praise for Making Masterpiece

 

“In the world of TV drama, names and faces appear and disappear with bewildering speed; Rebecca Eaton is immortal and immutable. . . . [She] has made an enormous contribution to the cultural life of America, and, more than that, she is one of the most fun people I know.”

—Andrew Davies, Vanity Fair

“Eaton weaves an absorbing tale of what began as just a young girl’s Anglophilia but would eventually change the viewing habits of Americans. . . . Though the book’s most compelling moments are culled from the battles Eaton waged as producer, she manages to put everything in perspective as a highly successful working mother who had plenty to fight for at home as well. . . . In the end, Eaton looks back with unflagging fondness at her life’s work and the spectrum of experiences it has brought her.”

The Hollywood Reporter

“Eaton recounts these tales with zest.”

McClatchy-Tribune

“[An] anecdote-filled memoir . . . Rebecca Eaton looks back on twenty-five fascinating years at Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! at PBS.”

USA Today

“A treasure house of anecdote and insight, observation and object lessons, Making Masterpiece is quietly electrifying.”

Shelf Awareness

“[A] thoroughly engaging memoir . . . Eaton is a warm and witty guide to Masterpiece Theatre’s storied history, and this lively memoir will appeal equally to Downton diehards and longtime Masterpiece loyalists.”

Booklist

“In addition to these sometimes charming, sometimes bawdy anecdotes, Eaton brings a strong personal element to the narrative. . . . She is able to humanize what is sometimes seen as an impersonal area of the showbiz world. . . . A pleasing blend of memoir and retrospective with a wide audience appeal.”

Library Journal

“A delightful trek into the world of TV production and a substantive treat for the truly addicted PBS fan.”

Kirkus Reviews

“Rebecca has been the executive producer of Masterpiece for twenty-five of its forty years. We Americans are fortunate to have Rebecca at the helm: someone committed to bringing great television drama to the widest possible audience, week after week.”

—Gillian Anderson, The 2011 Time 100

PENGUIN BOOKS

MAKING MASTERPIECE

Rebecca Easton regards her decades-long stewardship of Masterpiece as the ideal job for the daughter of an English professor and an actress. She has been the executive producer of the show for twenty-eight of its forty-two years on the air. Awards on her watch include forty-three prime-time Emmy awards, fifteen Peabody awards, two Golden Globes, and two Academy Award nominations.

At Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! she extended the programs’ reach with contemporary dramas; initiated coproductions with the BBC (Middlemarch, The Buccaneers); coproduced feature films such as Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Mrs. Brown starring Dame Judi Dench; and oversaw the rebranding of the series in 2008. Queen Elizabeth II awarded her an honorary OBE (Officer, Order of the British Empire) in 2003.

She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and spends time at the family house in Kennebunkport, Maine.

 

PREFACE

Kenneth Branagh

I vividly recall meeting Rebecca Eaton for the first time in January 1988 in the foyer of the Beverly Hills Hotel. A group of British actors, producers, and directors, myself included, had all flown to Los Angeles, but our plane had been delayed by six or seven hours.

On touchdown, we’d rung her to ask, “Is it still going ahead?”

Rebecca said, “Can you guys still do it?”

We said yes; we’d had a very jolly time on the plane. It was my first trip to Los Angeles, and we were all pretty giddy. I was twenty-seven.

When we eventually arrived at the hotel, Rebecca was standing in the foyer welcoming us, checking if we were good to go after the quickest of quick showers. What I saw was a very classy dame, a very beautiful gal, and somebody whose spirit was unflappable. There was a kind of positive, robust show-biz element to her—nothing threw her. She had a sense of humor about it. Other people would have been very stressed, but she seemed to think this might be a fun evening.

And so it turned out to be, because we went into dinner with hundreds of television critics, and Emma Thompson, James Cellan Jones (the director of Fortunes of War), John Thaw (there to promote Inspector Morse), and a number of other people were not only at tables having dinner with some of the critics—we also performed an informal show. Emma sang a song, and I gave some kind of speech. Generally there was a sense that entering Rebecca’s atmosphere in this kind of circumstance had a celebratory quality, which has been part of my impression of her ever since.

One of the things that also struck me about her is that for someone who on the surface would appear to be a devoted Anglophile (which she is), she also seems to me to be resolutely American. I’ve always felt that her taste and critical judgment about what she presents, what she invests in with Masterpiece’s money, gives you an interesting insight into the way smart Americans view the Brits.

She has enthusiasm and passion but no slavish worship of all things European or British, no hushed, uncritical admiration of what the Brits do. She casts an appropriate critical eye over what she chooses to present. She knows that the American public won’t lap up just anything British, or anything period on television, without judgment.

Quite the opposite: the Masterpiece audience is a highly intelligent and passionately point-of-viewed group. I always felt that Rebecca has a kind of vitality, infusing sharpness and wit to the way things are promoted and to the programs themselves: there’s a sense of fun around them. She has fun with the way the Brits are, and she has fun with the way the Americans see the Brits, not only through the vehicle of the programs but even in the way she meets actors and directors and everybody who has the good fortune to go to America to promote their shows.

There are dangers inherent in the word masterpiece, but she and her staff have been very inventive and imaginative, making sure that the name itself doesn’t suddenly evoke something museumlike or too dry. You have a real sense of a personal point of view in their work.

Rebecca has maintained that passionate and witty approach to Masterpiece right across time. She has that gift of enthusiasm and curiosity; and as a result, she’s had a big impact on the careers of a lot of British actors. Work on Masterpiece is sometimes the only way they have the great luxury of going to America and finding out how people there view their work.

And for many actors, it also happens to be a transition. Appearing on Masterpiece can be part of a journey to working more internationally and being seen by a very discerning audience. Rebecca has been a very vigorous and vital custodian of performances that can be seen by an audience that really demonstrates its loyalty—a loyalty, support, and interest she’s never taken for granted.

An ability to be vigilant about that, to maintain your enthusiasm and a critical faculty, yet still convey joy and intelligence and wit about what you’re doing, and therefore making other people feel the same way about it—never giving in to, “Here’s season seventeen, twenty-two, twenty-five,” or whatever it is—is a great tribute to an unflagging artistic vitality that sustains all the other hard work it takes to maintain a show like Masterpiece.

You’re not going to have a Downton Abbey every five minutes. You’ll be showing some material that’s interesting but that might not automatically appeal to that many people. Masterpiece has banged a loud drum for a very long time in a way that’s still resounding—confirming that television can reach a lot of people with work that might not otherwise be seen so easily.

Rebecca has the toughness a producer needs. If you want to sustain a project, or something that’s become an institution like Masterpiece, whilst acknowledging at all times that its longevity is not guaranteed, you need to know when to say no and when to push back a little. She certainly has that capacity to charm, to be bossy and persuasive and curious; but ultimately, you feel that she’s on your side—that indeed, she’s trustworthy, a friend, someone with whom you can have fun. Promoting shows for Masterpiece was never a chore.

Though Rebecca is unquestionably leading the charge, she’s a smart enough boss to let other people do lots of talking. Whether it’s presenting material, or imagining campaigns and artwork and posters, or introducing new titles, or bringing people in if it’s an unknown novel or a difficult set of characters or strange accents, you have to be alive to it and have a team around you who are going to enjoy delivering it. The program, the institution, and the many strands of Masterpiece punch way above their weight.

I say, well done, Rebecca, and thank you very much.

PROLOGUE

On a warm summer day in 2009, I was sitting on the screen porch of my house in Kennebunkport, Maine, reading an American novel, and falling asleep. My phone rang with a call from Laura Mackie, the head of drama at ITV, the largest commercial network in the U.K. She often tips me off to new British series that I might be interested in for Masterpiece. We chat, catch up.

“Rebecca, do you know Julian Fellowes?” she asks.

Just as a writer, I say: Gosford Park? Mary Poppins on Broadway? I know his work, but not him.

I think he’s an actor as well.

She tells me about an upcoming miniseries he’s written that she’s very excited about: a family saga set on a spectacular country estate, early 1900s; an American heiress whose money keeps things afloat; beautiful frocks; a downstairs “family” of complicated servants. She tells me directly that she thinks it’s going to be very good, and that the production needs Masterpiece co-production money to fill the financing gap. I’ve known and liked Laura for years. She has good taste and very savvy television judgment.

I listen, and then I think to myself that the project sounds a lot like a combination of Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers, which we’d already done in 1995, and Upstairs, Downstairs, of which we’d aired sixty-eight episodes from 1971 to 1975, and which we’re about to remake with the BBC. Does Masterpiece really need another aristocratic-family-charming-servant miniseries at this point?

Probably not.

I tell Laura, no thanks. We chat about the London weather, and I go back to my book.

I’ve been very, very lucky in my career, in spite of myself.

ONE

Letters from Maine

I’m writing this book in that same old house in Kennebunkport. It’s where I lived during the summers with my parents, and later with my husband and my daughter. My parents’ names, like my husband’s and daughter’s, were Paul and Katherine. But none of them are here now.

It’s a beautiful old house with lots of character, frustrating plumbing, and hallways that take you places you don’t expect—it’s been added on to for two hundred years. It’s a little labyrinthine and spooky because you often don’t know who else is in the house when you are . . . and I don’t just mean invited guests. My brother and nephews swear there are ghosts; once a psychic, unasked and unhelpful, said that someone was murdered in one of these rooms. So there’s history here, of all the families who’ve lived in this house since it was built in 1800. Big things must have happened here, as they did while my parents were in the house. Their lives had plenty of drama.

My mother, Katherine Emery, was an actress whose career ranged from playing the leading role in Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour on Broadway in 1932 to appearing as a contract player at RKO in Hollywood in the 1950s, when she had parts in genre films like Isle of the Dead with Boris Karloff. Now my daughter Katherine, named after her grandmother, is in theater too.

My father, Paul Eaton, taught Shakespeare and loved the language of the plays. He read history, biography, murder mysteries, and maybe the occasional novel. He was the class poet in his graduating class at Exeter and hoped to go to Harvard to study English. But his father insisted he go to MIT to study naval architecture. Belly-button design, as my father called it. He loved boats and could recite vast amounts of poetry.

I’m telling you about my family and our house because I’ve got to start somewhere. I’ve been asked to write a book about Masterpiece. It seemed doable at first, but then they asked that it be a book about my life too: Masterpiece’s memoir, and mine.

If you’re brought up being told not to “make a spectacle of yourself” and not to “draw attention to yourself,” how do you go about writing a memoir?

A memoir? I’m sixty-five, but I think I’m thirty-five—way too young to write a memoir. And I haven’t kept a journal. My friend Annie snorts at the idea: “Becca, you don’t remember anything!”

But this is an enviable problem: who gets the opportunity to look back on her life’s work and tell it publicly?

The memories that do return are random, and they refuse to fall into any order. Why am I remembering the evening I met Princess Margaret and chose to wear my daughter’s plastic barrettes, her “pretties,” just because I missed her so much? Or the time the head of drama at the BBC, sitting across from me in a difficult meeting, got up from his chair and walked over the coffee table and out the door, never to return? Or the matchmaking conversation I had with Benedict Cumberbatch at the Golden Globes? The hours and hours of reading scripts and talking on the telephone merge and seem impossible to animate.

But even as I procrastinate, I love being in this house. I feel very comforted here: in spite of the ghosts, it’s the light, the air, and the seasons that make it feel so welcoming. The sun comes into the kitchen, into my bedroom, over the beach, in exactly the same way I remember it did in 1969, when I graduated from college, and in 1986, the year my daughter was born. It shines down on this house and on this town in exactly the same way it did in 1900, when my grandparents were here.

So I’ve spent a summer rattling around this house with a head full of Masterpiece memories. I have a deep desire to do anything besides write this book: I do laundry, pull weeds, go to the dump, make vats of vichyssoise, and then read other people’s memoirs and despair because they are so good. I become obsessed with Alexandra Fuller’s Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness. I Go...

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