25 Years Behind the Scenes at Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! on PBS
The Emmy Award-winning producer of PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! reveals the secrets to Downton Abbey, Sherlock, and its other hit programs
For more than twenty-five years and counting, Rebecca Eaton has presided over PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre, the longest running weekly prime time drama series in American history. From the runaway hits
Upstairs, Downstairs and The Buccaneers, to the hugely popular Inspector Morse, Prime Suspect, and Poirot, Masterpiece Theatre and its sibling series Mystery! have been required viewing for fans of quality drama.
Eaton interviews many of the writers, directors, producers, and other contributors and shares personal anecdotes—including photos taken with her own camera—about her decades-spanning career. She reveals what went on behind the scenes during such triumphs as Cranford and the multiple, highly-rated programs made from Jane Austen’s novels, as well as her aggressive campaign to attract younger viewers via social media and online streaming. Along the way she shares stories about actors and other luminaries such as Alistair Cooke, Maggie Smith, Diana Rigg, Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Radcliffe, whose first TV role was as the title character in David Copperfield.
Readers will also get to know Eaton on a personal level. With a childhood steeped in theater, an affinity for nineteenth century novels and culture, and an “accidental apprenticeship” with the BBC, Eaton was practically born to lead the Masterpiece and Mystery! franchises. Making Masterpiece marks the first time the driving force behind the enduring flagship show reveals all.
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 grandpar- ents 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 Google everything about her life in Africa and begin to cast the TV miniseries in my head. I cook and eat a lot of lobsters. I don’t work on the book.
One afternoon I unearth some disintegrating cardboard boxes and decide to go through them. I find bundles and bundles of letters and photographs of things I’ve never seen before: glass slides of my father as a two-year-old in a dress in southern New Hampshire; pictures of my mother as a tomboy in Alabama, surrounded by black servants, and then as a very young and beautiful actress. I unearth clippings and reviews for all the plays she ever did, and letters to, and from, her family. I find the eulogy from my grandfather’s funeral; I never knew him. I find notes from bouquets sent to my mother on opening nights.
And then I find every letter my father wrote to my mother from soon after they met in the late 1930s, until their marriage in 1945, when my father was thirty-nine and my mother was thirty-seven.
Some of my father’s letters are half-eaten by mice. Some are so stained, you can’t read them; my mother’s handwriting is practically impossible to decode.
In these letters I find out things I didn’t know. My parents’ love affair and courtship were long and fraught. As a man of his time, my father didn’t go into emotional detail in the letters, but I can tell that my mother was ambivalent about giving up her career to marry him. In fact, she seems to have been ambivalent about marrying him at all. There were other men in her life, as there were other women in his. He tries to talk her through “tough passages.”
My father sought my mother hard: he truly courted her. He waited six years. In one of the very earliest letters, he is clear that he is ready to get married even then. But they don’t actually marry until they are both nearly forty. She kept him at bay. In his letters he remains steady and cheerful, eager to get on with life as he fights for her. There are very few letters from my mother to my father from that time—she was a successful actress in New York, and he was teaching in Boston.
In my father’s letters I hear his voice very clearly: he is loving Maine, loving New England, loving my mother. Her voice is hard to hear.
Then—and this part I’ve always known—they dramatically eloped, days before he was shipped out to the South Pacific during World War II. They had said their good-byes in New York when my father left for the naval base in San Francisco. But my mother suddenly changed her mind, found the last berth on a westward-bound train, and joined him. Good drama for television, I think.
They were married, by themselves, at the Treasure Island Naval Station in San Francisco Bay and spent four days at the Mark Hopkins Hotel before he left for a year. When my father came back, my brother, James, was three months old. There are dozens of letters from that year.
It’s a long and complicated story, and I’m riveted. This wonderful trove shines a new light on my parents. I’d never really thought about my mother as a woman in her thirties and forties. I always thought she was glamorous, and that was enough for me.
Suddenly I see her at thirty, moody and elusive, not just the beautiful movie star I’d bragged about. Through the letters, I see her struggling to be happy, even as she enjoyed terrific success and the attentions of many men. Though she was very beautiful, I think self- doubt was there early too. Later in her life it overwhelmed her. I remember that part.
I see my father heroically pursuing the love of his life, in spite of her deeply discouraging reluctance. He’s not just the jovial, multichinned “Daddy” all my friends loved. There’s another man inside that man.
It all begins to swarm together in my brain. I realize that right here, in this old house, I may have found the answer to the paralyzing question, How do I write this book? Maybe I’ve tripped over the really important thing—the stories, and the stories behind the family stories that we all have. The ones told over and over—and then the mysteries and secrets. Isn’t that what fascinates us about The Forsyte Saga; Bleak House; Upstairs, Downstairs; and even Downton Abbey? Isn’t that why we’re so drawn to books and dramas, even years after they’ve been written?
So as I read the letters and spread them all over the house in Maine, I relate them not only to my own life but also to the work I do. If you could distill the essence of Masterpiece, it might be that it is stories about families. Family stories are sagas: love, betrayal, money, infatuation, infidelity, illness, family love, and family deception. Those stories are our own stories writ large, usually with happy endings, and usually in times and places much more exotic or melodramatic than our own.
And that is what I love most in the world—stories. I love them on television, I love them in books, I love them in movies, and I love hearing them from the person I’m sitting next to at a dinner party. We all have them, but we forget they’re any good or have any rhyme or reason until someone new asks us, with real interest, to tell them who we are.
In this house in Maine, I feel surrounded by stories: my own, my parents’, my daughter’s, and the ones I put on television. I love them all.
For me, and maybe for you, books and dramas about families and romance have been relaxing and entertaining, but sometimes they’ve also been painkillers or anesthetics, when family life, self-doubt, lack of romance, or a romance gone badly just hurts too much. I comfort myself with stories that are full of wisdom, wit, and good writing. They provide relief from the difficulties of making a living, having a family, maintaining relationships, and living a life with meaning.
Brought up on a steady diet of classic British literature, I’m amazed at the inevitability of the fact that my life’s work has turned out to be as a purveyor of this particular opiate. The kind of drama we do on Masterpiece tends to be uplifting—the guy gets the girl, people escape jeopardy, justice is served, and the mystery is solved. But there’s some- thing else, something perhaps more worthy: maybe the dramas are uplifting because of the exemplary quality of the writing, the acting, and the production values.
It’s not easy to describe the feeling you get when you’re in the presence of something well done, the aesthetic reaction you have to a fine ballet, work of art, piece of music, book, or performance. It’s a mysterious thing that lifts you and opens you and makes you feel better. It’s a very specific and strange connection. I’m sure many thoughtful books have been written about this.
Going for those moments is the reason I like being in this busi- ness. The moments are rare, but I would argue that over the years, there have been more of them on Masterpiece than on most other places on television. A perfectly written scene, a moment of transcendent acting, a delicately lit drawing room. . . .
But, I still have to write this book.
In a panic, I call dear Russell Baker—journalist, memoirist (Growing Up), Masterpiece host, and calming, steady friend—and ask him how to do it. “Keep it simple,” he says. “Avoid Latinate and use plain English. Figure out a good beginning and a good ending, and just tell stories in between.”
My daughter Katherine, a performer like the grandmother she never met, says, “Just lean into it. Creativity hurts.”
Steven Ashley, Masterpiece senior producer and a consigliere of thirty years, says, “You can’t executive-produce this book. You can’t get other people to do it. You have to write it yourself. So hush up and do it.”
And I hear my friend Alistair Cooke’s unmistakable voice, impatiently explaining to me for the thousandth time how he managed that inimitable style of storytelling in his radio broadcast Letter from America and in his introductions to Masterpiece Theatre: “I always think of myself as speaking to one person, as if in conversation. Ignore the fact that thousands of people are listening.”
So let me tell you some stories.
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