A peek behind the scenes of PBS’ ‘Masterpiece’
A Q&A with Rebecca Eaton, producer of PBS’ “Masterpiece” programs, and author of a new book, “Making Masterpiece.”
Seattle Times book editor
The author of “Making Masterpiece” will appear at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 5, at Town Hall Seattle. Tickets are $5 and available at townhallseattle.org and at the door beginning at 6:30 p.m.
Rebecca Eaton has produced PBS’ “Masterpiece” programs since the days of Alistair Cooke. She’s taken tea with British superstars Helen Mirren, Kenneth Branagh, Daniel Radcliffe, Diana Rigg and last but not least, Maggie Smith, aka The Dowager Countess of “Downton Abbey.” And, because she has a new book out — “Making Masterpiece: 25 Years Behind the Scenes at Masterpiece Theatre and Masterpiece Mystery! on PBS” (Viking) — she’s taking questions.
Like any devoted “Masterpiece” viewer, one wants to look smart for such a conversation, with big-issue queries lined up: Has “Downton” given PBS and “Masterpiece” a new cachet with younger viewers? How will PBS deal with the graying of its viewership? But an insistent, unladylike voice is stamping her foot, giving me a slight headache: Why did you kill off Matthew Crawley? Why do we have to wait a whole year for three measly episodes of the new “Sherlock”? What is Benedict Cumberbatch really like?
Eaton, who speaks in Seattle Tuesday night at Town Hall, was ready for all inquiries. Here’s an edited version of our conversation.
Q: Why publish this book now? “Masterpiece” has never been more popular — it seems like you’re still in the thick of it.
A: It was kind of decided for me. There was interest from a publisher to have a book; that’s a wave you want to catch. Everything is so fleeting and so temporary in television, there’s a lot of taking advantage of the moment. “Masterpiece” is certainly in the spotlight; “Sherlock,” “Downton Abbey,” “Mr. Selfridge.” Carpe diem.
Q: In your book, you reveal that you are a lifelong Anglophile. How did this start?
A: Do you catch it, or are you born with it? I don’t really know. My parents weren’t particular Anglophiles ... But my imagination was completely captured by reading British novels. I was transported, I was Cathy in “Wuthering Heights,” I was Dorothea in “Middlemarch.” I read books, I went to movies, and then I went to college. And majored in English literature and went to England as fast as I could (Eaton worked at the BBC for a number of years before returning to America).
Q: You write that “If ever there was a television series about the one percent, right up there with ‘Dallas,’ it’s ‘Downton Abbey.’ ” Why do people love to watch shows about the troubles of the very rich? I certainly do, but I feel guilty about it.
A: It’s OK to love the one percent. These shows are what is known as aspirational dramas. These are people living with more money, more drama, better clothes than we have, and more resolvable problems ... life is tough in our day-to-day lives. Everybody has problems, so drama is a form of elimination and a form of escape.
Q: Lots of people love to dish about the “Downton” stars, but I’m interested in the writer, Julian Fellowes. What is the key to his creativity?
A: The secret to Julian and “Downton Abbey” is, first of all, it’s the world he knows. His own progenitors lived that life. The second was, he was an actor. He has written for a weekly show (“Monarch of the Glen”), so he has the discipline. He’s a very bright man and a very generous-spirited man.
Q: In your book you say that one of the reasons “Downton” is so popular is that the characters are all trying to do the right thing — even Thomas and O’Brien. Why are so many modern “heroes” in television — “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men” — really anti-heroes?
A: I can’t really answer the question of why there are so many of them right now. It’s one of those inexplicable zeitgeist problems ... we have been a pretty sobered up culture since Sept. 11. We are taking things very seriously, we live in a climate of fear ... I think the pendulum, if not swinging entirely back, might swing another way. I think we might be looking at a period of time where there might be warmhearted dramas.
Q: “Downton” has reinvigorated “Masterpiece,” and “Sherlock” draws a much younger audience, but PBS faces enduring issues with the aging of the population and the ever-increasing frequency of pledge breaks. How does PBS ensure that it will still have an audience in 20 years?
A: I don’t have magic bullets. It’s not just a PBS problem. It’s a broadcast television problem. Many, many people don’t watch television. A lot of young people may not know what their public-television station is. They will be drawn to our programming, and when they get it they will like it ... but the connection between seeing something and supporting it is abstract.
PBS is largely funded by members — government funding is only 15 percent. Smarter people than me are thinking about it night and day. My contribution is to continue to find programs that will satisfy contributing members and make sure younger people know about us.
Q: OK, I have to ask — why only three “Sherlock” stories in each season? Its fans would love more, a lot more.
A: And so would I. The problem is that these boys — Benedict and Martin (Freeman), and Steven Moffat (creator of the new “Sherlock” and head writer of “Doctor Who”) and (“Sherlock” co-creator) Mark Gatiss — are so busy. Benedict, open any paper on any day, his film career has completely taken off. And these are very complicated scripts.
Q: “Making Masterpiece” is really two stories — the history of the program, and your own. You’re candid about how your family life suffered because of the demands of your job. What do you hope people take away from the book?
A: Of course, I want people to read the book and watch “Masterpiece.” ... I would want people to realize that everybody has a story.
I knew I had a story about “Masterpiece,” but I didn’t think there was a story in me, but they kept saying no, we would like your story. I started thinking long and hard about my parents, my family, the arc of events that has happened to me, the luck that I had, the ups and downs of it, and now, writing in a very sweet moment of success.
I do believe that my favorite thing is hearing people’s stories, whether they’re on “Masterpiece” or in a book or sitting next to someone at a dinner party. I love it. That is the richness of life to me.
Mary Ann Gwinn: firstname.lastname@example.org.