If you are a fan of Masterpiece (formerly Masterpiece Theatre) you are sure to enjoy Rebecca Eaton's account of her years as the Executive Producer of this long-lived and much loved Public Television production. It tickles me that she has the same last name as Eaton Place which was the Knightsbridge home on the first big hit of Masterpiece Theatre, Upstairs Down Stairs in 1974. The history of Masterpiece began with The Forsyte Saga and Joan Wilson who preceded Rebecca Eaton. That was the start of the importation of British period piece dramas that is still going on with today's wildly popular Downton Abby.
Eaton begins her story by writing a memoir of her life, growing up in New England, after graduating from Vassar, and doing an internship for the BBC in London. The stars were aligned for Eaton, a pronounced Anglophile, who brought her love of British costume drama home to Boston. She was hired by WGBH and began working with Joan Wilson who taught Eaton the ins and outs of program production and how to make use of the contacts in Britain she had begun to forge. When Wilson died, Eaton was a natural to take her place.
After Eaton snagged Alistair Cooke to host Masterpiece Theatre and the sponsorship of the Mobil Corporation, the program's golden age began. And, so begins a series of stories which will bring back wonderful memories of the beloved series we watched through the 70s, 80s, 90s and into the new century. Just reading the titles of the many programs and the actors and actresses who went on to become major stars brings back he pleasure of Sunday night viewing. You can make your own list, but begin with Judi Dench, Colin Firth, Helen Mirren, Daniel Radcliffe, Kenneth Branagh, Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, etc. The golden age was during the tenure of Alistair Cooke and Vincent Price who hosted Masterpiece's cousin, Mystery. After Cooke retired, there was a period, especially after Mobil withdrew its support, when things began to look grim for the program. Then along came Downton and the rearranging of Masterpiece into three series a year: Masterpiece Classic; Mystery; and Masterpiece Contemporary. This saved the program which is poised to begin another surge of popularity. To think that Rebecca Eaton almost passed on Downton Abby because WGBH had previously committed to a pre WWII version of Upstairs Downstairs.
Beside reading about my favorite programs and actors, I learned how difficult it is to produce a high quality program along with the backbiting and one-upmanship that goes on in t.v. land. Eaton's job is made more difficult by the constant need to attract sponsors and raise money from the generous supporters of public television where major funding for many top notch programs still comes from "viewers like you." If you recognize that phrase, you know how annoying and how necessary campaigns for public contributions are.