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The art of bringing British drama to American screens with ‘Masterpiece’

December 17, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
As executive producer of "Masterpiece" on PBS, Rebecca Eaton has been feeding America's appetite for British drama for the last 25 years. Jeffrey Brown talks to Eaton about her new book, "Making Masterpiece," and the decisionmaking process behind hits such as "Upstairs, Downstairs," "The Forsyte Saga" and "Downton Abbey."
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: “Masterpiece” is a PBS crown jewel, and for 25 years and counting, Rebecca Eaton has been at its helm. Now she’s written a book about bring British drama to the American screen.

Jeffrey Brown has our conversation.

It’s the longest-running weekly prime-time drama series in the country and one of the most honored, with 57 Emmys and 17 Peabodys to its credit. Upstairs, Downstairs put Masterpiece Theater on the map in 1974. Other British dramas followed.

ALISTAIR COOKE, host: Good evening. I’m Alistair Cooke.

JEFFREY BROWN: Each program introduced by a host, with Alistair Cooke holding the position for 22 years.

ACTOR: Refugee, Jewish, I think.

ACTRESS: What’s to become of him?

ACTOR: What is to become of anybody?

JEFFREY BROWN: The series helped launch the American careers of many now renowned British actors.

ACTRESS: She was murdered, Michael. She was found in a prostitute’s — Now, I want you to look at this photograph.

ACTOR: Presumably, they thought you were a waiter, sir.

ACTOR: Now, look here, Jeeves.

ACTOR: Excuse me, sir.

JEFFREY BROWN: Several years ago, Masterpiece updated its look and moved into three parts, “Masterpiece Classic,” “Mystery” and “Contemporary.”

ACTRESS: Killed in a stupid car crash.

JEFFREY BROWN: And it’s now, of course, home to Downton Abbey, the highest rated PBS drama of all time.

Behind the scenes for the last 25 years, executive producer Rebecca Eaton, author of the new book “Making Masterpiece.”

And Rebecca Eaton joins us now.

Welcome to you.

REBECCA EATON, “Making Masterpiece”: Thank you, Jeffrey.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, you start this book with a little anecdote about how you first said no thanks to a proposal about a new drama with a British aristocratic family.

REBECCA EATON: Yes. Yes. Yes.

(CROSSTALK)

REBECCA EATON: Big country house, people downstairs, people upstairs. They lived in Downton Abbey, a place called Downton Abbey. Yes, I did say no.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. You said no, but somehow the rest is history, yes?

REBECCA EATON: Yes.

I was very lucky. Some television angel must have been sitting on my shoulder, because it made the rounds of other American television executives and they too said no. I didn’t say no because I didn’t like it; we just had too much that year.

And then I heard that Maggie Smith had been cast. And Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Lady Cora, said, it’s very good. And so I picked up the phone, and thank God it was still available.

JEFFREY BROWN: But this angel question sort of goes to — and I will steal one of the titles of your chapters, which is, what does an executive producer do all day anyway?

REBECCA EATON: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: How do you — in making “Masterpiece,” how do you define your role?

REBECCA EATON: Well, I’m the person who tries not to choose the bad British programs.

(LAUGHTER)

REBECCA EATON: No.

(CROSSTALK)

JEFFREY BROWN: Wait a minute. That was almost a double negative. But you are trying to avoid the bad ones.

REBECCA EATON: Yes, I save the American public.

No, these programs are made in England. They are made by, I think, some of the best drama producers and writers and directors and actors in the world, and we are their American partners. So my job is to read the scripts, take the pitches, and try to choose the ones I think will work best for Masterpiece, and best on the air. And, sometimes, I get it right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, and the mysterious process of getting it right or wrong, is it…

REBECCA EATON: It is mysterious.

JEFFREY BROWN: … “I know it when I see it” kind of thing or…

REBECCA EATON: It is quite subjective, I have to say, kind of “seat of the pants” programming.

A little bit of experience goes a long way. And I have been doing it now for 26 or 27 years, and we watch the ratings. We know what the audience likes. So there aren’t focus groups. It is — we have a very small shop. But we get to know the players and what works.

JEFFREY BROWN: I don’t know if I should start with what works, or I always want to hear like what doesn’t.

REBECCA EATON: What doesn’t work?

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell us your worst mistake.

REBECCA EATON: I don’t want to talk about that.

(LAUGHTER)

REBECCA EATON: There have been a few.

I’m a sucker for actors, for good actors. And sometimes I can convince myself that a not-very-good script or not-very-good story is going to be great because somebody is in it. We actually did have Colin Firth, he of Pride and Prejudice, in something called Nostromo by Joseph Conrad. It was a good book, I guess, but it just sat there as a drama.

So, that’s one of the ones I think not many people watched.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mentioned Colin Firth. It’s kind of funny because you have said that people get confused. I was thinking of Pride and Prejudice, where — his great vehicle, right, for an American public.

REBECCA EATON: Yes, his vehicle. yes, Jane Austen…

(CROSSTALK)

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Jane Austen wrote it for Colin Firth, right?

REBECCA EATON: Her vehicle, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s right.

But people come up to you and say that was incredible, but that was not a Masterpiece program.

REBECCA EATON: Yes. It was not.

It was on another network, but I say thank you.

(CROSSTALK)

JEFFREY BROWN: But that goes to you sort of creating this — or “Masterpiece” creating a genre for an American audience.

REBECCA EATON: Yes. Yes.

I think it was born, Masterpiece was born in 1971. PBS was only a couple years old. And as I say in the book, you know, “Forsyte Saga” had just aired, the first Forsyte Saga. And suddenly there was an appetite for British drama. And there were shelves of already produced programs in England.

And so the people at WGBH in Boston and at Mobil Oil realized that this was a huge opportunity. There was only Julia Child on public television then and some lectures, so they started buying the already produced programs, and the audience completely turned up. So, now we have to just keep feeding.

JEFFREY BROWN: When it comes to a Downton Abbey, why does it — why is it such a hit?

REBECCA EATON: Man, if I knew that, I would certainly not tell you, for one thing.

(LAUGHTER)

REBECCA EATON: And Julian Fellowes, who created Downton, is asked that all the time, and he doesn’t know.

I tell the story in the book that when he was a little boy, his mother used to turn the kitchen over to him every now and then. And one time she turned the kitchen over to him, and he made the most fantastic chocolate eclairs. And he gave them to her, and she said, Julian, did you do it? Can you do it again?

And he never could it again. So it’s little bit of magic, television lightning striking once. He was ready to do it. I think he was to the manner born, Julian himself. I think he understood these characters. He knew what they would be because he had them in his own family tree.

And I think — my — my theory about it is that it’s a perfect television precinct drama, but there’s a certain goodness of intent to all of these characterize. And I think that has been missing in television, British and American.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, you know what? We are going to talk more about “Downton Abbey” and other things. We will do that online.

And, for now, the book is “Making Masterpiece.”

Rebecca Eaton, thanks so much.

REBECCA EATON: Thanks, Jeff.