Jace Lacob Before we get going here — if you’re just joining us and have not yet listened to the first two episodes of Making MASTERPIECE, take a moment to do so. This will make a lot more sense if you’ve listened to parts one and two. You can find those episodes at pbs.org/MakingMASTERPIECE, in the MASTERPIECE Studio podcast feed or wherever you listen to podcasts.
September 18, 2011 was pretty much your standard, Emmy Awards ceremony. Comedian Jane Lynch – then starring in Glee – played host. Modern Family won its second award for Best Comedy Series. And Mad Men won its fourth award for Best Drama Series.
But when it came to the category of “Outstanding Miniseries or Movie,” the winner… was a bit of a surprise.
Don Cheadle And the Emmy goes to… Downton Abbey, MASTERPIECE.
The first season of Downton Abbey ended up winning four Primetime Emmys that night… which kind of shocked the millions of people watching at home, many of whom had never even heard of the show.
Susanne Simpson And so all of a sudden, everybody was going, ‘What’s Downton Abbey? What’s Downton Abbey? What is Downtown Abbey?
Jace For then MASTERPIECE senior series producer Susanne Simpson, the 2011 Emmy Awards ceremony was a moment that brought Downton Abbey to wider popular attention.
Susanne Simpson I’m reading the New York Times and I’m reading an article about economics. And the first line is, you know, ‘It’s kind of like Downton Abbey. And I thought, ‘Now everybody’s using that as a reference.’ And then the late night hosts got a hold of it and it just really took off.
Jace Downton Abbey was not just a television show… it was a pop culture touchstone.
For nearly a decade, you couldn’t avoid reading about it, or hearing about it from your friends… or seeing people talk about it online… It was everywhere.
So it’s probably safe to assume that you already know what Downton Abbey is – especially if you’re listening to THIS podcast – but here’s a quick refresher.
Downton Abbey – created and written by Julian Fellowes – is an epic, six-season drama.
It focuses on the wealthy Crawley family AND all of the people who serve them. It’s mostly about their struggle to preserve their fancy house-slash-castle – that’s the Downton Abbey of the title.
But most of all — Downton Abbey was a landmark moment in MASTERPIECE… and PBS… history.
Soraya Nadia Mcdonald Downton Abbey is basically to PBS what Game of Thrones was to HBO.
Jace Downton Abbey is actually one of the most popular public television programs of all time. But its success was unexpected.
Even Rebecca Eaton, MASTERPIECE’s then Executive Producer, didn’t know what to make of it at first.
Rebecca Eaton I turned it down. I said no.
Susanne Simpson I remember turning to Rebecca and saying, ‘Rebecca, this is so fabulous. We have to buy this for MASTERPIECE.’ And she thought, ‘I’m not so sure.’
Jace On this episode: you’ll hear THAT story… and you’ll hear from some notable cast members who helped make Downton what it was:
Hugh Bonneville There’s magic dust. There’s something that just happens in the stars
Elizabeth McGovern It was just something that people wanted, needed.
Jace But MASTERPIECE… and our story… doesn’t just end after Downton wraps up… it keeps going.
Erin Delaney And then began what Rebecca has called the Downton effect.
Susanne Simpson You know, one of the other things that came out of Downton‘s success was that now all of our competitors learned our secret.
Jace I’m Jace Lacob, and this is Making MASTERPIECE, a special miniseries from MASTERPIECE Studio. We’re covering five decades of MASTERPIECE history in three episodes — where Masterpiece Theatre came from, how it changed television, and what it still has in store for its 50th season.
EPISODE 3: The Downton Effect.
Before I tell you how it was even remotely possible that Rebecca Eaton, said no to Downton Abbey not once… but TWICE — let’s go back to where we ended things in Episode Two of this podcast…
Eaton had been the executive producer of Masterpiece Theatre for nearly a decade when things started to go downhill.
The biggest problem she faced? Longtime sponsor Mobil Oil stopped funding Masterpiece Theatre… entirely… in 2004.
That was a HUGE deal.
Mobil was Masterpiece Theatre’s ONLY sponsor. Without Mobil, the series was in a dark place.
Bob Knapp There was a fear that maybe all the glory days were behind them.
Jace So Eaton and her team decided that they needed to completely rebrand the series.
Rebecca Eaton The rebrand was elegant. We didn’t tart it up. It wasn’t you know, there’s a British expression, ‘Mutton dressed as lamb.’ We didn’t do any of that.
Jace That “we” includes Susanne Simpson – an Academy Award nominated producer from WGBH’s science documentary series, NOVA, who was brought in to help lead the rebrand.
Susanne Simpson We wanted to make sure through this rebranding process that people knew where the shows were.
Jace One big change: they split the series into three separate categories – mystery, contemporary, and classic – which made it easier for the audience to navigate all of the different kinds of shows they aired.
They also decided to go after younger viewers. And to do that, they launched with “The Complete Jane Austen,” a collection of all six Austen novels adapted for the screen.
Susanne Simpson And we thought, well, what better way to reach both our loyal audience and also a younger audience?
Jace A trio of famous (and cool) hosts helped win over the younger audience too: Gillian Anderson, Matthew Goode AND Alan Cumming.
Alan Cumming The fact that I got a job that before but, you know, previously was held by Dianna Rigg is one of my greatest achievements in my career, I think.
Jace That’s Cumming, who still introduces Mystery! titles on MASTERPIECE to this day… and still gets recognized for it too.
Alan Cumming I met Patti Smith and she looked at me and she went, ‘You’re the Mystery! guy!’ I went, ‘What’? She went, ‘You’re the Mystery! guy on MASTERPIECE,’ and I went, ‘Uh, oh God, yes. Yes, I am,’ And she went, ‘I’ve always wanted that job.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, my God. I’m not telling them at PBS that because they’ll surely fire me and get Patti Smith in.’
Jace Lacob In January 2008, Masterpiece Theatre relaunched as MASTERPIECE. Full stop.
It had all the right ingredients: a name change, the perfect hosts, and Jane Austen.
It was saying one thing loud and clear.
Susanne Simpson We were, you know, worth a second look now.
Jace And their plan actually worked.
After the new and improved MASTERPIECE aired, younger women, younger families started tuning in.
Now, all they needed was a generous sponsor who could help carry the series through the next phase…
Rebecca Eaton So we did it. We built it, but nobody came.
Jace That was disappointing. They’d spent more than a year working on the rebrand; they’d gotten EXACTLY the kind of audience they were hoping for and yet… no sponsor and no sponsorship money.
So, they kept chasing their next break. They figured that, even if they couldn’t land a sponsor right away, they could at least continue to fill their schedule with good programs.
And there was one upcoming show that Eaton was especially thrilled about.
Rebecca Eaton It was a mitzvah to have of all shows to be redone Upstairs, Downstairs, which had defined MASTERPIECE for five years, however long it was on.
Sarah: Mrs. Pratt’s agency sent me.
Sarah: I’ve come about the position. House parlour maid, was it?
Rose: Under house parlour maid. I am the house parlour maid. Well come in…
Jace The original Upstairs, Downstairs aired on MASTERPIECE Theatre between 1974 and 1977 and was a huge hit. It scooped up seven Emmy awards and record audience figures.
Even now – five decades later – it’s still one of those shows that people just love to talk about.
Laura Linney Watching Upstairs, Downstairs was of one of those moments where things shift within you a little bit. And I can remember watching it, and it made such an impression on me.
Jace This is multi-hyphenate actor Laura Linney, who grew up watching Masterpiece Theatre. She adored Upstairs, Downstairs, which was created by two women — Dame Eileen Atkins and Dame Jean Marsh.
Laura Linney The actors were wonderfully good. Jean Marsh, I remember, was, you know, sort of the stand out in my young mind.
Jace Marsh played fan-favorite Miss Rose Buck in the show, for which she won an Emmy award. And both Marsh and Atkins went on to have super successful acting careers. They had star power.
So when Eaton heard that they would also be involved in the Upstairs, Downstairs remake, she was thrilled.
Rebecca Eaton We were all set, and we were excited to include that in the new MASTERPIECE brand.
Jace Maybe this was the show that would solve all of MASTERPIECE’s lingering problems: it’d get record audience numbers; it would help them finally land a corporate sponsor…
Spoiler alert: that didn’t happen.
But, just as Upstairs Downstairs was getting all the green lights it needed to move into production, Eaton received a pitch for another new show…
That show was written by Julian Fellowes and was called… Downton Abbey.
Gareth Neame Well, it all seems quite hard to imagine now, really, because we sit from a perspective of a show that’s beloved by, you know, hundreds of millions of people around the world. There was a time when Downton Abbey didn’t exist…
Jace Gareth Neame is Downton Abbey’s executive producer, and the man we have to thank for coming up with the idea for the show.
Gareth Neame This was about I can’t even remember exactly. I think about 2007 or eight when I proposed this idea to Julian
Jace Fellowes remembers that moment.
Julian Fellowes We were having this terrible dinner, I remember because the restaurant we wanted to go to was shut. In the middle of it, Gareth just said to me, had I ever thought of going into Gosford Park territory for television?
Gareth Neame He’d written the Robert Altman film, Gosford Park in about 2001. That film had been certainly very successful for him personally as he won the Academy Award for his screenplay.
Julian Fellowes I hadn’t really I mean, I wasn’t all that keen…
Gareth Neame He was very uncertain at first because, you know, lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place. And, you know, would he be accused of just going back to the same territory? And he could never have the same success that he’d already had.
Julian Fellowes But then, you know, over the next few days, I started to sort of play with possible characters. Anyway. I then wrote a synopsis of the first episode
Gareth Neame About two or three weeks later, I received an email from him and the email contained a short document And I don’t think it was even called Downton Abbey at that point. And some of the character names were probably different, but the archetypes were there.
Julian Fellowes And then we were off to the races. I mean, as shows, you know, go, it was a pretty painless birth.
Jace The act of creation might’ve been easy. But, finding a partner to co- produce and broadcast Downton in the States was another story entirely. They sent it to Eaton at MASTERPIECE, and it reminded her of the Upstairs Downstairs revival — a series she’d already agreed to air.
Rebecca Eaton The second go round with Upstairs, Downstairs was about the gentry who live upstairs and the staff downstairs. If you look at Downton Abbey, it was the same thing. They seemed so parallel. It didn’t make sense, I thought, this isn’t good because they’ll be compared. And somebody is going to come out second.
Jace So, Eaton said “no” to Downton Abbey.
Rebecca Eaton So the producers went elsewhere and offered it all around town in Hollywood. All the networks, cable, everybody.
Julian Fellowes At that time, period drama was very much out of fashion. The audience for it had gone and had vanished and there was now no big audience for period drama. Of course, it sounds funny to say that, really, because it was the beginning of a whole new tranche of it. But anyway, that was the thinking.
Rebecca Eaton So it was turned down by everybody.
Jace Hugh Bonneville, who played Downton’s Lord Grantham, remembers it the same way. He says that Neame just couldn’t get anyone to take it.
Hugh Bonneville Another story that Gareth told me was that once the show had become a hit someone called him and said, ‘Why on EARTH didn’t you bring this to us?’ And he said he did. ‘We did. You just didn’t want it.’
Jace But while broadcasters might not have seen the magic in the show… the actors – like Bonneville and Elizabeth McGoven, who played the Countess of Grantham, Cora Crawley – absolutely did.
Elizabeth McGovern Well, I remember the very first day we all got together, and when I say all, you can imagine, it was an absolutely huge cast and we were sitting at a big table all around in a circle. And after the awkward coffee and shuffling around, we just sat down and it was suddenly like we were telling this story that just completely took off. And that doesn’t happen all the time, if ever. So I remember thinking not that it was gonna be a hit, but it was like, ‘Wow, I like this TV show,’ You know, I’m kind of watching it as I’m sitting here at this table.
Jace Production kept moving, and in a few short months, they’d filmed a complete first episode.
Susanne Simpson And they sent it to us. And I remember being in a room. There were four of us — Rebecca, myself and two others from MASTERPIECE — and we sat down and watched this first hour, and I thought it was fabulous.
Jace That is, Simpson thought it was fabulous, but Eaton said no… again.
Susanne Simpson And I said, you know, ‘Rebecca, if you don’t buy this, I’m quitting. This is like what you asked me to come to MASTERPIECE for. Is that this is the kind of accessible show that I think an audience would really love.’
Rebecca Eaton So I made a quick call to see if it was still available, and they say the patron saint of the arts in television is St. Cecilia. So I think St. Cecilia was sitting on my shoulder, because it was still available.
Jace We’re lucky Simpson was there that day. And her tireless work co-producing and managing Downton Abbey is part of the reason she’s MASTERPIECE’s executive producer today.
But it is true that back then, NO ONE knew it was going to be so huge.
Elizabeth McGovern I mean, that never occurred to anybody. And I still can’t quite believe it.
Jace For Fellowes, the realization that Downton could become a breakout hit came later…
Julian Fellowes I remember the first sign, in a way we had, was, we had a screening followed by a dinner on the South Bank, and normally those things can be a little bit grim and people shrink away quite quickly after the end of the film, they have sort of one drink and say, ‘Well done!’ and they run for it. And in that instance, everyone stayed till about 1:00 in the morning and they were all incredibly drunk. And that did seem quite a good sign.
Jace Then, Downton Abbey premiered in England on ITV three months before it was scheduled to appear on MASTERPIECE.
Rebecca Eaton The legend goes, it was pretty much over night that it began to catch on and even, maybe the second or third episode, people started talking about it and we were sort of following this in the trades or looking at the ratings.
Susanne Simpson They had had like what we would call Super Bowl numbers for television. It just broke out big in the U.K.
Jace And though it’s typical to see a ratings dip for the second episode of a new series…
Julian Fellowes In our instance, it went up in the second week, I think went up by two million. And that’s very, very unusual. And so we soon realized we had quite a big hit on our hands.
Jace But it’s important to note here that a smash hit in the UK doesn’t automatically translate to a smash hit in the States.
Rebecca Eaton Then of course, the question was, would it work for our audience?
Jace And their audience – MASTERPIECE’s audience – got its first taste of Downton on January 9th, 2011.
Laura Linney I remember filming the first intro for Downton Abbey, because it was such a strange name, like Downton. And I said it wrong a few times.
Jace Linney, who remains the host of MASTERPIECE to this day, introduced the first episode.
Laura Linney I’m Laura Linney, and this is MASTERPIECE Classic. Downton Abbey — beginning tonight on MASTERPIECE Classic.
Jace People all over the country tuned into the Downton premiere…
Rebecca Eaton We did hold our breath a little bit. But then the reviews started coming in, because we send things out to reviewers. What was surprising to us was how universal the positive reviews were. It wasn’t that one or two because often there’ll be a few great reviews and then some you’ll say, ‘Well, yeah, but.’ And there were no, ‘Yeah, buts.’ Everybody was ecstatic.
Susanne Simpson I would say that the most important thing was that we got critics’ support for the show. People tuned in. The people who are the loyal audience, you know, loved it. And then people heard word of mouth, and families started to share it together. And so, that first season, we did really well with it. Not huge numbers, but we did really well.
Jace At least, well enough to feel optimistic about MASTERPIECE’s future.
And then came the 63rd Annual Emmy Awards, when it seemed like MASTERPIECE had actually returned to form…
Susanne Simpson I mean, one of the most exciting times I’ve had at MASTERPIECE was being at the Emmys when Downton Abbey’s first season had been nominated for so many awards.
Jace Downton Abbey was nominated for eleven Emmys. And it didn’t win just one. No, it won six (four Prime Time Emmys and two Creative Arts Emmys):
Downton Abbey won the Emmy for “Outstanding Miniseries.”
Adrian Grenier And the Emmy goes to…
Jace It won for costumes, cinematography, and writing…
Adrian Grenier…Julian Fellowes, Downton Abbey!
Jace It won for directing.
Amy Poehler Brian Percival, Downton Abbey, MASTERPIECE.
Jace And to top it off, Dame Maggie Smith won “Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries” for her role as the Dowager Countess, Violet Crawley.
Adrian Grenier Maggie Smith.
Hugh Bonneville As I finished a conversation, I think, with Gareth Neame, our executive producer, early on, I said, ‘Who are you thinking of for the mother, for Violet?’ And he said, ‘Well, Dame Maggie Smith. And I said, ‘Well, good luck with that, because she’s not going to do it, is she?’ The rest is history.
Jace After the Emmys, things really took off for the series AND for the real-life Downton Abbey: Highclere Castle.
Susanne Simpson The house was like another member of the cast. And Highclere was the perfect location to set it.
Hugh Bonneville In the first year when we were filming, they had 60 coachloads come and visit the castle, which was their regular expectation. By the time the first season had gone out in the UK and that we were back filming the second season, they were up to 600 coaches. And they had been completely overwhelmed with the surprise hit that that location had become.
Jace If season one of Downton was a sensation, season two was an unstoppable behemoth.
It pulled in even more viewers and became a major part of the pop culture zeitgeist.
Julian Fellowes And the Americans took to it like ducks, to water. And then we sort of became a kind of international phenomenon as opposed to just a British show that was doing rather well.
Jace That next year, Smith, McGovern, and Bonneville were all up for Golden Globes for their work on Downton Abbey.
Hugh Bonneville I mean, it was my first time going to any awards thing, really. I mean, I pinched myself in the fact that I was there, but I didn’t pinch myself as I didn’t win. I think Idris Elba won that year.
Jace It’s true: Idris Elba did win for his role on Luther. But…the cast didn’t walk away empty-handed…
Julianne Moore And the Golden Globe goes to, Downton Abbey.
Jace Downton Abbey won for “Best Television, Limited Series.”
It was a thrilling moment for Eaton and her team. And Simpson was quickly becoming the Downton whisperer. Or, as Julian Fellowes saw it…
Julian Fellowes I would always rather deal with people who are on top of their job as opposed to the other way round. And she was clearly on top of her job from the day one.
Susanne Simpson I think because I liked Downton Abbey so much from the very beginning, it really became my project at MASTERPIECE.
Hugh Bonneville Susanne, I remember always just kept the momentum going, kept the team together, particularly when we came over to visit on these fairly punishing press tours. But they were she always kept them fun. She was always a cool head. Just gently, you know, pulling us all together and making sure that, you know, she knew how much MASTERPIECE cared about the show. And that was really, really key…
Jace And by the time season two aired, Downton’s image as must-watch, prestige TV was cemented.
Nancy West So in 2011, there’s a new kind of resurgence of television drama with shows like Breaking Bad, for example, and Game of Thrones and The Good Wife.
Jace This is Nancy West, one of our recurring TV history – and MASTERPIECE – experts.
Nancy West But right in the middle of that, in 2011 comes Downton Abbey. And the difference, of course, is that it was period drama. So It wasn’t gritty, it wasn’t grime. There’s no grit or grime to Downton Abbey. And in some ways, you know, it was just as impactful, if not more impactful than other shows like Breaking Bad in really telling people TV drama is not what we think it is, that it has all kinds of possibilities. It felt cinematic. It felt epic.
Soraya Nadia McDonald And it’s also like the actors are speaking, obviously, in these really posh English accents. And the production values are like gorgeous, like just bonkers.
Jace Soraya Nadia McDonald, a culture critic for ESPN’s The Undefeated, is another of our go to experts. She clearly agrees with West.
Soraya Nadia McDonald And the fact that it’s free, right? It’s not on cable. You don’t have to. It’s not like you have to pay an additional, however many dollars a month for HBO or Showtime or whatever, make for sort of I suppose it’s an unlikely hit.
Jace An unlikely hit with huge, huge ratings. As many as 16 million viewers tuned in at its height.
Nancy West So that’s, you know, for a PBS show was extraordinarily popular. And I can’t remember how many viewers watched its worldwide. Right now, I know you have those numbers.
Jace I do. 120 million viewers weekly in 203 countries worldwide, which is just staggering.
Jace I’m gonna say that again: 120 million weekly worldwide viewers… JUST for Downton Abbey.
This was a HUGE turnabout for the scrappy public media series.
Just three years before Downton premiered, things were bad at Masterpiece Theatre. Numbers were down… corporate sponsors didn’t want anything to do with them… It seemed like the show wouldn’t go on.
But now, turn to 2011, and here’s MASTERPIECE with not just one bonafide hit…but two:
Rebecca Eaton Yes, we I mean, lightning has struck many times for MASTERPIECE, I have to say, over its 50 years. If you think back on some of the great programs, whether it’s I, Claudius or Jewel in the Crown or Sherlock.
Jace Before MASTERPIECE had Downton Abbey; they also had a little Mystery! show called Sherlock.
Susanne Simpson I mean, Sherlock was a brilliantly done show. Everything about it was really new. And Benedict and Martin Freeman were just absolutely the right duo for that.
Jace On screen, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman’s John Watson were the perfect pair. But off screen, there was another dynamic duo behind the show: Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss.
They created and wrote the Sherlock series together.
I spoke to Mark Gatiss for our MASTERPIECE Studio podcast back in 2015 and here’s the Sherlock origin story he told me.
Mark Gatiss Steven Moffat and I were working on Dr. Who together, and we often seemed to end up getting the same trains back and forth to Cardiff. And we were talking about other things we loved– James Bond, and Sherlock Holmes, and various things. And I said, isn’t it odd that the first story “A Study in Scarlet,” Dr. Watson is invalid at home from war service in Afghanistan. And we were currently in the middle of another Afghan War, and I said, “Yeah, it’s the same war, isn’t it?” And we looked at each other and we sort of lightbulb moment of, you know, we should do that again, why don’t we just bring it up to date? And as soon as we had the idea, we spent the rest of the journey just sort of full of the possibilities and the exciting sort of range of possibilities of just doing it in the present day.
Jace Bringing Sherlock into the 21st century was a smart move. It made their version feel cutting edge.
After all, there have been so many adaptations of the novels over the years… A few of them had even aired on Mystery!, including an extremely popular show starring Jeremy Brett.
So in 2008, Eaton didn’t really think the source material needed to be revisited…(maybe you can tell where I’m going with this…)
Yes, Eaton also rejected Sherlock.
Rebecca Eaton Well, the story of Sherlock is that it has a similarity to the story of Downton in that it was not something I was particularly interested in the beginning. You’re probably gonna wonder how I ever kept my job.
Jace Eaton was on a shopping trip in England, a professional shopping trip to find new programs for MASTERPIECE to buy, when the head of drama at the BBC told her about executive producer Sue Vertue’s new series, Sherlock.
Rebecca Eaton And I said, ‘Oh, that’s nice. What else?’ We had done Jeremy Brett inSherlock. And we had done some other Sherlocks since Jeremy Brett’s. So I came back to Boston and we had a staff meeting and I was kind of reporting on what I heard and what was going on. And I said, ‘Oh, and the BBC is doing Sherlock. Steven Moffat is going to be,’ and Erin Delaney, our production producer, jumped out of her chair, and she said, ‘Steven Moffat is doing Sherlock? You have to do it.’ I said, ‘We do?’ She said, Yes, you have to do it.’
Erin Delaney Well, I said two words and I said them over and over and over again. And those two words are Doctor Who.
Jace Senior MASTERPIECE series producer Erin Delaney is a HUGE Doctor Who fan.
So when she found out that two Doctor Who alumni – Moffat and Gatiss – were taking on Sherlock, she was so excited.
Erin Delaney And I thought, if he can do that to Doctor Who, I bet he can do something even better to Sherlock.
Rebecca Eaton So that pretty much sealed the deal.
Jace And as a result, in 2012, MASTERPIECE was broadcasting TWO of the hottest TV series around: Sherlock and Downton.
Susanne Simpson So here we had two shows that were bringing us exactly the audience we wanted, which were younger people, and broadening our audience because a lot of men and families started watching Downton Abbey…
Nancy West And so suddenly MASTERPIECE suddenly felt not like a quiet, to the sides presence anymore, but a powerful institution.
Susanne Simpson It was just a really exciting time at MASTERPIECE.
Jace But also a little nerve wracking.
It had been years since MASTERPIECE had had this kind of success. And when they suddenly found themselves on top again, they were a little out of their depth.
For one: people were talking about MASTERPIECE’s shows – and learning about them – on social media.
As Downton’s Hugh Bonneville says, that was BIG for the series.
Hugh Bonneville When we first aired back in 2010, 11, you know, obviously social media had been around, but something like Twitter, which was really in its nicer days, if I may say, or certainly in its infancy. That sense of information spreading like wildfire, that really was key, I think, to certainly the younger audience finding this show.
Jace Back then, Instagram was just a year old; Facebook was king; and Tumblr was in its prime.
Soraya Nadia McDonald I remember, you know, there are at least a couple of Downton Abbey tumblrs that I was following. I want to say one was like pairing Downton Abbey gifs with Beyoncé lyrics?
Basically, Downton and Sherlock arrived on the scene just as social media was moving from a niche activity to a thing and MASTERPIECE found itself at the center. Here was this 40-something year-old, stalwart brand having to navigate social media for the first time. But there was a sense that they could either get on board… or get left behind.
So, MASTERPIECE, started building out their social media presence. They got a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a Vine handle (remember those?)
Kelley Moloney There were platforms that we were on back then that don’t even exist anymore.
Jace Kelly Moloney is one of MASTERPIECE’s current social media gurus.
The digital team, along with everyone else, worked round the clock to get MASTERPIECE online and up to speed.
Kelly Moloney And I could barely keep up with the live tweet.
Susanne Simpson You know, one year we were making 85 short form videos. You know, best romantic moments. Funny one-liners by Violet. It was really like feeding a fan frenzy. It was insane.
Jace At the end of the day, they knew that they only had limited time with Downton and Sherlock – these shows weren’t going to go on forever – and so they were going to do the absolute most with the moment.
Hugh Bonneville So the team at MASTERPIECE equally were really, really smart, latching on to the to the young people’s engagement with it, ‘to the young people’s engagement,’ I sound so old.
Jace And all the work that they were putting in was paying off in a big way.
Susanne Simpson We had gone from having, four or five million people watching each week to having 16 million people watching each week.
Jace Those were impressive numbers.
And for the first time since Mobil Oil had pulled out of sponsoring the series in 2002, companies approached MASTERPIECE for potential buy-in.
After years of searching — almost a decade — Viking Cruises, their ongoing corporate funder, signed on. So did Ralph Lauren.
Susanne Simpson It was thrilling. It really was, it felt like all the work that we had done to bring MASTERPIECE back to life, we were being rewarded for it.
Jace Financially, MASTERPIECE was in a good spot – they had PBS, which was thrilled with the success of Downton and Sherlock, they had two, great sponsorships, AND they had the MASTERPIECE Trust.
Susanne Simpson When I joined MASTERPIECE at that point, we didn’t have any corporate sponsors, and so I had this idea that turned into the MASTERPIECE Trust, which was that we could have major donors give money to MASTERPIECE for our programs and get their names credited on the shows.
Jace Simpson knew that MASTERPIECE had some very dedicated fans. Many of them had been watching every Sunday from the beginning — and she wanted them to be able to donate directly to the series.
Susanne Simpson The Trust really took off when Henry and Rebecca embraced the idea, and started conversations with long-time friends of MASTERPIECE, and then with some stations like KPBS and they started to support us. So after 10 years, we have some wonderful people who who have given year after year to the Trust and it’s these very committed people who love MASTERPIECE who are supporting our future.
Jace And the Trust turned out to be essential to MASTERPIECE’s future.
And that’s because the success of Downton and Sherlock didn’t just draw in audiences… it also made OTHER broadcasters pay attention to what MASTERPIECE was doing…
Rebecca Eaton So when it got as popular as it did, I mean, our head was way above the parapet and the competition was really interested in what else those Brits were making.
Jace And you’ll hear how those challenges forced MASTERPIECE to get creative… after we hear a word from our sponsors…
Jace After 40 years of up and down programming — Upstairs, Downstairs, you might say, if you were making a pun, and such puns are not beneath me — MASTERPIECE scored a major modern hit in 2011 with Downton Abbey, which aired for six amazing, chart-topping, award-winning seasons.
Elizabeth McGovern Well, I’m the kind of cynical type that thinks, ‘OK, enough.’ Like, I think I thought that after the third series. So every series I think, ‘Surely, this is it.’
Hugh Bonneville But absolutely none of us thought it was going to go beyond a season, maybe two. I mean, in the UK, you’re optioned for three seasons, and that’s it. And that’s rarely taken up, to be honest.
Elizabeth McGovern I’m surprised that the appetite for it has gone on as long as it has.
Jace But all good things must end, and on March 6, 2016, the last episode of Downton Abbey aired on MASTERPIECE.
Susanne Simpson When Downton ended, obviously, it was very sad for everybody.
Jace It was sad for the cast – who spent their last days on set crying and clinging to one another – and it was sad for the MASTERPIECE team, who had spent the past six years promoting the heck out of it…
Susanne Simpson I would say, I worked pretty much 24/7 to make sure we made the most of Downton Abbey while we had it. And it wasn’t just me – it was an entire team of 25 amazing people who were just doing a brilliant job.
Jace And for good reason. For the past six years, Downton had helped make MASTERPIECE a household name again.
Susanne Simpson I think Gareth, Julian and I felt, you know, we’re very fortunate that we’ve experienced this. And I know the cast feels the same way. We’re very lucky. I don’t know if they’ll ever be another Downton Abbey. I mean, we certainly wish we could figure out that formula. But I think it was just all the right pieces came together at the right moment.
Elizabeth McGovern I think, you know, there’s so many things, factors that have to line up for something like that to happen. And not all of them have anything to do with the actual quality of a show. It’s to do with when it lands in the ether.
Hugh Bonneville There is going to be as well as having a good script, you know, well, cast high production values, etcetera. There is something there’s magic dust. There’s something that just happens in the stars.
Elizabeth McGovern It was just something that people wanted, needed.
Jace There was one question on everyone’s mind– without Downton and Sherlock – which ended its own run less than a year later – would MASTERPIECE still be at the top of its game?
Producers were nervous.
The media landscape MASTERPIECE found itself in post-Downton was very different. For one, it looked like the streamers – Netflix, Hulu, Amazon… – were here to stay.
Soraya Nadia McDonald I don’t think folks were really sort of taking the streaming era like seriously at that point or thinking that it would be an era. And then you have Netflix come along with Orange is the New Black and House of Cards.
Jace …which, side note, was based on Andrew Davies’s House of Cards which had aired on Masterpiece Theatre in the early ’90s…
Soraya Nadia McDonald You know, a week later, you’ve got an audience that’s like, ‘All right. What’s next? What is there?’
Jace And more and more people were moving away from appointment television, including MASTERPIECE, and subscribing to the streamers, demanding new content.
Soraya Nadia McDonald There’s basically this race for content, even though I hate that word, but that’s basically what it is, like, the streaming wars are really just a race to gobble up the rights to as much stuff as you possibly can so that you can put it in front of people’s eyeballs and they will pay you money for it.
Jace You know what that means? Competition.
Pre-Downton, there hadn’t been a whole lot of rival bidders for the kinds of shows that MASTERPIECE was buying.
But Downton’s success had proven that audiences would, in fact, watch people in fancy costumes speaking in British accents.
Julian Fellowes The one thing we did show was that period drama was not dead and that if they got the period drama right, there was a very big audience out there for it, indeed.
Erin Delaney And then began what Rebecca has called the Downton effect, because suddenly British drama became super hot again.
Rebecca Eaton Well…imitation is the sincerest form of television. They all saw this and understood what was working. And they have enormously deep pockets.
Jace MASTERPIECE had experienced intense periods of costume drama saturation before — remember the ’90s and the Pride and Prejudice debacle? — but that kind of rivalry had an ebb and flow to it.
By 2017, though, things felt different. This competition seemed bigger, scarier, more permanent…
But that’s not to say MASTERPIECE couldn’t compete. No. In fact, Downton made MASTERPIECE-y shows popular again, so there was a lot of content for the other networks to buy.
And, for the first time in a long time, MASTERPIECE had money, and they had a hungry audience who were just waiting to see what they would do next.
Susanne Simpson And that meant we could do different kinds of programing. We could do things that were a little more edgy. Like this year, we did Baptiste, for example, and we could go a little bit more family at eight o’clock. So The Durrells in Corfu became a very popular show for us at that eight o’clock. So it really allowed us to do some different kinds of things and to increase the footprint such that on Sunday nights on PBS you could watch MASTERPIECE from 8:00 to 11:00.
Jace So in spite of the competition, post-Downton, things were actually – pretty good – at MASTERPIECE.
They had the capacity to experiment, but they also showed some quintessential classics.
One of those was executive producer Damien Timmer’s remake of Poldark, the swooning 1970s swashbuckler that originally made Robin Ellis an international star.
Robin Ellis But really Poldark, put me on the map in the UK. And in terms of people just knew me from Poldark. ‘Oh, yes. He’s Poldark.’
Jace In 2015 though there was a new Poldark on the block: Aidan Turner… But, savvy viewers could still spot Ellis in a cameo role – as Reverend Halse – in the remake.
Robin Ellis Again, a kind of in-joke, but very subtly done. And a pleasure for both Aidan and me to shake hands and in a sense, give a wink to each other, which is very nice. Forty years apart, which is quite, quite amazing. I’m not sure how often that’s happened before, but fairly rarely, I think.
Reverend Halse: Mr. Poldark.
Ross: Reverend Halse.
Reverend Halse: I wonder if you would favor me with a moment of your time
Jace Even Rufus Sewell, who rocketed to fame in Andrew Davies’s 1994 adaptation of Middlemarch, returned to MASTERPIECE in the new historical drama Victoria.
Rufus Sewell Victoria is a bit more of a confection and it has a kind of a juiciness to it.
Jace In Victoria, Sewell played Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, advisor to the young Queen. And viewers couldn’t get enough of Lord M.
Rufus Sewell The idea that I would be offered the chance to play a role like that 25 years later. Oh, how fortunate. I mean, you know? And just to have so much fun with it.
Lord Melbourne: You are very young.
Victoria: I am 18. Old enough to be Queen. You are not old, Lord M.
Lord Melbourne: If only that were true.
Jace So after Downton, MASTERPIECE was airing remakes like Poldark…and original, made-for-TV hits like Victoria…They were also sticking to their bread-and-butter…
In 2018, MASTERPIECE co-produced a literary adaptation of one of the most well-known French novels ever — Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. It would star Dominic West, David Oyelowo, and Lily Collins.
Lily Collins Les Mis was this constant name in the back of my head that I grew up just knowing about and that’s why I begged to audition. So I thought, I’ll never get it. I’ll never have a shot. But please, let me try.
Jace Collins grew up watching MASTERPIECE. And she’s probably the biggest Downton and Maggie Smith fan I talked to for this podcast…
Lily Collins I want to know Maggie Smith. I wouldn’t mind if she said that remark to me, even if it was very offensive. You just can’t help but love Maggie Smith.
Jace Collins loves Downton so much that, in the summer of 2019, while filming the viral Netflix hit, Emily in Paris, she took time to see the Downton Abbey movie while on location.
Lily Collins I was missing my friends, I was missing my family, I was missing my home. And I was like, ‘Will anyone go with me to go see this movie? Because if you won’t, I’ll totally go alone.’ And it was funny because there were a couple of people on the crew that were like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m obsessed.’ And they were French. And so we went to the theater and so we both could understand it.
Jace The movie was in English, with French subtitles.
Lily Collins And then, of course, I was crying at the end and I walked out of there and just felt like I had had a little taste of home. And that to me, you can’t buy that, you know?
Jace So before all that, when Collins was cast in MASTERPIECE’s Les Misérables, she was elated.
Felix: May I ask your name, mademoiselle?
Fantine: Fantine, monsieur.
Jace Les Misérables was beautiful, and Collins’s Fantine was a highlight of the star-studded production — but it didn’t draw eyeballs the way they’d hoped it would.
So MASTERPIECE kept trying to find their next big hit…
Remember “The Complete Jane Austen?” The television event the rebranded MASTERPIECE launched with? They aired all six the Austen adaptations back to back.
Andrew Davies had written four of those six adaptations.
Andrew Davies We’re mutual admirers of the great classics.
Jace Davies has actually written more than 25 programs for MASTERPIECE through the years.
Andrew Davies Really? I wouldn’t have thought it would have been so many.
Jace Then, in 2020, Davies brought MASTERPIECE viewers an adaptation of Austen’s —Sanditon.
Susanne Simpson We love Jane Austen for MASTERPIECE, and so we were quite excited when Andrew Davies wanted to adapt Jane Austen’s final and unfinished novel, Sandton.
Andrew Davies What I thought was extraordinary about it, that it was in some ways a completely new departure. So it was a bit like Pride and Prejudice meets Boardwalk Empire. One of the extraordinary things is an heiress from the West Indies is coming into it. So it’s Jane Austen’s first black character.
Miss Lambe: What about what I want?
Sidney: I am afraid what you want is neither here nor there.
Miss Lambe: You have taken me from the one thing that I love. If you only knew how much I hate this miserable, chilly island.
Jace Georgiana Lambe, Austen’s first black character, is a young heiress who reluctantly spends the social season in the coastal resort town of Sanditon.
In the show, she’s played by the American actor Crystal Clarke.
Crystal Clarke It’s really interesting because people ask me that all the time, like being a first, and like how that felt. And I don’t think I was really thinking about that very much. I think I was, like, aware that this was something I hadn’t seen before. So that excited me.
Jace It’s really rare to see people of color in period dramas. So playing Georgiana Lambe in an Austen was a big deal to Clarke.
Crystal Clarke I was a huge fan of like watching Jane Austens and it was like a checklist thing that I wanted to do one day to be in one. That was really exciting for me.
Jace But last summer, Clarke posted a thoughtful statement on Twitter about her role on the series, and where the production came up short in properly telling the story of a young woman of color in a period piece like Sanditon.
In the statement, Clarke explained that since none of the writing staff was black, she had to do extra work to make sure the character of Georgiana Lambe felt authentic.
Crystal Clarke Because it’s not just saying something about the script, right? Because that’s what you have to do as an actor, period. It’s the fact that as a black woman, I had to go to a bunch of white people to explain the basics of my experience. And I think ,while I’m totally capable of doing that, obviously, I don’t think it’s something that I should have to do.
Jace And Simpson agrees.
Susanne Simpson We really need to to engage in conversations at MASTERPIECE about diversity and also to engage with our UK partners.
Crystal Clarke Little boys, little girls and people in general deserve to have media that that is reflective of them and their stories. When you just “diversify,” and, I’m doing little air quotes with my fingers, when you just “diversify,” then you’re not really telling the full scope of people’s stories. Then it’s not actually solving the problem. I think, in fact, it’s making it worse. But I think I know for a fact that there are more conversations happening.
Jace And it’s true…these kinds of conversations ARE happening at the BBC, at ITV…and they’re happening at MASTERPIECE too.
Susanne Simpson How can we bring black writers into the writers room? How can we have black members of the crew? How are we going to develop stories about people of color that are true to the period? Because, of course, we do a lot of period drama. So it’s very important for us to look at that across everything now.
Jace So what does a modern MASTERPIECE look like? It’s still a home for the best English-language…mostly British…drama around. It’s still a home for frock flicks, and literary adaptations…but it’s also more diverse; more experimental…
Susanne Simpson You know I’ve always thought of MASTERPIECE on PBS as kind of R&D. You know, we create the shows that then cable network goes on to make whole channels out of, you know.
Jace And Eaton thinks so too.
MASTERPIECE is the kind of place where you have to throw things at the wall and see what sticks.
Rebecca Eaton There are cycles in television. As I have come to see, there are cycles in life. And I think my great, great, good fortune has been to be able to stay in the same job long enough to see the cycles. Not many television executives get to do that. You might have one bad cycle and you’re gone. You get cycled right out of the job. But because of the nature of public television, I’ve been able to stay and then see the next miracle happen. Have lightning strike again, because believe me, we didn’t know Downton was coming. We didn’t know how big it was going to be. We didn’t know Sherlock was going to be. So you never know.
Jace After all, MASTERPIECE itself was never a guaranteed hit.
In 1970, when Stan Calderwood and Christopher Sarson dreamed up the original idea for Masterpiece Theatre, they never imagined it would last for 50 years.
Christopher Sarson I don’t think I ever thought, ‘Oh, we’ve got a 50 year old show here.’ We just…we just did it.
Jace Christopher Sarson led Masterpiece Theatre through the ‘70s. Then, there was Joan Wilson. Then, Rebecca Eaton. And then, after 35 years in charge, Eaton turned things over to Susanne Simpson.
In some ways, it was an emotional day. Eaton and Simpson had worked together for years…but Simpson also knew it was coming.
Susanne Simpson So June 2019, Rebecca and I are in London, and she finally says to me, ‘I’m ready.’ And I knew exactly what she meant. I knew she said, she’s ready to retire.
Jace Susanne Simpson became MASTERPIECE’s executive producer in November 2019. There have been just FOUR Executive Producers in MASTERPIECE’s history. And at this point, Simpson has inherited a brand that’s 50 years old.
No pressure. Right?
Susanne Simpson Yeah, I don’t get a lot of sleep doing this job, I have to say, I, I worry, I worry about everything, you know. It’s clear to me that the biggest challenge is funding, because we’re in a very competitive environment. So, yeah, that keeps me up.
Jace But in 2021, MASTERPIECE already has a smash hit — the cozy, global phenomenon that is All Creatures Great and Small, executive produced by Colin Callender, and set to return for a second season.
Susanne Simpson Heartwarming, that seems to be the thing that everybody says about All Creatures and funny. And I think it’s just hitting at the right moment. I think it’s just hitting the right moment.
Jace Still, Simpson became the executive producer of MASTERPIECE at a very challenging time. So the job is not the same today as it was even five years ago.
It’s no longer just “read finished scripts” or “watch completed shows and pick the best ones.” Facing intense competition, Simpson actually has to fight for the programs she thinks MASTERPIECE’s audience will want to watch.
And sometimes, she ends up losing.
Even if they had been pitched to Simpson, MASTERPIECE couldn’t have matched the budgets required for series like HBO Max’s It’s A Sin, Amazon Prime’s Small Axe, or Netflix’s Bridgerton…
Henry Becton One of the challenges MASTERPIECE is facing today is that there is a tremendous appetite among the growing list of streaming video competitors Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, HBO, etcetera, Apple, to commission and fund drama, that is, longform drama, multi-episode drama that has raised prices everywhere for the best programs. There’s a limit to the number of writers, producers who can pull off series like that at a high quality level. And so it has escalated the costs of doing MASTERPIECE
Jace But it’s not just money that makes Simpson’s job more complicated.
Susanne Simpson Hard to think about a legacy when it’s just a year into the job, but I hope that my legacy will be that I was able to carry MASTERPIECE through what is a very competitive and challenging time, challenging time with not only COVID, not only the industry challenges, but I think bring us through to a time when we’re challenged to really rethink our ideas about diversity and the importance of inclusion in everything that we do.
Jace The challenge then, for Simpson and her team, is to find new ways to capture the continued excitement and expansion of British television production without losing sight of the literary and costume drama traditions that make MASTERPIECE what it is… all while keeping to its budget.
Luckily, when it comes to funding, MASTERPIECE still has PBS support, it still has its sponsor — Viking Cruises — and it still has its secret weapon…the MASTERPIECE Trust.
Susanne Simpson And what it’s allowing us to do now is not only keep our regular programing on air, but it’s allowing us to invest, to develop new programs. Ao that MASTERPIECE Trust money is really an investment pool for our future, and it’s keeping us competitive, really, with the rest of the industry.
Jace And today, being competitive also means getting in fast and getting in early.
Simpson is already looking ahead to finding programming for 2023, ‘24, and beyond.
Susanne Simpson Any given week, I will have at least 15 scripts that are sitting there asking me to read them.
Jace She’s also pushing MASTERPIECE to be the lead commissioner on more programming, which means she’s working with producers and writers directly to make shows from the ground up – instead of just buying them as complete – or mostly completed — projects.
MASTERPIECE is currently the lead commissioner on a show Simpson’s especially excited about — Magpie Murders, a mystery based on Anthony Horowitz’s bestselling book.
Today, MASTERPIECE is facing challenges, but Simpson is doing everything she can to meet them.
Jace If you could give Susanne one piece of advice, just one, what would you tell her?
Rebecca Eaton It’s a really hard question to answer, Jace. I think it comes down to the fact that MASTERPIECE has always been a series which is built on the work of others. It is built on partnerships and relationships of people who make these shows. Let’s not forget, we don’t make them. We invest in them, we partner with them, we co-produce. And so I think my advice would be to figure out your best, best collaborators get very close to them. And stick like glue.
Susanne Simpson I have to say, that because we’ve had such a long history of supporting British talent and producers, that we’re very lucky that we know our partners well, they know what we want, and those relationships mean everything.
Jace Yes, the streamers have money. But MASTERPIECE has been working with these British producers for years and years. And you know what’s equally valuable? Maybe even more valuable? MASTERPIECE has a good relationship with their audience too.
Here’s Senior Producer Erin Delaney.
Erin Delaney MASTERPIECE has more and more, I think actually a place, a place in this world and a role to play, which is the all-important curatorial function. At a certain point, we are overwhelmed by the sheer amount of content out there. I know that I, as a working mom, am still catching up on like, the dramas from like, 2013? And sometimes you just want a trusted voice to say, ‘Hey, this is good. Watch this.’
Jace After 50 years in the game, people trust MASTERPIECE to show them the best TV Britain has to offer: frock dramas, contemporary shows, mysteries…
Erin Delaney It has to be about something that matters. You know, I really think people today, and especially our viewers are looking for content that is meaningful, you know, because it’s not enough for it to just be pretty if it’s empty.
Susanne Simpson For me, MASTERPIECE is really like great literature. It’s really about emotional truths and about love, betrayal, all of those great themes in life. Snd whether it’s a costume drama or a mystery or a contemporary show, I feel that MASTERPIECE is always about something.
Jace Over the years MASTERPIECE… Masterpiece Theatre… Mystery!… have shown more than 400 different programs.
Of course, not all of those can be breakout hits. But still, many were. There were the ones we talked about on this podcast, and still others that we didn’t even have time for, except for a brief mention right here, right now.
Lillie, Northanger Abbey, Jeeves and Wooster, Portrait of a Marriage, Rumpole of the Bailey, Miss Marple, Moll Flanders, Persuasion, Mrs. Brown, Rebecca, Reckless, David Copperfield, Bleak House, Doctor Zhivago, Cranford, Little Dorrit, Wolf Hall…and so on, and so on.
In 2021, MASTERPIECE has a reputation.
Hugh Bonneville I think MASTERPIECE has been over the years a haven of hopefully the best of British imports.
Julian Fellowes MASTERPIECE is a friend for British creative people abroad. There’s no question about that.
Lily Collins For me, as a Brit coming to Los Angeles and being very much a dual citizen, you know, feeling very British, very American at the same time, it felt to me like a piece of home.
Elizabeth McGovern I grew up in one of those homes where MASTERPIECE was my parents’ idea of the only TV that existed. And I just remember absolutely loving it, being completely transported.
Soraya Nadia McDonald Well at least for me, it was an entry point to another world, like I’d never, you know, when I was a kid, I’d never been to England before.
Susan Cooke Kittredge I mean, it was what I did on Sunday nights. It’s what we all did.
Laura Linney It had an emphatic, lasting imprint on me.
Newton Minnow It is a treasure. I hope that Masterpiece Theatre is around another 50 years at least.
Jace Another 50 years… Simpson probably won’t be the EP by the time 2071 rolls around, but she’s staying busy for now.
Susanne Simpson There’s so much interest in British drama, there’s so much of it being made that I’m actually quite confident that masterpiece is still going to be a place for great programming.
Jace Personally, I’m quite confident in the brand’s future, too. MASTERPIECE has had its ups and downs over the years, and its share of hits and misses, some of which I’ve called them out on during my time as a television critic.
But I’ve also celebrated many, many of the shows MASTERPIECE has aired over the years.
Whenever my phone rang and it was a MASTERPIECE publicist, I always knew that there would be something special winging its way to me, whether that was the first batch of Downton episodes or a one-off drama or a new mystery series. For five decades, MASTERPIECE has represented the best and brightest of British television. It has taken risks, both financial and creative, and it has stuck to its core values for half a century.
Fifty years on from its first steps, that I now get to share these conversations with MASTERPIECE’s audience on PBS makes it feel all the more special. To celebrate MASTERPIECE’s Golden Jubilee and to have been even a minor player in its grand history is a true honor.
I’m Jace Lacob and THIS was “Making MASTERPIECE.” I’ll see you back here in another 50 years.
Making MASTERPIECE is produced by Nick Andersen. Rachel Aronoff is our story editor. Elisheba Ittoop is our sound editor. Sound design is by Jakob Lewis of Great Feeling Studios. The executive producer of MASTERPIECE is Susanne Simpson.
I’m Jace Lacob. Thanks for listening.