The executive producer of TV’s “Masterpiece Theatre” series talks about her decades-long career and why she first turned down “Downton Abbey.”

Guests

  • Rebecca Eaton executive producer, Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery!

Read An Excerpt

From MAKING MASTERPIECE by Rebecca Eaton. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © WGBH Educational Foundation and Rebecca Eaton, 2013.

Transcript

  • 11:06:54

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. For more than 25 years, Rebecca Eaton has been executive producer of "Masterpiece" formerly known as "Masterpiece Theatre," the award-winning PBS weekly prime time drama series that has given American viewers some of the best of British television.

  • 11:07:19

    MS. DIANE REHMIn her new book she pulls back the curtain, reveals the drama behind the dramas, the death of host, the struggle for funding and how she almost let the hugely successfully "Downton Abbey" series get away. The book is titled "Making Masterpiece." Rebecca Eaton joins me in the studio.

  • 11:07:44

    MS. DIANE REHMI know there are many fans out there. Give us a call 800-433-8850. Send your email to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Rebecca, it's good to meet you.

  • 11:08:03

    MS. REBECCA EATONThank you, Diane.

  • 11:08:04

    REHMWell, it's just great to have you here. As one of millions of fans of "Downton Abbey," I've got to ask you what it was that initially turned you away from it?

  • 11:08:23

    EATONAh, yes, that horror story.

  • 11:08:27

    REHMWell, luckily it didn't turn, yeah.

  • 11:08:29

    EATONThat close call, yeah, yeah.

  • 11:08:30

    REHMClose call.

  • 11:08:30

    EATONIt was a very close call. It was nothing about "Downton Abbey" that turned me away. It was the fact that we had a full plate. I tell the story in the book of the phone call I had one lazy, summer afternoon from the head of drama in England, at ITV, the broadcast network there and she told me about this, you know, wonderful new series coming up about to go into production, set in a beautiful country house, beautiful frocks, upstairs, downstairs and turn of the century, an American heiress.

  • 11:09:08

    EATONAnd I thought in my sleepy way that afternoon, well, we're about to redo "Upstairs Downstairs" with the BBC. We were doing the new one which was a few years ago and we had already done "The Buccaneers," Edith Wharton's book about an American heiress marrying an impoverished British nobleman.

  • 11:09:27

    EATONSo I thought, well, been there, done that.

  • 11:09:30

    REHMBeen there, done that.

  • 11:09:32

    EATONAnd we had a really full schedule so I said no thank you and hung up and went back to sleep.

  • 11:09:40

    REHMAnd what turned you around?

  • 11:09:43

    EATONAh, well, time passed. I had amazing good fortune in the fact that no other American broadcaster to whom it was pitched took it on. They, too, turned it down. They turned it down not so much because they had a full plate of British drama but because they didn't think British drama would work on American commercial television. They never have.

  • 11:10:07

    REHMI see.

  • 11:10:08

    EATONThey thought those accents are too hard, you know, audiences won't watch it. So they said no. And time passed and I, you know, was concentrating on the new "Upstairs Downstairs." I wasn't thinking about it. I got some of the scripts. By then, at first it was pitched to me first just as an idea and Julian Fellowes, famously had written every word of all four series.

  • 11:10:34

    EATONAnd I got some scripts and I thought these are pretty good but I didn't really think about it. Then I had a phone call from a man named Simon Curtis who is a director. He did "My Week with Marilyn." He did for television "David Copperfield," "Cranford" for us in the BBC and he's married to Elizabeth McGovern.

  • 11:10:53

    REHMAh.

  • 11:10:53

    EATONLady Grantham.

  • 11:10:56

    REHMThe Lady Grantham.

  • 11:10:56

    EATONLady Grantham, Cora, the American heiress and Elizabeth had come home to Simon after the table read, which is what they called the read-through just before they start shooting, when they assemble the entire cast and they are never, ever all together in one place except on that day.

  • 11:11:11

    REHMHah.

  • 11:11:12

    EATONThey all show up, everybody from Maggie Smith to Sophie McShera, who plays Daisy. They sat down and Elizabeth said there's something magic here. This is really good. She just said this to Simon and Simon and I had one of our catch-up calls and he said, you know, Elizabeth says it's going to be really fantastic.

  • 11:11:30

    EATONAnd then, you know, the penny dropped. The pound dropped and I thought, uh-oh and I quickly scrambled and it was still available and we did the deal.

  • 11:11:40

    REHMHow wonderful, have you or were you even a little bit surprised at how big it's become in this country?

  • 11:11:51

    EATONI was a little bit surprised, like completely gobsmacked...

  • 11:11:55

    REHMReally?

  • 11:11:55

    EATON...as the British would say.

  • 11:11:56

    REHMYeah.

  • 11:11:56

    EATONI think we all were. We all knew it was good but I have to say proudly, "Masterpiece" has done a lot of good things over the 42 years that we've, it, she has been around.

  • 11:12:06

    REHMOf course, of course.

  • 11:12:08

    EATONA lot of really high-end British period dramas and so I knew it was good. And Gareth Neame who is the executive producer of it said during the shoot everyone felt on the set that it was something special but nobody knew. And then it aired in the U.K. before it aired here so we had a little warning that it was going to be big.

  • 11:12:31

    EATONAnd we had a little time to prepare and scramble, but it was very hard to pitch it to reviewers or to get features written. "Downtown Abbey," they would say?

  • 11:12:40

    REHMYes, yes.

  • 11:12:42

    EATONWhat's "Downtown Abbey"? Nobody knew what it was and they'd sort of tune out after a certain amount of explanation. So then we aired it and the audience showed up and from then on every year has built and built and built. The ratings are now huge. I think something like 28 million people saw it last season.

  • 11:13:03

    REHMAnd would you please tell me and our audience of several million, Rebecca Eaton, why do we have to wait until January for the first new episode?

  • 11:13:20

    EATONOh, it's good for you, anticipation. No, it's obviously complicated. It's been talked about a lot. It's been in the news a lot because the series does air in the U.K. in September and it goes on for eight weeks, then there's a Christmas special and we air and will air it in January. It starts January 5, 2014 here.

  • 11:13:44

    EATONThe reasons for that are complicated. One reason is that if we were to air it in September, October.

  • 11:13:51

    REHMSimultaneously, with the Brits.

  • 11:13:52

    EATONYes, we could never do it, dead on simultaneously because of different format lengths.

  • 11:13:59

    REHMI see.

  • 11:13:59

    EATONI mean, we could try to do that, but unless it was on, literally at the same hour then it's always going to be out ahead. I mean, if it airs at 9 o'clock...

  • 11:14:09

    REHMI see.

  • 11:14:09

    EATON...and this is a little down in the weeds, but if it airs at 9 o'clock in England on the East coast, the very earliest would be 4 o'clock in the afternoon, you know, what? That's a little crazy. So it would be September, October, it would be in the teeth of premiere season for the networks. That's when the networks all launch their shows. They spend millions and millions of dollars promoting and it's a very noisy time in television to get noticed.

  • 11:14:37

    EATONAnd it would be doing "Downton" a disservice to put it out there. January, February is a very sweet spot. There are a lot of people watching television. The weather is pretty bad in most of the country. It's dark out.

  • 11:14:51

    EATONPeople are inside and our numbers have always been high in January. "Downton" has done really, really well in January so far so we don't want to, you know, mess with it. The other thing is we wouldn't be able to use the cast to help promote our January broadcast and they come over in this period between their broadcast and ours and they go on the circuit. They go on talk shows.

  • 11:15:16

    REHMGood, good.

  • 11:15:16

    EATONMaybe they'll even be on this show.

  • 11:15:18

    REHMAbsolutely, I hope so, absolutely. But now you have to take us behind the scenes when you first learned that Dan Stevens who plays Matthew Crawley would have to be written off the show. I almost fainted. I mean and I came in the next morning and all of our producers were in tears.

  • 11:15:46

    EATONWere in tears, yeah?

  • 11:15:47

    REHMOh, absolutely.

  • 11:15:48

    EATONYeah, did you see it on the internet?

  • 11:15:49

    REHMI did.

  • 11:15:50

    EATONThat's how you found out about his demise?

  • 11:15:51

    REHMAbsolutely.

  • 11:15:53

    EATONWell, that's good. That tells me that the spoilers that might have been out about it were subdued. Anyway, well, think about this, it was broadcast in England, Matthew going under the car, was broadcast in England on Christmas Day. So I think that was a blow upon a bruise so to speak but so how did I first hear about it, obviously way, way before that.

  • 11:16:21

    REHMWay, way.

  • 11:16:22

    EATONIt was after Julian had written I believe the first half of that season, of season three and Matthew, Dan Stevens decided at that point that he was going to move on.

  • 11:16:38

    REHMHe wanted out?

  • 11:16:39

    EATONYes.

  • 11:16:39

    REHMHe wanted to go to Broadway?

  • 11:16:41

    EATONYes, he wanted to make movies.

  • 11:16:42

    REHMHe wanted to do something else, yeah.

  • 11:16:44

    EATONI mean he's a very creative man.

  • 11:16:44

    REHMRight.

  • 11:16:44

    EATONHe has a lot of irons in the fire and it felt like the right time for him. And he, they had been talking about it. There had been some negotiation going on. I think he decided, no, he really had to go.

  • 11:16:55

    EATONBut Julian hadn't been writing him out so to speak throughout the series. It had to happen rather suddenly and well Julian's choices, he couldn't make Matthew get sick. Matthew had already had some health issues if you remember he went to the war. He was shot, paralyzed.

  • 11:17:09

    REHMYes, yes.

  • 11:17:11

    EATONIt couldn't be the flu because Livinia, his foreign fiancée had died of the flu. It couldn't be childbirth so -- and it had to be quick. Julian felt if he's going to go he's got to go and he has to go absolutely, definitely because there is no hope, chance of his coming back.

  • 11:17:30

    EATONHe can't have had an affair and left. That actually almost happened with Lord Grantham. So he had to go under the car. Yes it was, but it's television Diane. It's what you're supposed to do, is have dramatic moments and the audience completely, completely befuddled, oh, my gosh.

  • 11:17:49

    REHMWell, and that's exactly what happened. We all said, how could they do that? How could they do that to us?

  • 11:17:56

    EATONYes, there's no such thing as too much publicity you know.

  • 11:17:59

    REHMToo much and he really, that episode surely got a lot.

  • 11:18:05

    EATONI'm sorry.

  • 11:18:05

    REHMRebecca Eaton is with me. Her new book is titled "Making Masterpiece: 25 Years Behind The Scenes At Masterpiece Theatre And Mystery! On PBS." Stay with us.

  • 11:20:01

    REHMAnd the cover photograph of the new book titled "Making Masterpiece" has a beautiful photograph of the author Rebecca Eaton done by Annie Leibovitz. And of course I gather that is...

  • 11:20:21

    EATONNo, that is not High Clear (sp?) Castle. This is Richard Kipling's home. It was also the setting for "My Boy Jack" which is a drama we did with Daniel Radcliffe. And it was set largely in that house. So, no it's not Downton Abbey.

  • 11:20:41

    REHMDaniel Radcliffe, that indeed is a familiar name. And let's hear a little of Daniel Radcliffe.

  • 11:20:58

    DANIEL RADCLIFFEIf you please, ma'am. If you please, aunt, I have a nephew, David Copperfield.

  • 11:21:07

    MAGGIE SMITHOh, no.

  • 11:21:09

    RADCLIFFEI've been very unhappy since my ma died and my stepfather hates me. And he made me work in a horrible place.

  • 11:21:17

    REHMAnd it's Daniel Radcliffe who goes on to...

  • 11:21:21

    EATONIt's little Daniel -- Harry Potter. Harry Potter. That was Maggie Smith that he was talking to and that's "David Copperfield." It was his first ever role. He wasn't an actor. He was the son of a literary -- I think it's a literary agent and a casting director. And he just happened to be put up for the part. He didn't know how to act.

  • 11:21:42

    REHMWow.

  • 11:21:42

    EATONI think he didn't do any two takes the same because he had absolutely no training. He had those eyes, those absolutely saucer-like blue eyes. He was older than he looked, which is what you want in a child actor. He knew a little bit more of just how to be, but he -- you know, in the book Simon Curtis, who directed "David Copperfield" and cast him. So, you know, he used to kind of wander off the set and get all interested in the equipment. And they'd have to, where's Daniel?

  • 11:22:11

    REHMWhere's Daniel?

  • 11:22:13

    EATONAnd Maggie Smith loved, loved, loved working with him. And when Harry Potter came to be, she was cast in it and they were looking for Harry Potter. She said, should look at that young Dan Radcliffe. So she got him the part.

  • 11:22:26

    REHMWow. And he has become such a star.

  • 11:22:32

    EATONHe's a sweetie. He's a sweetie.

  • 11:22:33

    REHMTalk a little about Julian Fellowes. I want to go back to Downton Abbey. Talk about Julian Fellowes and the type of man he is.

  • 11:22:45

    EATONAh, well, as I say in the book -- and I haven't heard what he thinks of this -- I sent him a copy of the book and I haven't heard from him. I may never hear from him again. He's in the book. I had interviewed him and he is a wonderful talker. And I would've preferred the whole book be Julian and take the stuff about me out because he speaks so eloquently and humorously. That's just how he talks. As his wife says, he could talk for England, you know, as a sport.

  • 11:23:16

    EATONFirst of all, he is to the manor born, as the British say. This is a world he knows. He remember his aunties and his eccentric relatives who were like the Crawley family. So he's absolutely familiar with sort of the manners and the era and the social history. I think that's one secret to him and to his success. The other thing is he was an actor himself. As he would say, he was a mediocre actor. I wouldn’t say it, he said it. And physically he's not a leading man type. And he would play sort of character roles but he knows dialogue. And so he knew how to write dialogue.

  • 11:23:56

    EATONThen he did some work on a project called Monarch of the Glen, which was also on PBS. It was a BBC series that was on PBS set in Scotland. So he was doing some writing for that, so he knew how to write episodically. So he certainly had the work experience. And then this came to him as an idea to turn Gosford Park into a television series. It kind of sprang from Gosford Park, the country house and what if you, you know, kind of kept going with it.

  • 11:24:28

    EATONAnd he was -- he must've been absolutely ready to do it because within days he came back with a full treatment breakdown of full 20 characters and he knew where the story was going, so timing. And I think there is a quality -- this is my own personal theory about Downton and why it has resonated and landed so much with audiences. There's something very good-hearted about it. Yes, it's beautiful frocks and delicious people and love and loss and money and disaster. But everybody in this community is trying to do the right thing. Maybe Thomas, not all the time or Miss O'Brien.

  • 11:25:07

    EATONBut there is a sense of generosity and that is Julian. And I think he writes it in every scene.

  • 11:25:18

    REHMLet's hear a scene from dinnertime at Downton.

  • 11:25:25

    UNIDENTIFIED MANI will hold it steady and you can help yourself, sir.

  • 11:25:28

    UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2Yes, I know. Thank you.

  • 11:25:32

    UNIDENTIFIED WOMANYou'll soon get used to the way things are done here.

  • 11:25:35

    #2If you mean that I'm accustomed to a very different life from this than that is true.

  • 11:25:39

    WOMANWhat will you do with your time?

  • 11:25:41

    #2I've got a job in Riffen (sp?) . I said I'll start tomorrow.

  • 11:25:45

    MANA job?

  • 11:25:46

    #2In a partnership. You might've heard of it, Hoveling Carter (sp?) . They need someone who understands industrial law.

  • 11:25:51

    MANYou do know I mean to involve you in the running of the estate.

  • 11:25:55

    #2Oh, don't worry. There are plenty hours in the day. And of course I'll have the weekend.

  • 11:26:00

    MANWe'll discuss this later. We mustn't bore the ladies.

  • 11:26:04

    SMITHWhat is a weekend?

  • 11:26:10

    UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2Why shouldn't he be a lawyer?

  • 11:26:11

    UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3Gentlemen don't work, silly, not real gentlemen.

  • 11:26:14

    #2Don't listen to her, Daisy.

  • 11:26:15

    #3No, listen to me and take those kidneys up to the server before I knock you down and serve your brains as fritters.

  • 11:26:22

    #2Yes, Mrs. Butler.

  • 11:26:23

    REHMI love those two scenes. And Maggie Smith saying, what's a weekend?

  • 11:26:30

    EATONProbably the most famous line on Masterpiece ever. Yes, and it's now on tote bags and mugs and you can find it everywhere. That was the late Matthew Crawley at his first dinner. That was from season one. You know, he had a job -- he was going to have a job.

  • 11:26:48

    REHMA job? What's a job?

  • 11:26:50

    EATONWhat's a job? What's a weekend? Take these kidneys upstairs, perfect.

  • 11:26:53

    REHMI loved it. Tell me about Maggie Smith and her work on Downton Abbey. She does it so perfectly.

  • 11:27:06

    EATONShe does most everything perfectly...

  • 11:27:08

    REHMOf course.

  • 11:27:10

    EATON...in my opinion. She and Julian were friends. She had been in Gosford Park. I think he saw her in this, he heard her voice. And they have -- they channel each other in some way that none of us understand.

  • 11:27:26

    REHMInteresting.

  • 11:27:27

    EATONI think after the first season he could hear how she would deliver lines, then he started writing them just for her to say them. I mean, arguably she gets all the best lines. She gets the funny lines, but she is a woman of great discipline, a very long career. I just saw something on YouTube when she was singing and dancing with Carol Burnett on the Carol Burnett Show years ago. I remember her -- when I lived in London when I was working the BBC way, way back in 1970, I went to see School for Scandal and there she was. I was way, way, way, way, way up there in the cheap seats.

  • 11:28:06

    EATONAnd she has always been one of my favorites. The Prime of Miss Jean Brody.

  • 11:28:10

    REHMOf course.

  • 11:28:11

    EATONSo this is the first time she's done a television series. And I think she recognized this was a good fit for a -- she says she's never seen it, by the way, famously.

  • 11:28:22

    REHMReally.

  • 11:28:22

    EATONYeah, she's never watched it. I don't know if that's true but she says, no, no, she's never seen it. She shows up for work. She's incredibly prepared. She keeps everybody relaxed, does her job and goes home.

  • 11:28:35

    REHMAnd how much of those lines must be memorized?

  • 11:28:40

    EATONOh, all of them.

  • 11:28:42

    REHMAll of them.

  • 11:28:42

    EATONOh, yeah.

  • 11:28:43

    REHMThere are no coaches around.

  • 11:28:44

    EATONNo, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.

  • 11:28:46

    REHMIt's absolutely…

  • 11:28:47

    EATONEverybody -- oh no, everybody knows their lines. No. What? Of course they know their lines.

  • 11:28:54

    REHMAll right. I'm going to open the phones. Joanie in Raleigh, N.C. is on the line. Hello, Joan, you're on the air.

  • 11:29:05

    JOANThank you, Diane. I love mystery a lot and still miss Inspector Morris and has been enjoying the Inspector Lewis Shows. But the last episode seemed to me to be kind of a closing of the whole series. And I was wondering if that's true or if we'll get more Inspector Lewis next season.

  • 11:29:25

    EATONOh, Joan, now do you really want me to tell you?

  • 11:29:28

    JOANI don't know.

  • 11:29:29

    EATONYeah, you don't know, see. Everybody wants to know what's going to happen next but they don't really. Let's see, how can I answer that?

  • 11:29:36

    REHMHow can you put this?

  • 11:29:39

    EATONYou never know with actors and writers and producers. I think, you know, these guys -- Kevin Whately has been doing this for a long time. And I think everybody -- Lawrence Fox plays his sidekick and everybody needs a break now and then to kind of go back, regroup, think about it. So I would say, Joan, watch this space.

  • 11:30:05

    JOANOkay.

  • 11:30:06

    REHMAll right.

  • 11:30:07

    JOANThank you.

  • 11:30:07

    REHMThanks for calling. And why did Masterpiece Theater become Masterpiece?

  • 11:30:17

    EATON...Masterpiece? Why did we shrink? Well, this was in -- just after 2003, '04, '05 in there, I had a shock. And my shock was that I went to the Emmys and discovered that HBO was about to produce Elizabeth the Queen -- the Elizabeth the First story with our Helen Mirren -- our Helen Mirren from prime Suspect. And that she would be on HBO rather than PBS just seemed absolutely disgraceful to me. And they had outbid us. We didn't have an underwriter at that point.

  • 11:30:58

    EATONExxonMobil who had been our underwriter -- Mobil had been our champion for years and years...

  • 11:31:03

    REHMYes.

  • 11:31:04

    EATON...had faded away. And so I realized that this ship of whom I was the captain was at risk of going down, and that I had to do something. And I truly did not know what to do and had no money to do anything anyway. But we got a grant from the corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS which we were pretty much allowed to do anything with. And we spent it. Wasn't much money but we spent it on doing some research into how people perceived Masterpiece. And discovered that they used to watch it, they loved it, they regarded it very highly. They weren't watching it so much anymore. They thought it was too hard to find, which was kind of confusing because it's always been at 9:00.

  • 11:31:51

    EATONAnd a lot of people were put off by the title. They thought, oh it sounds like it will be very challenging. It sounds like homework. I can't commit to 13 weeks in a row. I can't even commit to four Sundays in a row. So we did some rebranding, which was extremely risky. And if I had known how risky it was I never would've done it. I think I did it really badly when I write about this in the book about being, you know, just a commander overdrive, as my daughter calls me, never pleased with anything. This isn't right but not having a good idea what would be right.

  • 11:32:27

    EATONAnyway, we did some face-lifting to the show. We didn't change the content because we realized whenever anybody, particularly younger viewers watched it, watched Madame Bovary or Sense Insensibility or Bleak House, they loved it. It was just sort of getting past the rather forbidding title of Masterpiece Theater and the confusing anthology nature. Sometimes there would be Jayne Eyre, sometimes Jane Tennison, sometimes Jane Austen. So we had to do genres, which we do now. We put all the contemporary material together, the mysteries and the classics.

  • 11:33:06

    EATONAnd it immediately caught on. Amazing to me that people now refer to it as Masterpiece.

  • 11:33:13

    REHMRebecca Eaton. Her new book is titled "Making Masterpiece." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I want to take you back to the very first ever Masterpiece Theater.

  • 11:33:35

    ALISTAIR COOKEGood evening. I'm Alistair Cook. We open tonight a new television theater, which in the next year will show you plays adapted from the works of Balzac, Henry James, Dustwefsky (sp?)

  • 11:33:51

    REHMWhat a voice.

  • 11:33:52

    EATONWhat a voice. What a voice. To hear that voice and Daniel Radcliffe's I'm practically in tears here. That's Alistair. That's Alistair who sounded that way the day before he died. That's how he sounded in 1971, that perfect, perfect broadcaster voice. And he was sort of the perfect broadcaster. He was a journalist. He was a writer. He was a musician. He was a mimic. He was an actor. He was a British subject transformed into an American citizen. He got his American citizenship. And I found him absolutely terrifying when I met him, when I first came on the job.

  • 11:34:38

    EATONI had been watching Masterpiece, you know, like everybody else in my nightie on the couch and loving him and watching his essays -- his Edwardian essays on Upstairs Downstairs. He lived practically in that time. He loved that era. And then I was all of a sudden his boss. And how was I going to do that? And I met him. He was sort of mildly frosty, and which I discovered was a little bit shyness and a little bit the fact that he was concentrating. He was about to tape and he worked -- he memorized everything.

  • 11:35:11

    EATONSo four-minute introductions he would memorize...

  • 11:35:14

    REHMHe would memorize.

  • 11:35:15

    EATON...memorize them. He's never used a teleprompter. So I thought, okay. Well, this is going to be tough. And then over the years we became very close. And I got to know his family, his lovely wife Jane who is an artist, American. She had actually grown up in Montclair, N.J. where my mother had grown up. They were sort of my parents' generation. And they had a daughter Susie, wonderful woman -- we looked sort of alike. They sort of adopted me, spent endless hours in their beautiful apartment on Central Park overlooking the park, drinking gallons of scotch that Alistair would pour in my glass.

  • 11:35:55

    EATONBut if you got -- come at cocktail hour then have a drink but don't talk because he watched Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune.

  • 11:36:04

    REHMDid he really?

  • 11:36:05

    EATONAnd he did that -- yes, and no talking. You have to watch the news and then watch that because he was actually -- it wasn't just a game. He was sharpening his mind.

  • 11:36:14

    REHMOf course.

  • 11:36:15

    EATONYeah, he was doing memory...

  • 11:36:16

    REHMHe was working with all the contestants.

  • 11:36:18

    EATONYeah, and he would do that -- he remembered everything. Then he would talk and Jane would say, oh Alistair, oh Alistair and he would just tell the most fabulous stories of the great and the good of the 20th century.

  • 11:36:34

    REHMAnd what about his successor?

  • 11:36:38

    EATONRussell. Russell. Dear Russell, Russell Baker. Russell Baker was our first idea actually. And Christopher Lydon, formerly of the New York Times, he was working at WGBH, a journalist, knew Russell from Nantucket. And he said, what about Russ Baker? So we put in a call and his secretary, assistant took the message and we didn't talk to him and he passed back his answer which was, only a fool or a suicidal maniac would follow Alistair Cooke.

  • 11:37:12

    REHM...would follow Alistair Cooke. And of course he did.

  • 11:37:16

    EATONHe did.

  • 11:37:17

    REHMShort break here. When we come back, your calls, your email. I look forward to hearing from you.

  • 11:40:02

    REHMAnd welcome back. We're going to take as many of your calls as we can. Let's go first to Cynthia, in Louisville, Ky. Cynthia, you're on the air.

  • 11:40:18

    CYNTHIAThank you so much. So other people have done this too, they read something and they think, oh, I wish Masterpiece would do this. So the novel by A. S. Byatt, called "Possession."

  • 11:40:31

    REHMOne of my very favorites, Cynthia.

  • 11:40:33

    CYNTHIAI know. It's so wonderful. And the movie, I think anybody who really enjoyed the novel -- well, I was totally disappointed with the movie adaption.

  • 11:40:41

    REHMYes. I think people were.

  • 11:40:42

    CYNTHIAIt'd be so perfect for a series. You could do it so well. So I was just hoping that was something you would undertake.

  • 11:40:50

    EATONWell, I thought I was going to say to you, but there was a movie, but you already know that. I didn't see the movie. What I worry about is that somebody owns the rights. That's the trouble with so many of these books, which is when a movie theater makes it they snap up all the rights and then they kind of sit on them forever.

  • 11:41:07

    REHMOh, I see.

  • 11:41:08

    EATONBut that's the story of the poet. And it's a contemporary story interwoven with a story in the past.

  • 11:41:15

    REHMExactly.

  • 11:41:15

    EATONYeah.

  • 11:41:16

    REHMExactly. And the authorship of the poem itself gets woven. It's sort of two centuries apart.

  • 11:41:25

    EATONYes. Yeah.

  • 11:41:27

    REHMIt's a fabulous book.

  • 11:41:28

    EATONI do remember that. Okay. Cynthia, I will look into it.

  • 11:41:32

    REHMThat's just great. I want to ask you about the first PBS series I saw, which I thought was Masterpiece, "The Forsyte Saga."

  • 11:41:45

    EATONNo, Diane. It was not on Masterpiece because Masterpiece didn't exist.

  • 11:41:49

    REHMExist.

  • 11:41:50

    EATONAnd it's kind of -- that's the first story that I tell in the book because the book is a memoir. It's Masterpiece's memoir, but Viking Penguin, the publisher, also wanted it to be my memoir. So I had the hardest time thinking how do I get out from behind the curtain here. And why does anyone want to know about me? But they seemed to think I should weave them together. So I started with 1969, which was the year I graduated from college and also the year that "The Forsyte Saga" was shown on PBS. It was an earlier incarnation of PBS.

  • 11:42:29

    EATONPBS itself didn't even exist. So it was a BBC production. It was British drama. It looked liked, walked like, talked like Masterpiece, but it wasn't. It aired. It had a huge reaction.

  • 11:42:41

    REHMHuge.

  • 11:42:42

    EATONAnd it gave the idea to create a series that would include other titles to the people at WGBH, and they then took the idea to Mobil Corporation. And a man Herb Schmertz, at Mobil, understood that this would make Mobil look like the classy oil company. So…

  • 11:43:01

    REHMMy husband and I knew Herb Schmertz very well.

  • 11:43:07

    EATONGenius. He was a genius.

  • 11:43:07

    REHMAbsolutely.

  • 11:43:08

    EATONAnd he had a brilliant idea, short money, not much money to buy the rights to these shows that were already made. And it put PBS on the map, along with Julia Child. And it made Mobil look like the classy gas station.

  • 11:43:22

    REHMExactly.

  • 11:43:23

    EATONYeah, it was very effective. And it really raised Mobil's respectability level in Washington, which is another thing, you know, as a mover and shaker in Washington with Congress. That's the other thing Herb Schmertz had an eye.

  • 11:43:40

    REHMAnd now you have, in addition to money coming from the corporation for Public Broadcasting, you have individuals who have contributed.

  • 11:43:53

    EATONOur money actually comes from PBS, not CBB. The PBS money is the money that individual stations pay as dues to PBS and then PBS decides where we'll go. For years and years we took no PBS money. It was entirely Mobil money, a quarter of a billion dollars over the years. Then Exxon bought Mobil and they decided it wasn't in their interest to continue funding. Then we had a really tough time back in those years before we did the rebranding. Then we did the rebranding and the ratings began to rise. We went through some time when PBS was beginning to think why should we do British drama at all?

  • 11:44:30

    REHMExactly.

  • 11:44:31

    EATONIt was really tough. It was a dark time. And the British were doing fewer and fewer big titles, long-running series. So that was pretty scary. So we did some fast tap dancing for awhile. Then we did the rebranding, complete Jane Austin we did, putting all six of Jane's books together as a series. And then we had a couple of tremendously good breaks. One with "Sherlock," the new "Sherlock," by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, and "Downton" came along. On the heels of that, we quickly got two sponsors, Viking River Cruises picked up the phone and called us.

  • 11:45:14

    EATONViking River Cruises being the premier river cruise company. They're also launching some sea vessels. And then Ralph Lauren came in. So we had two underwriters of great affinity to our product, but as in most public television projects that's not enough. It still isn't enough to budget us, even our modest budget per year. So we had the idea -- our team had the idea a couple of years ago to go directly to the viewers. People loved Masterpiece. They remember it as a family event. And we created the Masterpiece Trust, which is an opportunity for people to give a high-end donation, $25,000 minimum, get their name on the show and the money goes directly to the series or to their local television stations, shared.

  • 11:46:02

    REHMAnd I met one of those in San Diego.

  • 11:46:07

    EATONYes, Darlene Shiley.

  • 11:46:09

    REHMExactly.

  • 11:46:09

    EATONDarlene Shiley. She is our godmother. She has given a gift of a million dollars to Masterpiece. We share it with her station. They get 50 percent of it, KPBS in San Diego. But she is a tremendous advocate for us and is completely our savior for those years when we were first starting Masterpiece Trust.

  • 11:46:35

    REHMIsn't that wonderful?

  • 11:46:36

    EATONYeah.

  • 11:46:36

    REHMHow generous of her. All right. Let's go now to Plant City, Fla. Lark, you're on the air.

  • 11:46:46

    LARKGood day to you both.

  • 11:46:47

    REHMHi.

  • 11:46:49

    EATONHi.

  • 11:46:49

    LARKExcited to hear this information. I have been watching Masterpiece for a very long time. And I want to say that while I love all of the British drama that comes over, I'm wondering why it doesn't go the other way. Why there aren't more American generated stories. We have wonderful writers here, wonderful mystery writers, and yet we don't really see that on PBS. And I know the Brits like the stuff that we do, too.

  • 11:47:21

    EATONYes. Well, that's a really good question, Lark. And I can tell you the happiest day of my life would be the day we launched an American masterpiece, which was on 50 hours of new drama with our history, our biography, our novels. It's about money, of course. To do period drama costs $2 or $3 million an hour.

  • 11:47:45

    REHMAn hour?

  • 11:47:46

    EATONAn hour, to do it. And the way we are funded, we are funded at a fraction of that. We basically rent -- even though we coproduce these British dramas, we put in a fraction of that money for the right to air them in this country, the license fee. So it is a question of money. This leads me to my other theory of PBS, which is that we were created as a chronically underfunded entity. We were funded in the fashion -- we are fashioned after the BBC, but without the funding. So we're a public broadcaster, but, you know, only 15, 17, 18 percent of public money is in these programs.

  • 11:48:32

    EATONThe rest of it has to be raised -- every dollar -- from corporations, foundations or, as we say, viewers like you. So that's the bad news. The good news is that we are currently beginning to look into the possibility of doing more American drama because now there is this thing called the back end. There are profits to be made after you make a show. You can then sell them, DVDs, and streaming centers.

  • 11:49:02

    REHMOf course.

  • 11:49:03

    EATONThere's some income, which can be reinvested. So we are looking at that. PBS is very open to that. We, of course, did do the American Collection, on Masterpiece 10, probably 15 years ago now. We did a lot of titles. Eudora Welty, Henry James, Esmeralda Santiago, but it was only a limited. There were only five titles. So hopefully, we'll be able to get some of our -- oh, can you think of the stories. Every time I watch "American Experience," the documentary series on PBS, and they do a piece of history or like Annie Oakley. How fantastic it would be -- who was Annie Oakley?

  • 11:49:45

    REHMYes, of course.

  • 11:49:47

    EATONLet's do a story. Or you read a novel and you think, oh, we should do that.

  • 11:49:50

    REHMBut you know Showtime is now doing series and you've got Netflix doing its own series. I mean how would those kinds of stories, contemporary stories, play on Masterpiece?

  • 11:50:12

    EATONWell, we have done contemporary material over the years. We've done a lot of really interesting stuff that I'm very proud of and even some of the mysteries are contemporary. I think our niche -- I think these days you have to be pretty clear about your niche because television is so fragmented. It's very clear that our audience loves period drama, that our partners know how to do it. We have an established audience who will just tune in at 9:00 o'clock on Sunday night no matter what we air, just to see what's there because they trust us to do it.

  • 11:50:49

    EATONI think we will continue to go deep there because that is our specialty, but we're always looking at contemporary material. It's interesting. Before we did a thing called, "A Very British Coup," which was, gosh, 20 years ago. It was a mystery about a contemporary British government we never had. Contemporary had been anything after World War II. So now we look at the edgier things, but we want to continue to do what we do well.

  • 11:51:24

    REHMAnd Dan, who was on the line with us, said his wife and daughter were practically in mourning after Crawley died. He said it was a dark winter in Florida in their house. What about Shirley MacLaine?

  • 11:51:44

    EATONOh, Shirley MacLaine. Well, she's still alive…

  • 11:51:46

    REHMOf course she is. And very much…

  • 11:51:48

    EATON…in the series. I don’t think we'll ever hear end of Matthew Crawley going under the car. I have to say this has gone on forever.

  • 11:51:53

    REHMI know. I don't either. Yeah.

  • 11:51:55

    EATONWhat about Isabelle? She died, too, you know.

  • 11:51:58

    REHMWell, Isabelle died and there was mourning when Isabelle died. But there was a lead into Isabelle dying. And Crawley was such a shocker.

  • 11:52:11

    EATONYes. Okay. Okay. All you had was the shot of the cars coming along knowing it was coming.

  • 11:52:15

    REHMExactly.

  • 11:52:17

    EATONSo…

  • 11:52:18

    REHMShirley MacLaine?

  • 11:52:18

    EATONShirley MacLaine. She will be back in series four.

  • 11:52:22

    REHMIt was an interesting choice, would you not say?

  • 11:52:24

    EATONYes, I think it was a great choice of someone who could go toe to toe with Maggie Smith. I think that was a lot of the charm. They loved the idea. They were remembered, when they got together, that they had met once before. And Cora's mother -- Cora played by Elizabeth McGovern -- was supposed to be, you know, a kind of American, kind of shrewd, rich, knowing and being able to say what a lot of Americans think about the Brits, that they're only after our money. You know, why are they stuck to all these traditions?

  • 11:53:03

    EATONIt had to be somebody outspoken. And that's Shirley.

  • 11:53:08

    REHMAnd that is Shirley, Shirley MacLaine. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Cindy, in Hickory, N.C. Cindy, you're on the air.

  • 11:53:23

    CINDYWell, thank you, Diane.

  • 11:53:24

    REHMSurely.

  • 11:53:26

    CINDYI recently watched a series on PBS, "Last Tango in Halifax." Was that part of Masterpiece?

  • 11:53:34

    EATONThat's a very interesting question. No. It wasn't. It was on PBS. It's on PBS at 8:00 on Sunday nights. I think it's finished its run this season.

  • 11:53:49

    CINDYYes. It was like six episodes.

  • 11:53:51

    EATONYes. I think there is more coming. I hope I’m not…

  • 11:53:53

    CINDYOh, good.

  • 11:53:54

    EATONAnd the thing is, there is so much good British drama and British drama is so hot at the moment on PBS, we literally don't have room for it all Sunday nights at 9:00 o'clock. And PBS is very interested in spreading the wealth and making sure there's a spot for other really good things that don't fit necessarily in Masterpiece. "The Midwife," was on last year.

  • 11:54:16

    CINDYOh, yeah, that was good, too.

  • 11:54:17

    EATONAnd it's coming back. "Bletchley Circle," which was about some code-breaking women from World War II and how they got into solving mysteries, which, by the way, stars Diana Rigg's daughter, Rachael Stirling…

  • 11:54:32

    REHMInteresting.

  • 11:54:33

    EATON…is in it. She plays the tall dark-haired woman who looks just like Diana Rigg. So yes, there is going to be -- I hope -- lots more British drama on PBS.

  • 11:54:45

    REHMGood things to come, Cindy. Now, I was wondering about something, but it's just slipped out of my mind. Let's take a caller in Burke, Va. Gayle, you're on the air.

  • 11:55:03

    GAYLEYes. Thank you, Diane.

  • 11:55:03

    REHMCertainly.

  • 11:55:04

    GAYLEI'm interested in asking Rebecca about a show that was on Masterpiece in the '80s called "A Town Like Alice."

  • 11:55:13

    EATONYes.

  • 11:55:13

    REHMWasn’t that wonderful.

  • 11:55:15

    GAYLEI loved it. That was my favorite show, based on the book by Nevil Shute.

  • 11:55:19

    REHMYes.

  • 11:55:21

    GAYLENow, I would love to see it again, but I do not see where it's out on DVD as other Masterpiece shows have been. And I was wondering is there a reason some are, some aren't and how do I find this?

  • 11:55:33

    EATONOh, dear, well, you're talking about "A Town Like Alice," with the Australian actor, that gorgeous Bryan Brown.

  • 11:55:40

    REHMRight.

  • 11:55:41

    GAYLEBryan Brown and Helen Morse.

  • 11:55:42

    EATONAnd Helen Morse. And I have to say we had a nickname for Bryan Brown, which was Brawn Braun. He's so gorgeous.

  • 11:55:49

    GAYLEHe was gorgeous.

  • 11:55:50

    REHMReally.

  • 11:55:51

    EATONHunky guy. And I don't have an answer for you. Some of the shows were made -- we don't have, by the way, DVD rights to everything. I really don't know how you would find it. And the answer is a lot of things just…

  • 11:56:07

    REHMGo to Amazon and see if there's…

  • 11:56:10

    EATONYou may have tried that, yeah.

  • 11:56:11

    REHM…anything. By the way, didn't Bryan Brown go onto do the Thornbirds?

  • 11:56:17

    EATONHe did. And that's where he met his wife, Rachel.

  • 11:56:23

    REHMOh, yeah, she is -- and she's got it. One thing I want to ask you about quickly, 9:00 o'clock at night you'll be up against "Homeland," on Showtime. Do you feel that kind of competition?

  • 11:56:40

    EATONYou know, less now, in fact because of time shifting and DVRs and personal video recorders and streaming.

  • 11:56:47

    REHMGood.

  • 11:56:48

    EATONWhich I think is going to be the secret of Masterpiece's success in coming years, because Masterpiece series, all these series are like books. You can dip in and out of them. You can read through three or four chapters. You can record whatever you want to watch and record the other thing and then have it for a rainy Sunday afternoon and watch all 10 episodes of "Downtown Abbey."

  • 11:57:10

    REHMRebecca Eaton, she's executive producer of Masterpiece. Her new book is titled, "Making Masterpiece." What a pleasure.

  • 11:57:23

    EATONThank you, Diane. It's been fun.

  • 11:57:24

    REHMThank you. And thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

Related Links

Topics + Tags

Comments

comments powered by Disqus
Most Recent Shows

Readers Review: “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving

Wednesday, Oct 29 2014For our October Readers’ Review: a novella that became an instant classic when it was written nearly two centuries ago. It is the ghostly tale of a lanky loner and a headless horseman. Some even call it the first American horror story. Join Diane and her guests for a discussion of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving.

Campaign Spending On State Judicial Elections

Wednesday, Oct 29 2014Campaign spending has reached new heights in some state judicial elections. Please join us to talk about the growing need to raise and spend money in judicial elections and how this spending may affect judicial integrity and public confidence.