'Masterpiece' producer dishes on ‘Downton Abbey'


In the first few pages of her engaging new memoir, Rebecca Eaton, the guiding force behind the PBS "Masterpiece" series, comes right out and admits it: She rejected "Downton Abbey" when she first heard about it in 2009.

Yes, that show. The one that has become the biggest scripted PBS hit in, well, forever.

"I've been very, very lucky in my career, in spite of myself," she writes.

During a recent phone conversation, Eaton says people "tend to roll their eyes" when she makes that admission. But she goes on to explain that she never disliked the premise of "Downton."

It's just that it sort of sounded like Edith Wharton's "The Buccaneers," which "Master piece" had already done in 1995, and "Upstairs Down stairs," which was a rousing success in the 1970s and, at that time, was being redone with the BBC. Did "Masterpiece" really need another period piece about an aristocratic family and their servants?

The incident left a major impression on Eaton, who has learned that a great idea is a great idea, no matter when it comes along.

"I've discovered that that's my Achilles' heel," she says. "I need to remind myself that there's a new generation of television viewers born about every 10 years. There's a life cycle (for a production) that's much shorter than I thought."

In "Making Masterpiece: 25 Years Behind the Scenes at Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! on PBS," Eaton recounts how a bookish girl from Pasadena and a fervent Anglophile attended Vassar College as an English major, landed an internship at the BBC and swiftly rose through the ranks to become the executive producer of one of TV's most beloved franchises.

Along the way, she has put her stamp on such popular productions as "Poirot," "Cran ford," "Bleak House," "Sher lock" and a parade of Jane Austen adaptations.

Eaton, who will be in San Francisco next week for a promotional event, insists that writing her first book was a major challenge.

"I'm used to being the man behind the curtain, not the one onstage," she says.

For that reason, she turns much of "Making Masterpiece" over to the writers, directors, actors and others involved in the productions over the years. Oscar-winning writer Julian Fellowes, for example, dishes on how he created "Downton Abbey," while Daniel Radcliffe, aka Harry Potter, recalls landing his first screen role in "David Copperfield." Eaton also offers up interviews with Alistair Cooke, Gillian Anderson, Diana Rigg, Kenneth Branagh, Elizabeth McGovern and Robert Redford, among others.


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