by Mary Jo
Rebecca Eaton has the all-time great English major job: as executive producer of Masterpiece Theater, now known simply as Masterpiece.
I'd never heard of her, and her name has nothing to do with the fact that the heroine of my book River of Fire is named Rebecca Seaton. But when I heard that her memoir about her work, Making Masterpiece, , was coming out last fall, I immediately ordered it. Partly that was because I'm always interested in how stories are filmed (I wrote a novel around that subject), but more because Masterpiece Theater had such an impact on me and many of the people I know.
Even the theme music, Mouret's Rondeau, became iconic. (Because we both thought the exuberant music was appropriate, the Mayhem Consultant and I had the flute and strings trio at our wedding play the music for the bridal party processional. Forget Mozart!)
Rebecca Eaton's father was an English professor, her mother was an actress, and she herself has a BA in English Literature from Vasser. My kind of woman! She's been the Masterpiece executive producer for over twenty-five years, and not surprisingly, she has lots of stories to tell about it. Often her job was about choosing British productions to broadcast here, but there are times when Masterpiece becomes a co-producer. (I.e., contributing input and money.)
Rebecca doesn't mind telling stories on herself--she starts the book by saying she got a phone call from Laura Mackie, who produced drama for ITV, Britain's independent TV channel, and Laura thought Rebecca might be interested in participating in the production of a new mini-series written by Julian Fellowes. Edwardian, fabulous estate and clothes, the fortune of an American heiress has kept it afloat, relationships both above and below stairs, etc.
Rebecca considered, decided that it sounded like a cross between Edith Wharton's The Buccaneers and Upstairs, Downstairs, both of which Masterpiece had already done, so she turned down Downton Abbey. <G>
Toward the end she explains how that decision was reversed, and DA has become Masterpiece's most successful series ever. As she says, "I've been very, very lucky in my career, in spite of myself."
But while DA was and is a huge success, it's only the most recent of many iconic productions that have shaped water cooler conversations in offices and Sunday night TV watching parties with friends since the series began in 1971. It's the longest running drama anthology in America. For many years the corporate sponsor was Mobil Oil, and political columnist George Will once said that when he died, he wanted the hearse that carried him to the cemetery to be fueled by Mobil gas as a thank you for sponsoring the show.
The show launched with The First Churchills, based on Winston Churchill's book about his famous ancestors, the first Duke and Duchess of Marlborough. Those early productions didn't usually have huge budgets. They were shot on sound stages with no battle scenes or special effects, but they generally had great writing and great acting--and stories that riveted people around the world.
There have been so many terrific series. Upstairs, Downstairs was a huge hit as it portrayed both masters and servants in a London townhouse. To watch was to learn history as the lady of the house went down on the Titanic and Britain went to war two years later. Not to mention the major character lost to the worldwide flu pandemic in 1919!
Who could forget The Six Wives of Henry VIII? ("Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded, survived." <G>) The Jewel in the Crown, an elegiac chronicle of the last years of the British Raj in India. I, Claudius, historically based Roman imperial blood baths.
And that's not counting comedies like Jeeves and Wooster and bawdy Moll Flanders.
There was also the sister series, MYSTERY!, that specialized in the deliciously British genre of murder. Miss Marple, Rumpole of the Bailey, Sherlock Holmes, Inspector Morse, and a particular favorite of mine, Cadfael, which was based on Ellis Peters' medieval warrior-detective-monk mysteries.
The show has gone through changes and restructuring as the dramas were combined with Mystery! and the word "Theater" was dropped. Mobil became MobilExxon and withdrew from sponsorship, which was a huge hit to the show.
Several years later, Viking River Cruises politely inquired if they were interested in a sponsor after Viking surveyed what TV shows their passengers watched most. It was a marketing match made in heaven, Rebecca said. (And yes, I've been on a Viking riverboat cruise. <G>)
A year later, someone gave Downtown Abbey DVDs to Ralph Lauren, who watched them on holiday in Jamaica. He decided his company should be a sponsor, and another perfect demographic fit was born. .
So Masterpiece continues because the appetite for quality drama is still there. The chances are that if you regularly visit the Word Wenches, you've seen your share of Masterpiece productions. What ones have you loved? Are there classic stories you'd like to see?
If you like a lively memoir by a woman who is good company, I recommend Rebecca Eaton's Making Masterpiece. Now tell me your Masterpiece loves and hates, and one commenter between now and Saturday midnight will receive an Advance Reading Copy of my September book, Not Quite a Wife. Which is also historical drama!