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literary inklings

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Making Masterpiece: 25 Years Behind the Scenes at Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! on PBS by Rebecca Eaton


I first began watching Masterpiece, the acclaimed PBS series, when I was nineteen, precisely the year when PBS and WGBH were rebranding the series from the famous Masterpiece Theatre to the sleeker, more modern Masterpiece and its three chapters: Masterpiece Classic, Masterpiece Mystery!, and Masterpiece Contemporary. Having recently finished all of Jane Austen’s novels, as well as being an aspiring Anglophile and burgeoning costume drama devotee, I was hooked on the prospect of the upcoming Complete Jane Austen, the collection of adaptations Masterpiece would be airing which covered each of Austen’s finished novels. I watched, I fell in love with Masterpiece, and I stayed with it in complete dedication – through Inspector Lewis and Cranford to Little Dorrit and Zen; of course to Downton Abbey and Sherlock, all the way to Mr. Selfridge, Silk, and The Paradise. I instantly connected with Masterpiece as an outlet for both my Anglophilia and my fascination with seeing history – especially that of the literary variety – captured on the screen, and I grew to greatly admire the lady behind the curtain on my side of the Atlantic: Masterpiece’s executive producer, Rebecca Eaton. Needless to say, when I realized she had written a book, Making Masterpiece, about the beloved Masterpiece Theatre and its original sister program Mystery!, I was understandably ecstatic. Although the book is subtitled 25 Years Behind the Scenes at Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! On PBS, Eaton goes above and beyond this premise to give viewers a detailed journey through the history of Masterpiece even before she took over as the third executive producer.

Enlisting the help of colleagues and friends involved in the series, Eaton takes on the role of a journalist, piecing together the story of a series that continues to change the course of television. She starts off with the first blockbuster program of the ‘70s, before Masterpiece was Masterpiece and before PBS was even PBS: the original Forsyte Saga. She then walks us through the diverse and equally groundbreaking dramas that continued to build up Masterpiece and Mystery alike: Upstairs, Downstairs and The Jewel in the Crown, Inspector Morse and Agatha Christie’s Poitot, Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes and Helen Mirren’s Prime Suspect, and so on. She tells us all about Alistair Cooke, the original and most iconic Masterpiece host, about the history of the show’s sponsorships, her experiences traveling to London to work with her co-producers at the BBC, later being photographed by Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair, and she even filters in relevant stories from her personal life along the way. With interludes from the likes of former WGBH president Henry Becton, Downton creator Julian Fellowes, and luminaries like Dame Eileen Atkins, Elizabeth McGovern, and Kenneth Branagh, Making Masterpiece has a way of reflecting Eaton’s appreciation for the sort of group effort that goes into making television magic happen.

Her narrative is just charming. Unassuming, genuine and kind, Eaton shows her stripes as her reader’s comrade in Anglophilia, paying homage to the history of the beloved Masterpiece series with respect, detail, and excitement. Her enthusiasm over the show’s programming is infectious, and her asides about her personal encounters with her own British heroes are delightful, smile-inducing glimpses for the reader as well. There were so many insights here that I’m grateful for: getting to experience the pieces of Masterpiece’s history that I wasn't part of, such as Upstairs, Downstairs, as well as the chance to know about some of the stories that don’t make it to PBS primetime. Her account of a doomed attempt to produce a drama with Robin Williams playing Mark Twain was especially exciting, and I made a note of the book Eaton was inspired by (Mark and Livy by Resa Willis) so I can hopefully read it and imagine the miniseries-that-never-was. Little nuances like this are what make Making Masterpiece a timeless experience for fans of the series, whether they’re longtime devotees or new arrivals with the popularity of Downton Abbey and Sherlock.

Eaton, who seems to have remained a rather private presence at the helm of Masterpiece, reveals herself with grace and attentiveness, and a good deal of humility. She’s an admirable woman who does a remarkable job; I loved the way she could laugh at herself – admitting to blunders in her career – and also talk seriously about the personal triumphs and struggles of her life, from her relationship with her parents to her unfulfilled dreams of a big family. She sings the praises of her only daughter Katharine with charm and eloquence; much as she sings the praises of the countless friends, colleagues, supporters, and valiant workers who have all played pivotal roles in the drama of Masterpiece’s history. She writes with detail and plenty of heart, inviting the reader into both a cozy conversation and a rich journey through the history of a cultural phenomenon.

Get the book: Amazon / Kindle | Barnes & Noble