These are masterful times for "Masterpiece" producer


There really was a time when "Masterpiece" seemed to be wobbling. The underwriter had left and the British shows were becoming scarce; so were the viewers. Then a remarkable comeback began, peaking Sunday (Feb. 23), with the two-hour "Downton Abbey" season-finale. Much of that centers on Rebecca Eaton, now in her 29th year as the "Masterpiece" executive producer. Here's the story I sent to papers:



By MIKE HUGHES


At first, this might seem a tad off-kilter.


Here is Rebecca Eaton, the “Masterpiece” master, the person
who brings “Downton Abbey” and other classy British dramas to America. Now she’s
poolside at a Pasadena hotel.


Out of place? Not completely. “I learned to swim here,” she
said. “I had my junior prom in this hotel.”


She grew up as a California girl, even if she didn’t fit the
image. “I was reading about Mr. Darcy and Mr. Rochester when everyone else was
going to the beach.”


And then she found her place. She brings these fictional
people – Darcy in “Pride and Prejudice,” Rochester in “Jane Eyre” -- to the
U.S. Her show peaks Sunday with the two-hour “Downton” finale.


“’Masterpiece’ is 43 years old and arguably at the top of
its game,” Eaton said.


She’s been executive producer for 29 years, including slow
ones. Cable competed for costume dramas, the British quit making them, PBS budgets
never budged. “Masterpiece” wobbled … then recovered.


Eaton mentions the heroes of the comeback. Kenneth Branagh
kept doing “Masterpiece” films, including his praised “Wallander” mysteries … Gillian
Anderson brought her “X Files” popularity when she did stunning work in the
2005 “Bleak House” and as host ... and the British brought back an old favorite.


“The BBC was doing a bunch of Jane Austen’s works” in 2009,
Eaton recalled. The kid who read about Mr. Darcy became the grown-up who
combined old and new for a PBS package of all six Austen tales. It was the
ultimate package, she said – “cute guys, beautiful dresses, heartbreaking
drama.”


Still, the big step was “Downton,” a show rejected by
everyone, Eaton said – “even NBC,” which owned the producing company.  She said no, because she’d committed to a
revival of the similar “Upstairs, Downstairs.” Then “I heard Maggie Smith had
been cast. And Simon Curtis, who is a friend, called.”


Curtis, the acclaimed director of “My Week with Marilyn” and
the “Cranford” series, called to say this show (co-starring his wife Elizabeth
McGovern) seemed exceptional. “Masterpiece” joined the project, which blended
old elegance with new storytelling styles. It became “appointment viewing,” Eaton
said, setting PBS records; it also put a spotlight on everything else, from “Selfridge”
to “Sherlock.”


For Eaton, this seems like natural turf. “She has that gift
of enthusiasm and curiosity,” Branagh wrote in the preface to her memoir. And “she’s
had a big impact on the careers of a lot of British actors.”


In roots, she’s a Boston-born intellectual, with a
smattering of Broadway belle. Her father was a New Hampshire guy who taught
English literature at MIT; her mother, Katherine Emery, was a Southerner who
became a stage star and also did movies.


But in 1948, when Eaton was a baby, her dad became Cal Tech’s
dean of students; her mother did films for a few years, then stopped. “Being an
actress and stopping cold-turkey had to be hard on her.”


California wasn’t that easy for Eaton, a bookworm in a
bikini-beach world. She finally felt at home at Vassar and then during a summer
internship in London. “I truly felt I had to live there.”


Now she does, sort of. Living in Boston, she makes
occasional trips to California and frequent ones to London, for co-production deals.
There, she lives in the worlds of Darcy and Rochester and friends.


n 
“Masterpiece Theatre,” 9 p.m. Sundays, PBS
(check local listings). Two-hour finale Feb. 23; after pledge drives, “Mr.
Selfridge” starts its second season March 30.


n 
“Making Masterpiece” memoir, Viking, 2013;
$29.95.