The Rebecca Eaton era is ending at “Masterpiece.” It has been … well, mostly masterful.
At its peak, it has provided some of the finest moments on television – “Downton Abbey” (shown here), “Prime Suspect,” “Wallander,” “Sherlock” and more, including “Little Women” and “Bleak House” reboots.
At its low point, it’s merely been bland, such as the recent “The Chaperone.” Then it has bounced back.
PBS announced recently that Eaton, 72, is being “promoted” to “executive-producer-at-large.” She’ll work at developing new drama projects, while also fundraising for The Masterpiece Trust, which has raised $20 million since she launched it eight years ago.
Viewers shouldn’t expect big changes: Susanne Simpson, her assistant for 12 years, takes over.
Still, it’s been an impressive run – 34 years of “Masterpiece” and “Mystery.” Along the way, Eaton has shown a skill that many people (including one in the White House) lacks – listening to others and realizing when she should change direction. Good TV chiefs do that; consider:
— NBC. Brandon Tartikoff was opposed to casting Michael J. Fox in “Family Ties” and Don Johnson in “Miami Vice.” He was even ready to cancel “Cheers” in its first season. He relented … and the network soared from last to first, mostly with quality TV.
— CBS. Les Moonves opposed “Survivor,” but his staff talked him into it. He didn’t have “CSI” on his schedule … then changed his mind when a comedy producer praised the show, on the eve of the new-season presentation. “CSI” and “Survivor” nudged CBS out of simply being an old-folks network.
— And Eaton. Her memoir – “Making Masterpiece” (Viking, 2013) – mentions some fortunate U-turns.
She had assumed “Traffik” would be too stark for PBS, she wrote. “My husband, Paul (Cooper, a sculptor), famous for falling asleep during the opening credits of most of the British dramas I brought home, sat bolt upright on the couch for this one – all six hours of it: ‘You have to take it, Beck.’”
It won an international Emmy and was adapted into an Oscar-winning movie.
A Helen Mirren police mini-series seemed too gritty for PBS; others disagreed. “Even Mobil (the corporate sponsor) liked ‘Prime Suspect,’” Eaton wrote. “What could I have been thinking?”
She rejected “Downton” for a basic reason: It was too similar to the “Upstairs, Downstairs” sequel. Then came word from Simon Curtis, a respected director: His wife, Elizabeth McGovern, was working on “Downton” and felt it was exceptional. Eaton wrote that she changed her mind “after I learned the news of Maggie (Smith) being cast and heard of Elizabeth’s enthusiasm.”
And a few got away. Eaton rejected “My Left Foot”; instead, it went to movie theaters, drew an Oscar nomination for best picture and Oscars for Daniel Day-Lewis and Brenda Fricker. She thought the 1995 “Pride and Prejudice” was coming too soon after the 1980 “Masterpiece” version; she changed her mind, but by then it was heading to A&E … and to great acclaim.
For a time, A&E and other cable networks were a problem, competing for British shows. But they lost interest and changed focus; “Masterpiece” persisted. Eaton even grabbed that ’95 version, in one of her master strokes: Following a staffer’s suggestion, she packaged it in 2008 with several remakes to create “The Complete Jane Austin” – all six novels in one burst of movies and mini-series.
By then, there were other problems. Mobil quit sponsoring “Mystery” in 1994 and “Masterpiece” a decade later. A new PBS president canceled “Mystery” in 2001, then hesitantly agreed to let it be part of the “Masterpiece” umbrella on Sundays. The British were leaning away from big costume dramas anyway; some fairly bland mysteries – “Inspector Lewis,” for instance – took a big chunk of Sundays.
Then “Downton” happened. “In both Britain and the United States, it has rejuvenated the genre,” Eaton wrote. Funding – corporate and donors – has been strong. There has been quantity – at times, PBS has three separate dramas on Sundays – and quality.
“Masterpiece” has just finished a lush “Poldark” reboot. After the annual December break, it will stack three mini-series – “Sanditon” (based on Austen’s unfinished novel), “Howards End” (which previously ran on Starz) and “Vienna Blood.” With luck, the Eaton era will end masterfully.