Book Review: ‘Making Masterpiece’ – The Road to Downton Abbey

Masterpiece: Downton Abbey
Downton Abbey cast: Elizabeth McGovern, Hugh Bonneville, and Maggie Smith (center). Courtesy of Carnival Films, ITV | Nick Briggs Photo

I’ve been hooked on Masterpiece (previously Masterpiece Theatre) at least since  the airing in 1978 of  “I, Claudius,” starring the wonderful Derek  Jacobi playing the stuttering weakling Roman Emperor dealing with his evil mother.

Masterpiece- I, Claudius
Derek Jacobi in “I, Claudius”

Before that, “Upstairs, Downstairs” had begun its long run. It was the show that really propelled Masterpiece into the consciousness of the American public.

You can see the entire list of Masterpiece Theatre productions at the PBS website, and let us know in the comments below which one got YOU hooked.

Now there is a book by Rebecca Eaton, the executive producer of Masterpiece, that traces the history of the most popular public television show, and you can follow the highs and lows of the classy import from the Britain. The evolution of PBS’ series now called Mystery is part of the story, too.

I remember those days when Alistair Cooke was the voice of Masterpiece (1970-1992), and Diana Rigg and then Vincent Price introduced Mystery. It was fun to learn a little about their tenure as told by Eaton in “Making Masterpiece.

Although there are glimpses backstage of the making of Masterpiece, and name dropping galore, don’t expect a tell-all book with all the dirty little secrets of actors, directors et al.  After all, Rebeca Eaton still works there.  She still decides which BBC and ITV shows will travel across the Atlantic. Eaton also nudges the Brits to produce shows she thinks Americans will like.

making masterpieceBUY: Making Masterpiece: 25 Years Behind the Scenes at Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! on PBS

While we have come to expect artistic excellence from Masterpiece, Eaton reminds us that PBS is no different from any other entertainment business — raising money is her principle job. Therefore, decisions about spending the money have to be made carefully.

Ironically, Eaton did not like “Downton Abbey” when she first saw it. For crazed fans of “Downton Abbey,” it is sobering to learn how close we came to not seeing the fantastically well-produced show.

In 2009, a call came from the ITV producer looking at “Downton Abbey,” a drama by Julian Fellowes, who had won an Academy Award for “Gosford Park.” The ITV needed an infusion of cash from PBS to go forward. Eaton thought it sounded too much like “Upstairs, Downstairs,” which was being revived on BBC and PBS, so she said, “No thanks.”  As she says in the intro to her book:  “I’ve been very, very lucky in my career, in spite of myself.”

By 2010, Maggie Smith, Elizabeth McGovern and Hugh Bonneville had accepted roles. They were all actors that Eaton knew and admired. She phoned England and asked if the show might still be available to Masterpiece. To her relief, it had been turned down by HBO, The History Channel and all the major American commercial networks. PBS was in.

“Making Masterpiece” gives us a lot of insight into the writing process of Julian Fellowes. I particularly liked this quote, because it also explains a reason that “Downton Abbey” is so popular.

“I got interested in history when I was very young. From quite a young age, I woke up to the fact that in earlier periods, different rules had obtained, and different kinds of lives were lived… I think history became a kind of safe haven for me, because I could go into this ordered world.  You can enjoy the so-called ordered society, but you don’t have to get up at four in the morning and clean out the grates or, if you’re in the family, change your clothes six times a day.”

He goes on to say that modern day audiences can get into it, and “they’re not sitting there in a corset they can hardly breathe in.”  Indeed!

Here’s the preview of season four of “Downton Abbey,” coming in January 2014.

Eaton adds that she believes the basic “goodness” of the show appeals in a time when American series TV is devoted to darker shows like “Breaking Bad,” “Boardwalk Empire” and “Mad Men.”

So, if you need a book to keep you occupied until January, 2014, take a look at “Making Masterpiece.” Any fan of Masterpiece and Mystery will find things to like in this memoir. It is more a memoir of a TV experience than of a person.

However, if you are hoping to learn what a producer does — even though Eaton devotes an entire chapter to the subject — you probably will be as in the dark at the end as at the beginning.

Disclaimer: The book was provided by the publisher for review. The fact that I did not pay for the book did not influence my opinion, as it is standard procedure in the publishing world.

Upstairs Downstairs at Amazon


5 responses to “Book Review: ‘Making Masterpiece’ – The Road to Downton Abbey”

  1. Book Review: ‘Making Masterpiece’ – The Road to Downton Abbey

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  5. […] Eaton, producer of  Masterpiece, and author of Making Masterpiece was presented in the large ballroom in the Student Union Building to talk about “Behind the […]

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