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Making Masterpiece    by Rebecca Eaton order for
Making Masterpiece
by Rebecca Eaton
Order:  USA  Can
Viking, 2013 (2013)
Hardcover, CD, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Rheta Van Winkle

Rebecca Eaton fell into the job of executive producer of Masterpiece Theatre in 1985, her qualifications for the job being her Vassar degree, a stint working for the BBC World Service in London, and her experience working as the facilities booker, programmer, and arts producer for the PBS radio station in Boston, WGBH.

She hadn't watched many of the episodes and wasn't a fan of mysteries. In Making Masterpiece she has written both a personal memoir and a history of the way Masterpiece developed, both before she took over and during the years since. She tells about many of the shows, some of which like Upstairs, Downstairs or Downton Abbey, became extremely popular, as well as many of the shows which were shown on the offshoot Mystery!

She experienced a sharp learning curve, which was complicated by the fact that she became pregnant with her daughter at about the same time she began the job. The constant travelling, combined with morning sickness that could last all day, meant that her difficult first year often resulted in many people, including herself, questioning whether she could be successful in this job. She credits the people she worked for and with for her success.

Rebecca's job at the BBC in 1969 was 'a program initiated after World War II with Lady Margaret Hall, a women's college at Oxford - a sort of Anglo-American swap deal. Every year, two American graduates, one from Vassar and one from Wellesley, went to work at the BBC, and two Oxford women were sent to NBC in New York.' The job paid a pittance, and she was so under qualified that she couldn't type or file and babysitting was the only job she had ever held. She didn't even know that the show she'd been assigned to work on, Science in Action, was on radio rather than television. She was a thorough Anglophile, though, and was thrilled to be spending a year in London.

She took full advantage of her year to explore, visit museums, historic houses, and bookstores, and take in theatrical productions whenever she could afford a ticket. Her boss, Peter Beer, became her mentor and a lifelong friend. After returning to the United States, she spent the next ten years doing apprentice work in public television in Boston. Her initial reaction to the possibility of becoming executive producer of Masterpiece Theatre was that it wouldn't be a creative job but rather more of a 'desk job pushing papers.' She applied for the job somewhat reluctantly and was surprised when she was hired.

Henry Becton, who hired her, thought her credentials for the job were faultless. He is quoted as saying, 'I'd known Rebecca for a long time and trusted her judgment and taste. She'd worked at the BBC, and knew the Brits, and British broadcasting. This job requires spending a lot of time in London, where she'd be comfortable. And she came from a theater family. British acting culture is not like Hollywood: it's theater-based, quite different from the acting culture here, even today.'

Masterpiece Theatre was sponsored by Mobil Oil when Rebecca took over, and she was lucky to have a lot of money to spend picking British shows and gradually increasing the popularity of the Sunday night broadcasts with excellent programs. There were difficult years once the Mobil Oil money stopped, and she worked hard at incorporating Mystery! and more modern programs into the line-up.

During her years as executive producer, she has been challenged by the changes in the entertainment world from a few television stations to one with competition from many cable networks as well as streaming on the internet. Her ability to attract viewers really improved with the success of Downton Abbey, though, and although reading about the history of Masterpiece was always interesting, I particularly enjoyed that part of the book. The phenomenal success of the show meant new funding for all Masterpiece programming as well as a return to more of the historical costume drama for which it was first known.

I enjoyed reading the personal memoir as well as the informative sections about how programs are chosen and developed. She tells about many actors who are more well-known in England than they are in the U.S., but if you watch either Masterpiece or Mystery! frequently, you do recognize familiar faces, even if you don't pay attention to their names. Reading this book will increase my enjoyment of the programs I watch in the future and encouraged me to search for some of the past shows that I unfortunately missed.

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