- - Monday, December 23, 2013

By Rebecca Eaton
Viking, $29.95, 320 pages

I am the quintessential “Masterpiece Theatre” fan. (“Theatre” with an “re” is the way they spell it).

Ever since I watched the debut of John Galsworthy’s “The Forsyte Saga” in 1969, which laid out the format for what would become “Masterpiece,” the program has been an integral part of my life.

I’m not like Nora Ephron. I do not try to reduce my angst by cooking. I simply sit in front of the TV on Sunday night at 9 p.m. and click on PBS.

It helps a lot.

For me, that time slot is sacrosanct. There are no diversions, no interruptions and nothing or no one can break the spell.

With marvelous stories, luxurious settings and superb acting, the program has evolved into a safe harbor that has seen me through family strife, a divorce, the closing of my newspaper, several complicated romances, and a magazine career with difficult editors, along with the chaos of everyday life.

Despite all the Sturm und Drang, in the back of my mind I always knew Sunday would come and my hour, or so, of civilized storytelling would be there, waiting for me like a close and constant friend (On “Masterpiece,” among my favorites are: “The Jewel in the Crown,” “Upstairs Downstairs” and “The Pallisers.” On “Mystery,” it’s “Inspector Morse,” “Hercule Poirot,” “Foyle’s War” and “Zen,” a new addition, set in Venice, starring the deliciously seductive Rufus Sewell.)

So I was anxious to read the inside scoop by longtime Executive Producer Rebecca Eaton, who has carefully birthed and nurtured many of the above for the past quarter-century. She also launched the wildly popular “Downton Abbey,” which, happily, returns for its fourth season in early January.

I was not disappointed. For culture vultures and “Masterpiece” devotees, this book is a gem, a holiday treat written by a 65-year-old Vassar graduate and a lifelong Anglophile with a love of the theater and keen sense of flair.

Ms. Eaton has overseen the program from its golden age of elaborate, British costume drama, known as “the quill-pen era,” to more contemporary, gritty, digital fare and is now taking it back to its historical roots. Hilary Mantel’s award-winning Tudor court thrillers, “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies,” are set to shoot this spring.

Along the way, Ms. Eaton has overcome personal problems, including several miscarriages and the loss of Mobil Corp., her longtime major sponsor, and she has weathered many lean TV years.

Still, she learned to adapt to the changing cycles, tastes and nuances of producers and audiences on both sides of the Atlantic; and with new sponsors and a financial trust of its own, “Masterpiece” is secure and back at the top of its game.

As Kenneth Branagh writes in the preface to the book, “‘Masterpiece’ has banged a loud drum for a very long time in a way that’s still resounding — confirming that television can reach a lot of people with work that otherwise might not be seen so easily.”

Iconic names spill off the pages: Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Colin Firth and Daniel Radcliffe, who launched his career on “Masterpiece” as the young David Copperfield. (It was his co-star, Ms. Smith, who later suggested him for the role of Harry Potter.)

There are also amusing details about the early hosts: The spiffy British-American broadcaster, Alistair Cooke, who always spat on his hand to grease his hair before starting his introduction. The avuncular American journalist Russell Baker, who had difficulty not waving his hands about. Now, the elegant American actress Laura Linney introduces “Masterpiece,” and the cheeky Scottish actor, Alan Cumming, helms “Mystery.”

Among Ms. Eaton’s many productions are a number of shows she originally turned down and then fortunately reconsidered, among them, “Prime Suspect,” a script about a feisty young British policewoman, Jane Tennison. It ran for years and catapulted Helen Mirren to international stardom.

She was not so lucky with “My Left Foot.” After watching the cassette about a disabled Irishman who could control only his left foot, she decided American audiences would be repelled and passed. It was snapped up and made into a movie. A year later, Daniel Day Lewis won an Oscar for the leading role.

“Downton Abbey” was another near-miss. In the summer of 2009, Ms. Eaton was offered a family-saga miniseries set in a magnificent country estate in the early 1900s with an American heiress to foot the bills and a gaggle of servants leading complex lives. At that point, she was preparing an updated version of “Upstairs Downstairs,” known as “Up/down,” and the “Downton” proposal seemed far too similar. She nonchalantly said no.

The following year, Ms. Eaton discovered Ms. Smith was cast to play the crusty dowager countess, Lady Violet, and realized her mistake. She quickly called the producer to see if he’d found an American counterpart. Miraculously, he had not.

On Jan. 9, 2011, the first episode hit the American airwaves, and “Downton” mania arrived. (Majestic Highclere Castle, the home of fictional Lord Grantham, is now the most visited country estate in England.) What had been commissioned as a one-shot miniseries won a cornucopia of awards and is the most watched series in PBS history.

Fortuitously, writer Julian Fellowes is filled with ideas and has no problem conjuring up a plethora of dramatic twists and turns for new seasons.

Why is this posh English soap opera so monumentally appealing around the globe? There are several theories, but no real answer.

Ms. Eaton calls the phenomenon like “capturing lightning in a bottle.” Mr. Fellowes compares it to “making a perfect chocolate eclair.” He goes on to say, “I think … one of the big appeals of these shows: People can go into the world of ‘Downton’ and get lost in it. They’re not sitting there in a corset they can hardly breathe in.”

Sandra McElwaine is a Washington correspondent for the Daily Beast.

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