MAKING MASTERPIECE: 25 YEARS BEHIND THE SCENES AT MASTERPIECE THEATRE AND MYSTERY! ON PBS, Rebecca Eaton (2013), Preface by Kenneth Branagh, NY: Viking, 285 pp., $29.95
Masterpiece Theatre premiered on American Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) on Sunday, January 10, 1971, some 42 years before Rebecca Eaton's Making Masterpiece was published. It is still on the air. That is a very long run indeed for an American television series, especially a dramatic anthology. For purposes of comparison with other American shows, consider that Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone produced new episodes for approximately ten years; Studio One, also ten years; Playhouse 90, four years; GE Theatre, nine years; Omnibus, nine years; PBS’s American Playhouse, 11 years; and NET Playhouse, eight years. Only Hallmark Hall of Fame has had a longer shelf life as a dramatic anthology—yet although it premiered in 1951 and still produces new programming for American television, more recently episodes have appeared only from time-to-time as occasional specials, rather than as series. Thus, longevity alone makes Masterpiece (as it is now called) a unique television institution in the United States. There is quite simply nothing else like it being broadcast over American airwaves.
Executive producer Rebecca Eaton attempts to explain her program’s remarkable run in a new book, Making Masterpiece: 25 Years Behind the Scenes at Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! (2013) Interestingly, Eaton combines autobiographical details such as medical and psychological problems, marriage and divorce, the tensions of working motherhood, her relationship with her parents, and own education alongside a discussion of business and artistic developments related to television classics such as Downton Abbey, Upstairs, Downstairs, Pride and Prejudice, David Copperfield, and mysteries including Prime Suspect, Hercule Poirot, Inspector Morse, and Sherlock Holmes, among others. Thus, Making Masterpiece is valuable at once as memoir, history of television, and corporate saga.
Eaton is at times refreshingly frank. She admits that when she became executive producer of Masterpiece Theatre, “I wasn’t a regular Masterpiece viewer—I wasn’t even a Masterpiece fan, really.” But, apparently that did not matter. As Eaton’s book explains, the reason is fairly simple. In the beginning, key decisions were made by the sponsor, Mobil Corporation, in conjunction with British television producers. So, WGBH was essentially koshering a commercial series for a non-commercial television network. Thus, placement of the Boston station’s call letters served as a secular hechsher for shows which otherwise would have been banned under PBS guidelines.
The book definitively documents the crucial role of the Mobil Corporation as original sponsor for Masterpiece Theatre. Her account of working with Russell Baker, Alistair Cooke’s successor is intriguing. Unlike Cooke, a veteran television performer and host of Omnibus, Baker was uncomfortable in front of cameras. He fidgeted, and his hands waved uncontrollably at times—so much so, that he took to literally sitting on them while on air. In addition, Baker had to obtain a waiver from his then-employer, The New York Times, for his work on the Mobil-sponsored PBS show violated the newspaper’s existing ethics guidelines. Apparently, the Times wasn’t worried about conflict-of-interest charges. Baker got approval to host the series, which he introduced for over a decade. Apparently, some ethics guidelines are more binding than others…
Likewise, Eaton’s book is noteworthy for its documentation of the series’ almost complete collapse and fragmentation after the withdrawal of Mobil’s sponsorship—which eventually led up to “rebranding” the series in 2008; split into Masterpiece Classic, Mystery and Contemporary. Eaton’s account of focus groups, corporate consultants, and bickering with a Hallmark Hall of Fame producer over American-themed (as opposed to British) literary adaptations makes for what might have been a Bretts-like behind-the-scenes comedy of the absurd.
After Exxon-Mobil pulled their $10 million annual sponsorship, ratings plunged, the series began a hegira to different days, different times, different formats, and different hosts--and clearly lost its way. De facto, it was no longer a unified television series, just a time slot with a venerable title. Then, almost uncannily, Eaton reprised PBS’s 1970s rejection of ITV’s original Upstairs, Downstairs (glossed over in her account) with her own refusal to buy ITV’s Downton Abbey, in favor of the BBC’s more pedestrian sequel to Upstairs, Downstairs (which nevertheless achieved a respectable 6.5 rating on PBS, prior to BBC’s cancellation). Ironically, although Downton had been Eaton’s and PBS’s second choice, it proved to be a PBS audience favorite, and garnered the highest Nielsen rating for the series--a reported 8.1. Once more, a British commercial production had become the jewel in the crown of American public broadcasting.
That Downton was written by a Tory aristocrat (Grantham was Margaret Thatcher’s parliamentary seat), while Upstairs, Downstairs had been penned by working-class Labour supporters, somehow added to the irony. Downton was Upstairs, Downstairs on steroids. It was bigger, badder, soapier, and more outrageous than the original. In a word: camp. Almost a self-parody. Too big too fail; it was the best Masterpiece Theatre could do to attempt to recover its original formula for success as a show window for British drama in the United States. Needless to say, Up, Down Anglomania once again worked its charms on the PBS audience.
Eaton’s account records the phenomenal success of Downton Abbey, the double nostalgia of which (for Britain’s aristocratic past and the old-fashioned programs of the original Mobil Masterpiece Theater) has provided the secret formula needed to attract two new sponsors: Viking River Cruises (Eaton christened the Viking Long ship Freya in the port of Amsterdam on March 12, 2012) and Ralph Lauren.
Surprisingly to this reviewer, Eaton plainly calls Masterpiece’s new underwriters “sponsors.” Although the term had been one which dare not speak its name when this author wrote about PBS some twenty years ago, officially nonexistent, in her memoir Eaton appears to be perfectly comfortable with Viking River Cruises and Ralph Lauren’s corporate support, and expresses her gratitude without the snarkiness once heard from PBS executives. But if sponsorship is indeed a net positive for the series, then what is the rationale for non-commercial claims by the PBS network? If it is a sponsor-supported corporation; and if that sponsorship was attracted by quality programming such as Downton Abbey, then logic would dictate the conclusion that corporate sponsorship is not opposed to quality—rather, the opposite: that corporate sponsors might indeed wish to be associated with quality television.
In addition to limning a corporate dimension, Eaton’s confessional illuminates the closed shop of American public broadcasting as a manifestly elitist institution redolent of unearned privilege. Her peek behind the PBS station curtain is fascinating to an outsider as a glimpse of an insular institution as formidably insulated from the hoi polloi as the mythical Downton Abbey. Not surprisingly, the author early on declares her blue-blood New England bona fides, complete with Maine family retreat. Eaton’s father, Paul Eaton, was MIT-educated dean of English at the California Institute of Technology. Her mother, Katherine Emery, was a Southern Belle from Alabama, who became a Broadway actress in Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, then a Hollywood star at RKO. Eaton majored in English at elite Vassar College, in 1969 a “seven sister” for the education of privileged females; afterwards worked at the BBC in an exclusive “Anglo-American swap deal” with Oxford University’s Lady Margaret Hall during the “swinging sixties.” No wallflower, Eaton writes of buying hashish in Piccadilly Circus (but claims it was a bag of dirt), and of the influence of Mary Quant, Twiggy, and “my new friends from the British ‘upper class,’ country houses and all.” Her favorite television program, Sir Kenneth Clark’s Civilization (curiously, Eaton misspells his surname as Clarke). Of British country weekends, she says, “As I recall, I was pretty much drunk the whole time.” Yet, she says she became estranged from her aristocratic companions. Like a Henry James heroine, Eaton claims she “felt that I was in the wrong place. I loved my own country. In Britain, I went from being antiwar and anti-U.S. government to realizing how deep my American roots actually were.” Well, let us say, from the account it appears that New England roots may not spread far beyond Boston.
Eaton says she cried on her BOAC flight back to the USA in 1970 (not usually the reaction of one happy to return home). Class privilege and sexism allowed Eaton to quickly obtain a job at WGBH’s National Public Radio station, due to “my Vassar degree, my BBC credentials, and my miniskirt…” Like many American children of privilege, she could afford to work without pay at first (the BBC had paid her $35/week). She was eventually hired for a “public access” television show called Catch-44, produced by Henry Becton (later to head WGBH), and to become a documentary producer.
In 1985, aged 37, Eaton married an artist named Paul Cooper, in a church in Kennebunkport, Maine—home of Presidents Bush, among other American Brahmins. Since 1984, she’d been on a leave of absence from WGBH, co-producing an independent feature film for American Playhouse directed by Jan Egelson (probably The Little Sister (1986), which appears in her IMDB listing, although the title is not mentioned in the book). Becton asked her to read scripts for Joan Wilson, the station’s Masterpiece Theatre producer at the time, who was dying of cancer. “He’d been considering me for the job of executive producer of Masterpiece Theatre in the event of her death.”
And that is how PBS stations worked then and now. It didn’t matter that Eaton had a very slim track record in drama, for she had the right breeding, the right bloodlines, the right schools, the right social formation, to do a PBS job—which, in 1985, was to serve as a glorified go-fer to the Mobil Corporation, by her account. That is the reason Eaton is able to write, without apparent embarrassment, that when offered the Masterpiece job, “I was pretty sure I didn’t want it.”
That is also why Eaton is free to state that she had “disdain” for Masterpiece. She apparently felt superior to proles in commercial television, as her condescending description implies. That is why Eaton declares taking the helm of the most prestigious program on American television at that time “would mean becoming an administrator, a manager of other people’s work, rather than a ‘creative’ person who actually made programs.” For Eaton knew, and everyone at PBS knew, that in 1985, Mobil made Masterpiece Theatre programs with its British partners. WGBH was just a delivery service. She didn’t want the job, she says, and I believe her. Luckily, her then-husband pressured her to take the position. When Eaton applied to Henry Becton, she says that she had been the only person on the station’s shortlist who read The Mill on the Floss. What does that say about the educational level at an American PBS station in 1985? Not much.
Eaton’s remarkable disdain continues to be expressed in her description of meeting Frank Marshall, a former Xerox speechwriter turned public relations consultant, who owned the trademark Masterpiece Theatre at one point (he later turned it over to Mobil, which eventually turned it over to WGBH). She slams Marshall as a “consigliere” (a Mafia term from The Godfather) to Mobil vice-president Herb Schmertz; describes his Vermont farmhouse as “in the middle of nowhere;” goes into detail about how awful she felt to be considered for the Masterpiece job, and links it to her pregnancy. Now, why would Eaton need to visit the middle of nowhere to see a corporate consultant—unless the consultant had approval rights for personnel hires? Eaton’s very story establishes that Mobil, as sponsor, was running the show for Masterpiece Theatre at WGBH as late as 1985—not Henry Becton, not WGBH, and not PBS. Mobil had right of approval on personnel.
Which is why Eaton says that she didn’t want the job of executive producer in the first place—working for public broadcasting was, among women of a certain class in America in 1985, “U,” in Nancy Mitford’s terminology. At WGBH, PBS productions meant documentaries like “Frontline” (although a number of those episodes reworked British material). PBS was classy because it was “non-commercial.” Indeed, it was ostensibly above commerce. Such was the legacy of Puritanism in Boston and at PBS. Indeed, the Boston PBS station’s call letters stand for “God Bless Harvard,” a Puritan version of the Tetragrammaton. One could not serve PBS and Mobil, in good conscience; for PBS was doing God’s work, while Mobil was doing Mammon’s.
Yet Eaton's story of bureaucratic and personal drift and disarray at Masterpiece Theater after Exxon Mobil discontinued funding in 1994, in what might be called its disassociated state, evidences that Mobil's corporate sponsorship made possible, and Viking Cruises and Ralph Lauren may continue to insure, that Masterpiece Theatre remains a Masterpiece of American television.
Laurence Jarvik is the author of Masterpiece Theater and the Politics of Quality (Scarecrow Press, 1999).