The Mistress of Masterpiece

By Julia Van Develder
Rebecca Eaton ’69, executive producer of PBS’s Masterpiece, has won 65 Primetime Emmy Awards and has even been named an Officer of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II, but the wildly popular Downton Abbey, co-produced with Carnival Films, may be her crowning achievement.
Rebecca Eaton ’69, executive producer of PBS’s Masterpiece, has won 65 Primetime Emmy Awards and has even been named an Officer of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II, but the wildly popular Downton Abbey, co-produced with Carnival Films, may be her crowning achievement.

Coffee mugs with Mr. Bates’s mug shot, tote bags imprinted with favorite witticisms of the Dowager Countess (“What is a week end?”), 1,000-piece puzzles of Highclere Castle, Mrs. Patmore’s cookbook, Edwardian finery … not to mention the spoofs, the spinoffs, the lavish theme parties—we Americans have got the Downton bug bad. And the woman who gave it to us? Rebecca Eaton ’69, executive producer of Masterpiece. “I just heard,” Eaton says, looking a little like the cat that ate the canary, “that Downton Abbey is the most highly rated drama on PBS—ever!”

This is a woman who is no stranger to success, and yet she seems a little surprised (and delighted, make no mistake) by the fervor around Downton. “We almost didn’t do it because we were already doing the new Upstairs Downstairs, and we were afraid they were too similar. But then, Maggie Smith? Elizabeth McGovern? So, we said yes, yes, let’s do it. And it looked like it was going to be good, but you never know.” It aired in England and was a hit. “But you don’t know even then because things can do well there and then kind of fizzle here. So, we spent some time trying to get the word out, and people would say, ‘What? Downtown?’  And then it finally aired.” The rest is history.

Downton Abbey is a worldwide sensation. The season three premiere broke the PBS record with 7.9 million U.S. households tuning in. According to the New York Times, an estimated 120 million viewers around the world have watched the show at some point. It’s one of the most-watched series from Denmark to Israel to Brazil to Singapore. (Actor Jim Carter recently told the New York Times that he found himself suddenly surrounded by Asian tourists shouting, “Mr. Carson!” on a recent vacation in Cambodia.)

“I don’t know how to account for it,” Eaton says, “except that it’s about family, it’s about community, it’s about parents and children and lovers and husbands and wives, it’s about money and betrayal and revenge. It has a good dose of the elements of the human drama, and I think that translates in any language. And it’s beautiful to look at. And I think it has a lot of heart, actually. Julian Fellowes [the writer] is a very happy man. And I think it’s arguable that every character, except possibly the first Mrs. Bates, is trying to do the right thing. There is a morality to it.” 

Dan Stevens and Michelle Dockery, as “Matthew” and “Mary,” kept viewers asking “Will they or won’t they get together?”
Dan Stevens and Michelle Dockery, as “Matthew” and “Mary,” kept viewers asking “Will they or won’t they get together?”

It is indeed the crown jewel in Eaton’s regalia, but not the only one. Over the course of her 27 years at the helm of Masterpiece, she has brought the best of British drama to American audiences—Prime Suspect, Little Dorrit, Sherlock, Cranford, and Bleak House, to name a few of the most recent. She has won 65 Primetime Emmy Awards, 18 Peabody Awards, two Golden Globes, and two Academy Award nominations. Queen Elizabeth II honored her with the title of Officer of the Order of the British Empire, and Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

And how does she describe herself? “I sound like the accidental producer.” Which isn’t to say that any of these masterpieces is an accident, or that her role in its production and promotion was incidental, but that her ascent to the top post at Masterpiece was unplanned and unexpected.

The daughter of an actress [Katherine Emery] and an English professor [Paul Eaton], Eaton grew up in Pasadena, California, where her father taught at Caltech, but her family’s roots were in the East. She spent summers in Maine and went to Broadway shows with her mother. “But I actually still feel the California in me, because I didn’t grow up in a northeastern city. I didn’t grow up with a lot of the rules of society that were instilled in girls like me in the East. There was more freedom in California. It was new. It was young. So, I think I have a little bit of outsider in me, and I like that.”

Eaton wanted to “come back East” to go to college. She visited the Seven Sisters—“All I remember about Mount Holyoke was the endless red brick”—and decided to come to Vassar because she loved the red Pappagallo shoes that the tour guide wore the day she visited with her family. “That’s only partly a joke,” Eaton says. “I was fixated on those shoes. Vassar seemed wonderfully cool and exciting, so that’s why I chose it.”

Remember—this was 1965. “When I arrived, girls were wearing knee socks and pleated skirts and matching sweaters, and when I left, they were wearing all black and arm bands. The time between 1965 and 1969 was huge in this country, in terms of civil rights, in terms of the war, in terms of women’s rights.” She wasn’t especially political, although she remembers going on marches, and she wasn’t into the burgeoning drug scene. “It was all about relationships for me”—her close friends in Cushing; the boyfriend at Yale, where she spent almost as much time as she did at Vassar; and a handful of important teachers, particularly English professor Julia McGrew.

“She was a formidable woman, a lesbian. And that’s another thing—who knew about homosexuality? I didn’t, coming from Pasadena. Julia just loved literature so much, and she loved all our attempts to do literature. We would have seminars where we would struggle to find sophisticated enough words to carry on a discussion about T. S. Eliot, or Beowulf, or the Canterbury Tales. But she had great patience and excitement. When she saw a tiny little spark, she would fan the flame.”

Eaton didn’t come to Vassar knowing that she would major in English, “but it was not a huge struggle to figure it out.” And it was English literature that led to what happened next, “because if you read all of those books, you really, really want to go there.” The summer of her junior year, she went to England with a friend. “I just loved the country. I knew instantly that I wanted to come back and live there.”

As it happened, Vassar had an arrangement with the BBC World Service to send two graduates a year to work in London. Eaton applied and was accepted. She spent the next year and a half in London. “It was hugely fortuitous,” she says. “Of all the breaks that have come my way, I would put that one right at the top of the list.”

The year 1971 found her back in Boston, sleeping on the floor in a friend’s apartment. “I sent out letters to three contacts that I’d been given by the BBC—the general managers of the public radio stations in Boston, Washington, and San Francisco. And I got a call from the manager of WGBH, and he said, ‘Come on in.’” She started as a volunteer, and after a few months, they began to pay her. “I was scheduling the facilities, and booking crews, and learning the ropes. And then I began to edit tapes and produce an arts program for the radio. But if you had asked, is your mission in life to be a broadcaster? No, not particularly. Are you committed to the concept of public broadcasting? No, not particularly—not at the time. It was a job. It was a life. I had an apartment.”

Eventually, she was encouraged to move from radio into television. “I definitely moved very slowly up the ladder—production assistant, associate producer, producer.” She began to produce documentaries—not investigative documentaries but portraits of people such as basketball player Patrick Ewing and ballet dancer Violette Verdy. “I was happily doing that, imagining that I could probably do that forever,” she recalls.

Meanwhile, she’d married Paul Robert Cooper, a sculptor, in 1984, and they’d decided to have a child. “And, literally, the same day we learned I was pregnant, I was offered the job of executive producer of Masterpiece Theatre. I got two phone calls, about 15 minutes apart.”  

The offer was completely unexpected, and she wasn’t sure at all that she should accept it. “It seemed like a desk job, rather than an actual making-something job, a hands-on producing job. But then, with the baby coming, I thought it would be a lot harder to travel and live the way you have to live as a documentary filmmaker, and I was the breadwinner, so I thought this might be a good desk job to have. So, yes—it was a meteoric rise … in about 17 years.”

Masterpiece’s ascent to the top of the charts hasn’t been without its own dramatic twists and turns. When Mobil Oil merged with Exxon and withdrew its longstanding sponsorship of the series, it was a bit of a cliffhanger—would Masterpiece Theatre survive in the 21st century? Rebranding Masterpiece—dropping the “Theatre” and incorporating Mystery, Classic, and Contem-porary under one banner—was Eaton’s brainchild. “We wanted to make it more accessible, and dropping ‘Theatre’ to me was glaringly obvious. Masterpiece Theatre is a mouthful—not to say it but what it implies. It implies a sort of grandeur and commitment, sitting down in a comfortable seat in the dark for hours. Even Masterpiece has a certain presumption, but it is its name, and it was so famous and so iconic, we were never going to change that. The one thing I knew for sure was that the problem was not the programs—it was how we were presenting them and how much better we could be at getting the message out to younger audiences.”

All of this and more will be revealed in Eaton’s memoir, coming out next fall under the Viking-Penguin label. “The working title is ‘Making Masterpiece: 25 Years Behind the Scenes of Mystery and Masterpiece Theatre on PBS,’ or something like that. I wanted ‘Classy Drama’ or ‘A Masterpiece Memoir.’ They definitely want Masterpiece in the title so it will show up when you Google it.”

We’ll just have to wait for it, as we’re already eagerly awaiting season four of Downton. In the meantime, her alma mater is adding its own accolade to Eaton’s long list. This spring, Eaton will be honored at Vassar by AAVC with the Award for Distinguished Achievement for her extraordinary and continuing contributions to American culture. 

We (that’s the Royal We) love her. We are devoted. We just have one final question. Did they really have to kill off both Sybil and Matthew in one season?

Want to catch up on Downton Abbey? Seasons 1–3 are available at ShopPBS.org.