Patricia Sheridan's Breakfast With ... Rebecca Eaton
September 16, 2013 4:00 AM
Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of PBS's "Masterpiece."
By Patricia Sheridan Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
For more than a quarter of a century, Rebecca Eaton has been executive producer of PBS's "Masterpiece," formerly known as "Masterpiece Theatre" and home of the wildly popular "Downton Abbey" series. She began her career as a production assistant at the BBC World Service in London and has amassed numerous awards and accolades, including 31 prime-time Emmys and 15 Peabodys. She has written a book, "Making Masterpiece, 25 Years Behind the Scenes," which will be available in October but can be preordered online at Amazon.com. Ms. Eaton will be the guest of honor during the Downton Abbey Party to benefit WQED at WQED studios in Oakland on Wednesday. For more information, go to www.wqed.org/DowntonAbbey.
So where do you put all those Emmy, Peabody and Golden Globe awards?
[Laughing] Nobody has asked me that question! I have to say, even though on my resume it credits me with all these Emmys, they are for the shows and the shows were made in England with real producers, writers, directors, and I just didn't have the bad sense not to co-produce them [laughs]. So I have a couple of them at home and a couple of them at work, and you know, they are great -- artfully scattered about.
How does all the acclaim for "Masterpiece" affect your expectations?
Well, these are really interesting questions. Usually I get the question: "Why did Matthew have to die at the end of Series 3?" Well, it raises the bar, of course. You never want anything but a hit. As soon as you have a hit like "Downton" or "Sherlock," you have excited a new audience. You have brought back people, I hope, to "Masterpiece" who might have stopped watching. Our numbers are huge for us. Ratings are way up for the series. It just makes you think: "OK, that worked. What about it worked?"
You know, it's a little nerve-wracking the higher up you get on the high wire. But hey, who would not want that problem?
Because "Downton Abbey" is such a hit, do you have a chance to revel in it, or is it all about the challenge of finding the next great thing?
I think anybody in television would say the glow lasts just for the night of the awards ceremony, and the next morning you start getting phone calls with problems. This is an ongoing series. We have to have a new show up every Sunday night. Decisions have to be made, and things go wrong. Making anything is a process of getting past the mistakes and the failures and the things that go wrong. There might be a problem with an actor on a completely other show the morning after the Emmys. You try to grab it when it comes and celebrate as long as you can and not check your email [laughs].
Exactly, you have to embrace the joy.
Oh yes, and family and friends are great at it because people in the industry, you know, it's very competitive. Everybody wants to do better than you did. Not that there is that schadenfreude of wishing ill on you. Well, there might be a little of that too, but it is the fan base who are the best for celebrating. I just get energized when I can go out in the country and meet them and hear from them about what the series has meant to them for 42 years.
How responsible do you feel for elevating the taste of American television audiences?
[Laughing] Boy, you are making me feel tired just talking about this. No, I don't feel responsible. It is a television series. Television is incredibly powerful. Most television is commercial -- that is the bottom line -- and whatever makes money works for them. Public television may be the only game in town which continues to do things to meet a high standard which will inform, educate and entertain. Which is the mantra of PBS.
Has there ever been a project you wish you had not turned down?
I've written a book, a little shameless plugging, called "Making Masterpiece, 25 Years Behind the Scenes." A little memoir of "Masterpiece's" life, and the publishers seemed to want me to write about my life, too. In that there are a few stories of the ones that got away. But the most uncomfortable one, because it turned out to be so incredibly profitable for A&E, was the Colin Firth "Pride and Prejudice." I literally turned it down. It wasn't that I tried for it and lost it. I turned it down in the cold light of day.
Yes, that one. That stung for quite a few years.
So a little bit about you. You were a working mother. Did you ever feel guilty about it?
You mean, besides every moment of every day? It's interesting. My daughter is an absolutely grown-up 27. We talk about that all the time. She looks at me sometimes and says, "Why do you keep asking me if you did a good job? Why do you keep feeling guilty. I'm fine! What's the matter with me?"
I missed her first step. Her father was the one -- Our decision was that he would stay home. He was there all the time with her, and I never worried about her. But I missed her. When I was at work -- because I knew she was so safe and happy -- I could throw myself into my work. I had to do quite a lot of travel, which was exhausting.
When I was with her, I could be pretty much totally with her, not reading a script in one hand. But it was rough. Like most mothers who want to do everything 110 percent at work and at home, you just knock yourself out. It was rough, but boy did it pay off. She is an absolute peach, and "Masterpiece" is doing fine.
Do you ever feel like you have cultural overload and you must go watch "Keeping up with the Kardashians?"
[Big laugh] NO! I have never watched the Kardashians, I am very proud to say. I actually don't watch a lot of television. I load a DVR. I watch only what I want. I don't turn on the TV to see what is there. The stuff that I watch, there is a lot of British drama. I want to keep up on it, so I watch a lot of that. For American television, "Homeland" and "Mad Men," and I have to say I also have just a real addiction to PBS documentaries, particularly "American Experience." I love American history documentaries.
Being 65, do you think of retirement?
Wow! Nothing private in this conversation [laughs]. I think I was thinking about it a few years ago, before lightning in the form of "Downton Abbey" struck and before I wrote the book. In the writing of the book, in relishing the success of "Downton" and the success of "Masterpiece," I thought: "Wait a minute I love this stuff. Maybe these are the years to really relish it and concentrate on developing and thinking up the next really juicy one." So I'm back in the saddle.
Is the ringtone on your phone the theme to "Downton Abbey"?
[Laughs] No, it's not. It is the old-fashioned ring that sounds like an old rotary dial phone. For a while we almost figured out how to make it the old "Masterpiece" theme. If I could carry a tune, I would sing it for you. Then I thought it kind of blew my cover if I were out vegetable shopping or something. It might cause a certain amount of attention. It would have been free advertising, but then people might start talking to me and well, it's probably something that wouldn't have happened anyway.
So it looks like there will be some nice-looking male cast members entering "Downton Abbey" since some left.
Some left and ended up under the car [Matthew, played by Dan Stevens].
Where he deserved to be for wanting to leave.
Oh, oh, that is very harsh. Well, it was actually tricky how to manage that once he announced he wanted to leave, but that's a whole other podcast. We will save that for later. Then we can really talk.