John Neville and Susan Hampshire in The First Churchills

PBS/Photofest

Jean Marsh and Gordon Jackson in Upstairs, Downstairs

PBS/Photofest

Derek Jacobi in I, Claudius

PBS/Photofest

Helen Mirren and Tom Bell in Prime Suspect

PBS/Photofest

Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock

PBS/Photofest

Jenna Coleman in Victoria

PBS/Photofest

Robson Green and Tom Brittney in Grantchester

Masterpiece

All Creatures Great and Small

Masterpiece

Jonah Hauer-King in World on Fire

Masterpiece

Glenda Jackson in Elizabeth Is Missing

Masterpiece
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January 12, 2021
Features

A Half-Century of Sundays

Even in the streaming age, Americans who savor the best in British drama are still gathering ‘round the telly as the weekend wanes.

Jacqueline Cutler

On Sunday evenings at nine, the clarion call of trumpets summons viewers throughout the land: PBS's Masterpiece is about to commence.

While the best television themes instantly bring viewers into a show's universe, those first notes of Jean-Joseph Mouret's Fanfare-Rondeau do more; they set expectations. The audience hearing them knows an intelligent drama awaits.

The country's longest-running primetime drama series marked its 50th anniversary on January 10. An anthology of the best that British television has to offer — with an occasional national exception (a Norwegian show will be part of the new season) — Masterpiece has become very much a staple of American culture.

Its programs — educational yet entertaining, familiar yet foreign — offer a welcome respite from the world's chaos.

"In spite of the fact that roughly 250 years ago we fought and won our independence from England, for 50 years Masterpiece has kept the British flag flying in this country — and what I mean by that is British drama talent," says Rebecca Eaton, Masterpiece's longtime executive producer and now executive producer at large.

"It is hugely important in our culture. There have always been British cultural influences — various Brits who would come over to make movies — but not so much in television."

When Masterpiece launched in 1971 with The First Churchills (the story of Sir Winston Churchill's 17th-century ancestors), British accents were rarely heard on American television. Viewers were more likely to pick up a Southern drawl from Hee Haw, The Beverly Hillbillies or Mayberry, R.F.D. But as the country changed, so did TV.

Eaton was at the forefront of that change, thanks to some excellent timing. Boston-born and California-raised, she graduated from Vassar with an English degree in 1969, when "we were all determined to change the world, and believed we could," as she puts it.

"With the war in Vietnam ending, civil rights laws being passed and the women's movement on the rise, public broadcasting looked to be one of the places to do it."

The daughter of a stage actress and an English professor, Eaton took an internship at the BBC, which led her back to WGBH, the Boston public television station. There she worked on various radio and television projects, eventually becoming executive producer of Masterpiece in 1985.

"In my early days, we screened shows and picked the ones we wanted to do," she says. "They were not all masterpieces, by the way. We were pretty much the only buyer [of British dramas] in this country at the time, and we would pick the best."

Best, of course, is a subjective term. So how did she know a project was Masterpiece worthy? Eaton answers in personal terms. "I used to ask my mother, 'How will I know who I want to marry?'" she recalls. "And she said, 'You will know.' It is a very deep gut reaction to something. If you have read enough scripts and seen enough drama, you can tell."

During its half-century, Masterpiece's signature dramas have included: Upstairs, Downstairs; I, Claudius; The Forsyte Saga; Sherlock and Prime Suspect. Along the way, the series has won 83 Emmy Awards and 18 Peabodys as well as seven Golden Globes — and has been nominated for two Oscars.

As vaunted as these programs are, when Downton Abbey premiered in January 2011, Masterpiece soared to new heights. The soapy, six-season drama aired in 240 territories, meaning there are very few places where someone has not seen Maggie Smith's Dowager Countess cock an eyebrow and deliver such delicious barbs as, "Don't be defeatist, dear. It is very middle-class."

The character was inspired by women known over the years to Downton creator Julian Fellowes.

"If you are my age, you are the child of someone who went through the war," he says. "I was born in '49, four years after the war finished. In that generation, in every background, families were held together by the women. They had to make sure the houses stayed functional and the kids went to school. It was a generation of tremendously strong women. I had a committee of great-aunts who had all been through this. I loved them; they were very tough human beings."

Downton took off immediately in Britain when it debuted in fall 2010, and Masterpiece was the natural home for it stateside. Eaton and her colleagues "had a real understanding of what they were selling," Fellowes notes. "You want to be sure [program buyers] understand the product and who the market and the audience will be. We were in safe hands when we went into the kingdom of Masterpiece."

Initially, though, Eaton turned it down. When a few staffers gathered in the screening room at WGBH, Susanne Simpson, Masterpiece's current executive producer, recalls twice urging Eaton to sign. "I said to Rebecca, 'If you don't take this, I'll quit,'" Simpson remembers. "And she said, 'If I can get it for the right price, I'll think about it.'"

Back in the U.K., the groundswell kept growing. Graydon Carter, then editor of Vanity Fair, assigned a photo shoot of Elizabeth McGovern, who played Lady Crawley. The issue hit stands just as the show — shot at Highclere Castle, a 17th-century estate west of London — premiered on PBS.

"In the end, the series proved to be very much more successful than any of us expected," Fellowes acknowledges. "I don't want to sound too modest. We thought it was good, but it became a phenomenon in a way most people never see in their career, and that was a great treat. I loved all of that. It was terrific to be at the center."

The series was so popular that Fellowes was stopped on the street for autographs, an extraordinarily rare experience for a writer, even one who'd won an Oscar for Gosford Park. Perhaps the only principal player from that massive cast not instantly recognized is Phyllis Logan, who, as Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper, wore drab clothes and an awful wig.

"People have said, 'I recognize your voice… do I know you?'" Logan relates. "And then they sort of work it out. I remember someone saying to me, 'You look about 50 years younger in real life!'"

Logan, who laughs easily, grows serious as she considers why a public broadcasting network in America is the perfect home for British dramas.

"Masterpiece — what an eye and ear they have in picking the stuff!" she exclaims. "Just epic, classic dramas they put on. And really, it would make a lot of people's lives the poorer for not being able to tap into that. I hope it can go the next 50 years and give the public what they need and want." ...


To read the rest of the article, pick up a copy of emmy magazine HERE.


This article appeared in its entirety in emmy magazine, Issue No. 12, 2020

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