For nearly 40 years, Masterpiece on PBS has captivated audiences with the works of the finest classic and contemporary writers, interpreted by the world’s foremost actors. In 1985, Rebecca Eaton took over the helm and oversaw the highly successful relaunch in 2008, with three distinct programs strands – Classic, Mystery! and Contemporary. Under her watch, the series has presented such high-profile titles as Prime Suspect, Inspector Morse, The Complete Jane Austen, Wallander and the recent hits Sherlock (returning for Season 2 on May 6th), Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey. With 34 Primetime Emmy Awards, 17 Peabody Awards, a Golden Globe and two Academy Award nominations, her distinguished career has earned her the official recognition of Queen Elizabeth II.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, executive producer Rebecca Eaton talked about what her job at Masterpiece entails, the gut feeling that she goes with when it comes to determining programming, which aspects of her job she enjoys most and dreads most, and what keeps her coming back, year after year. She also talked about the overwhelming success of Sherlock and Downton Abbey, why audiences have responded so strongly to the pairing of Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as Dr. Watson, and why they only do three 90-minute movies per season. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
REBECCA EATON: My primary job is to choose the programs, either to co-produce them, or acquire them after they’re finished. So, I read a lot of scripts, I meet with producers and I read a lot of books, and then I choose the shows and do the negotiations so we can air them on PBS. Once they’re in production, my motto is to leave them alone. Once they’re shooting, sometimes I go to the set to visit. When they’re shot, I look at various early cuts and give notes, as I give notes on scripts. And then, I work to make sure that they get the best exposure in this country. I work with PBS and with our publicist to make sure that everybody knows about them. Hopefully, we broadcast them to great acclaim. And then, I get to buy a new pair of shoes and go to the Emmys. That’s my job.
How do you know when you’ve found something that’s perfect for Masterpiece?
EATON: It is very subjective and a gut feeling. We don’t do focus groups. I depend a lot on my own judgement, for better or worse. I do ask people to read scripts, if I’m not sure, or screen things with me. In fact, we have a very small team in Boston and as many of us as possible screen all the possibilities, when things are finished and come to us. But, the buck stops here.
With so many aspects to what you do, is there something that you enjoy most and is there anything that you dread?
EATON: Well, I dread about picking a turkey, and broadcasting something that will be badly received and no one will watch. I dread not having enough money to do what we need to do, or losing a project because we didn’t have enough money to make it happen. But, dread isn’t a feeling that I have very much. I think the part I enjoy most is reading the scripts and screening films because I’m a bookworm and a movie buff. I love that. And then, I love meeting the producers, directors and actors who do them. I love the chance to get to know these people separate from work to see who they are really, behind the scenes, because I love British actors. I love how well-trained, disciplined and versatile they are because they work in television, radio, theater and films. They work all the time and they take it seriously, and they’re just very good at their jobs. I love that.
EATON: I think I’m pretty addicted to it all. There’s always a crisis somewhere, and you get the satisfaction of solving the problem. And then, there’s always the mystery of whether a program will work or not, and waiting for the reviews or seeing what the audience figures are. It’s like clockwork. At the same time every year, the same things happen. I love that. I love the predictability of it, with the giant questions, all the way through.
Are you surprised at the audience reaction you’ve gotten for both Downton Abbey and Sherlock?
EATON: I think that they’re bigger than we thought. I knew, as soon as I saw Sherlock, that it was going to be special. The fact that it caught fire the way that it did, didn’t surprise me. It was hard to tell, reading it, that it was going to be as unusual because there were some special effects that weren’t in the script. Similarly, with Downton Abbey, the story on the page is a very good read, but then you have beautiful people who play the parts. A lot of those actors, I hadn’t seen before. You can read a line on a page, but then you hear Maggie Smith say it and it takes on a life of its own.
EATON: It’s interesting because it’s two men who have written it – Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss – and they’re very different people. They’re friends and they’ve worked together on Doctor Who, but they’re very different guys. That might have been why they both loved the idea of working on Sherlock together. It’s about two very different guys. Then, you bring in the actual personalities of Benedict and Martin, and Martin is such a cuddly guy who’s all heart and very lovable while Benedict is very cerebral, witty and mercurial. They’re actors, so they’re playing parts, but there’s just a certain quality in the two guys that’s perfect for the chemistry of the steadfast, sturdy Watson and the all-over-the-place Sherlock.
Was there ever an attempt to try to make more than three 90-minute movies per season?
EATON: No. It’s very closely held. Steven crafts them, and Mark writes some of them. It’s a lot of work, and he also does Doctor Who and he worked on Tin Tin, so there couldn’t be more than three. And, they’re very complicated. He doesn’t just dash them off. So, I think there will only ever be three at a time, if we’re lucky. It’s getting harder and harder to do another season, not just because Benedict and Martin are getting such high profiles, but Steven and Mark are busy and in demand. How much more creative juice can they spend on Sherlock?
EATON: Wait until you see the last episode! You know what he did for the end of the first season, and he does it again. How did that happen?! The third episode is very much about Sherlock and Moriarty. Andrew Scott plays Moriarty. He is as crazy as a bed bug, and he plays crazy so well. He is a loon, and he’s really smart and really dangerous. I also think Lara [Pulver] is perfect as Irene Adler because she is spectacularly beautiful, controlled and smart, but sensuous and drawn to this man. You don’t know what’s drawing them together, and they don’t quite know, and they’re supposed to know everything. There’s some CGI. There’s a lot of smart phone drama. What would Sherlock do without his phone?! And, Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs) actually figures into the story. There’s some jeopardy for Mrs. Hudson. And, in spite of himself, Inspector Lestrade needs Sherlock, so Rupert Graves comes back and he’s great. He’s given in to realizing that he needs Sherlock, as irritating as he is.
Do you know why the first episode was shot last?
EATON: I think it might have been because of Steven’s schedule. I think Steven was always going to write the first one, but maybe because of Tin Tin, he had to juggle things. They had a certain time that they had to shoot it, but it wasn’t ready.
How did Endeavor, about the early days of Inspector Morse, come about?
EATON: Everybody looked at the calendar and realized that 2012 was going to be the 25th anniversary. It was 1987 when the first one aired, and it was such a successful franchise. And Lewis has continued to be a successful franchise. So, I thought, “What can we do with this?,” and talked to Colin Dexter. He had written this short story of the young Morse, and it did seem to be a tempting period because there hasn’t been much British drama set in the 1960′s. You can acquire the costumes and the cars, so it’s doable.
When you do updates of classic stories that so many people know, is it important for you to make sure they come across as fresh and new?
EATON: There’s a new television generation coming in every five or 10 years, and the classic stories stand up to being redone. Some of these roles are choice plums for actors, so you can get really good, established actors and you can find the next beautiful, young actor, as well.
Since you’re doing some different projects, what makes Dickens and Masterpiece such a good pairing?
EATON: The time – 19th century London, England – is always rich because it’s dark and it’s light, and it’s serious and it’s funny, and there’s social history and love stories, and costumes. There’s just a lot of rich drama. That’s why they’re called classics. You take them out and put them up against the times that you’re living in, and you see if it’s a good time for that. People love to see these books done, again and again. They just love it.
EATON: It’s not. There’s just a big group of actors in London. There are new ones coming in, all the time, who are looking for work, and established actors who are interested in working and like to work. To be a working actor in England is a life. I think it’s harder in this country. Either you are a superstar or a starving actor. But, there’s so much drama being made there that you can work. So, I’m always amazed that we’ll have a project and there will be a part, and Maggie Smith will say yes. She doesn’t have to do it. She could not work at all, or just do movies, but she likes to work and, if it appeals, it appeals. When Daniel Radcliffe did David Copperfield, who knew? It’s not hard to cast these things.
Do you already have your next projects lined up?
EATON: Well, we have the interesting situation of establishing some ongoing strands, like Downton Abbey, Upstairs Downstairs, Sherlock and Lewis, going back to where Masterpiece was, which was to have four, five or six titles in a year because they ran so long. I could pretty much guess, fairly accurately, what will show up in the schedule for 2013. I just can’t say yet.