What happens when a young American schoolgirl falls in love with all things British? Just ask Rebecca Eaton, the executive producer of Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery!, who spent a good part of her adolescence in the late fifties “escaping the terrors of junior high school lost in Jane Eyre.” Armed with a degree in English Lit. from Vassar, she learned her trade as a production assistant at the BBC World Service in London and a producer at WGBH in Boston before earning (in 1985) the top spot at Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery!, the sibling PBS programs that present the best of British television. Eaton had some big shoes to fill—her predecessor, Joan Wilson, brought Upstairs, Downstairs; I, Claudius; The Jewel in the Crown; Rumpole of the Bailey; and other iconic series to PBS. Subscribing to the “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it” theory, Eaton continued to seek out the best material in the UK—putting her stamp on Inspector Morse and A Very British Coup—while stepping up efforts to coproduce dramas ranging from 1990’s The Ginger Tree (the first high-definition television drama to air in the U.S.) to Bleak House (2006). In addition, she green-lighted such bold contemporary fare as House of Cards with Ian Richardson and Prime Suspect with Helen Mirren, and steered Masterpiece Theatre into the world of feature films—coproducing Jane Austen’s Persuasion and the Academy Award–nominated Mrs. Brown, starring Dame Judi Dench. “It’s tough spending time with Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, and Diana Rigg,” Eaton says jokingly. “It’s the best job in television.”
She was born in Boston and raised in Pasadena, California, “in a house where drama and literature were thick on the ground.” Her mother, Katherine Emery, was an actress who had appeared on Broadway (including the original production of Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour) and in movies (including Isle of the Dead with Boris Karloff). Her father was an English literature professor at Caltech. “They made for a rich brew,” Eaton said. “We would come east every summer, and I would go to New York with my mother and see Broadway shows.”
Eaton graduated from Vassar in 1969 with a degree in English literature. She wrote her thesis on James Joyce’s The Dubliners. During her senior year at college, she was chosen to go to London as part of a school program to work at the BBC as a “sort of production assistant and secretary.” She stayed for sixteen months—“I was meeting people and learning things,” she later said of the experience.
Shortly after her return to the U.S., Eaton saw two television shows on public television that deeply influenced her—Civilisation, Sir Kenneth Clark’s series on art, architecture, and aesthetic human achievements; and the documentary Gertrude Stein: When This You See, Remember Me (which was directed by another 2007 She Made It honoree, Perry Miller Adato). “Both of them made me realize that I wanted to do some sort of educational, high-class, dramatic work in television,” Eaton said.
In 1972 she was hired by WGBH in Boston, where she produced local and national programming, including the radio arts magazine Pantechnicon and the television programs Zoom and Enterprise. She also coproduced The Little Sister, a drama about a probation officer who tries to help a deeply troubled young girl, for the PBS series American Playhouse, and television profiles of ballet dancer Violette Verdy and basketball star Patrick Ewing for WGBH.
In 1984 Eaton married Paul Robert Cooper, a sculptor. A year later they had a daughter, Katherine, who was born shortly before Eaton was tapped to become executive producer of Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! Eaton replaced the illustrious executive producer Joan Wilson, who died of cancer on July 4, 1985. The prospect of taking over two renowned television series was slightly daunting—and in a 2000 interview in the Boston Globe, Eaton credited her husband with the important role he played in her career. “We have a role reversal; he runs our house. When Katherine was 3 or 4 months old, and I had to start this job, I handed him the baby, knowing without looking back that she was with the best possible person. We’ve never had nannies. I did miss her first step.”
The road to Masterpiece Theatre had been paved in late 1969 by The Forsyte Saga (which aired in the U.S. on the nascent public television network), an engrossing, sprawling tale of an upper middle-class family that was widely considered to be the first television miniseries. Briton Christopher Sarson, who was then a WGBH producer, came up with the idea for Masterpiece Theatre and was its first executive producer from 1970 to 1973. During its first decade, Masterpiece Theatre—renowned for its catchy theme music by the French Baroque composer Jean-Joseph Mouret and its well-spoken host, Alistair Cooke (who was succeeded by Russell Baker in 1992)—quickly established itself as the show to watch on Sunday nights. It premiered on January 10, 1971, with The First Churchills—drawn from a book by Sir Winston Churchill about his seventeenth-century ancestors. The series’ output is astounding; in its initial season alone, Masterpiece Theatre presented adaptations of novels by Balzac, Tolstoy, and James Fenimore Cooper, among others, plus the acclaimed historical dramas Elizabeth R, with Glenda Jackson, and The Six Wives of Henry VIII, with Keith Michell.
Then, early in 1974, Masterpiece Theatre aired Upstairs, Downstairs—an ingenious series (created by actresses Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins) that intertwined the lives of an uppercrust family and their servants—and television was, quite literally, never the same. Upstairs, Downstairs was awarded multiple Emmy Awards for Outstanding Drama Series and has been roundly copied (most notoriously by CBS, with its failed series Beacon Hill) but never successfully duplicated.
In 1980, Mystery! was spawned as a younger sibling of Masterpiece Theatre—with a mission to bring the classics of crime fiction to the airwaves. The series (hosted in its early years by Gene Shalit and Vincent Price and, since 1989, by Diana Rigg) premiered with She Fell Among Thieves, followed by the beloved Rumpole of the Bailey, starring Leo McKern. Over the years there have been countless successful series and one-offs broadcast on Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery!; just a few of the many titles include Love for Lydia (which introduced Americans to Jeremy Irons, a few years before Brideshead Revisited—a non–Masterpiece Theatre presentation, incidentally—made him a star), The Jewel in the Crown, Jeeves and Wooster (with a young Hugh Laurie), The Bretts, Poirot with David Suchet, Sherlock Holmes with Jeremy Brett, Traffik, House of Cards with Ian Richardson, Prime Suspect with Helen Mirren, David Copperfield with Daniel Radcliffe, The Lost Prince, a remake of The Forsyte Saga, and Tony Hillerman’s Skinwalkers (a coproduction with Robert Redford’s production company), which in 2002 became the first American tale to air on Mystery! (In addition, Masterpiece Theatre has aired some adaptations of American literary works.)
From the early years of Mystery!—when the supply of potboilers from the UK seemed to run low—the series has acted as a coproducer. Since the mideighties Masterpiece Theatre has also coproduced many of its offerings. “I think it’s riskier and more fun (to coproduce),” says Eaton, “because it allows us to have more input and we can make suggestions we think will appeal to our audiences.”
For the first three decades of its run, Masterpiece Theatre was amply—some would say extravagantly, at least by PBS standards—funded. Corporate sponsor Mobil Oil, which spent upwards of $250 million on the series, was the perfect patron—funding Masterpiece Theatre but staying out of the way when it came to creative matters. Mobil dropped its sponsorship in 2002 after the company merged with Exxon. Since then the series has scrambled for funding—and in an attempt to draw a younger viewership has undergone a makeover. In the 2007-08 season the theme song will remain the same but the series itself (currently without a host since Russell Baker departed in 2004) will be split into three sub-seasons: “Masterpiece Classics,” “Masterpiece Contemporary,” and “Masterpiece Mystery.” There will be a Jane Austen festival (the unprecedented television broadcast of all six of Austen’s novels) as well as a new miniseries, Cranford Chronicles, starring Dame Judi Dench. Over the years nearly every notable British actor—from Laurence Olivier to Bob Hoskins to Emma Thompson—has appeared on Masterpiece Theatre and/or Mystery! (More than a few American actors have also found their way into the productions as well—from Cynthia Harris in Edward & Mrs. Simpson to Gillian Anderson in Bleak House.) The series have also been a showcase for top British writers (including Andrew Davies and Stephen Poliakoff) and directors.
It is Eaton’s job as executive producer to bring all of the forces into play. Her childhood experiences have served her well. “I have a theory about people who end up producers, and anybody who’s had an actor in the family can probably attest to this. They can be complicated households. When there’s a star around, everybody else is playing supporting roles, and producers are often people who as children were the people in the family who solved the problems and smoothed things over and tied up the loose ends…Producing is about nothing but tying up loose ends and making sure other people get things done.”
Eaton has accrued a number of accolades, including eleven prime-time Emmy Awards, six International Emmys, and thirteen Peabody Awards. In 2003 her career was recognized by Queen Elizabeth II—who awarded Eaton with an honorary OBE (Officer, Order of the British Empire), presented by the British ambassador in Washington, D.C.
In retrospect, it would seem that Eaton spent her childhood preparing for her dream job. She has long had a reputation as one of the nicest people in the industry—perhaps because she is having such a good time doing her job. “If you happen to be a bookworm with a penchant for British literature, which I am, and with an interest in theater and film, with an overall interest in the mission of public television, it’s the perfect job.”