Praise for Making Masterpiece
“In the world of TV drama, names and faces appear and disappear with bewildering speed; Rebecca Eaton is immortal and immutable. . . . [She] has made an enormous contribution to the cultural life of America, and, more than that, she is one of the most fun people I know.”
—Andrew Davies, Vanity Fair
“Eaton weaves an absorbing tale of what began as just a young girl’s Anglophilia but would eventually change the viewing habits of Americans. . . . Though the book’s most compelling moments are culled from the battles Eaton waged as producer, she manages to put everything in perspective as a highly successful working mother who had plenty to fight for at home as well. . . . In the end, Eaton looks back with unflagging fondness at her life’s work and the spectrum of experiences it has brought her.”
—The Hollywood Reporter
“Eaton recounts these tales with zest.”
“[An] anecdote-filled memoir . . . Rebecca Eaton looks back on twenty-five fascinating years at Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! at PBS.”
“A treasure house of anecdote and insight, observation and object lessons, Making Masterpiece is quietly electrifying.”
“[A] thoroughly engaging memoir . . . Eaton is a warm and witty guide to Masterpiece Theatre’s storied history, and this lively memoir will appeal equally to Downton diehards and longtime Masterpiece loyalists.”
“In addition to these sometimes charming, sometimes bawdy anecdotes, Eaton brings a strong personal element to the narrative. . . . She is able to humanize what is sometimes seen as an impersonal area of the showbiz world. . . . A pleasing blend of memoir and retrospective with a wide audience appeal.”
“A delightful trek into the world of TV production and a substantive treat for the truly addicted PBS fan.”
“Rebecca has been the executive producer of Masterpiece for twenty-five of its forty years. We Americans are fortunate to have Rebecca at the helm: someone committed to bringing great television drama to the widest possible audience, week after week.”
—Gillian Anderson, The 2011 Time 100
Rebecca Easton regards her decades-long stewardship of Masterpiece as the ideal job for the daughter of an English professor and an actress. She has been the executive producer of the show for twenty-eight of its forty-two years on the air. Awards on her watch include forty-three prime-time Emmy awards, fifteen Peabody awards, two Golden Globes, and two Academy Award nominations.
At Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! she extended the programs’ reach with contemporary dramas; initiated coproductions with the BBC (Middlemarch, The Buccaneers); coproduced feature films such as Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Mrs. Brown starring Dame Judi Dench; and oversaw the rebranding of the series in 2008. Queen Elizabeth II awarded her an honorary OBE (Officer, Order of the British Empire) in 2003.
She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and spends time at the family house in Kennebunkport, Maine.
I vividly recall meeting Rebecca Eaton for the first time in January 1988 in the foyer of the Beverly Hills Hotel. A group of British actors, producers, and directors, myself included, had all flown to Los Angeles, but our plane had been delayed by six or seven hours.
On touchdown, we’d rung her to ask, “Is it still going ahead?”
Rebecca said, “Can you guys still do it?”
We said yes; we’d had a very jolly time on the plane. It was my first trip to Los Angeles, and we were all pretty giddy. I was twenty-seven.
When we eventually arrived at the hotel, Rebecca was standing in the foyer welcoming us, checking if we were good to go after the quickest of quick showers. What I saw was a very classy dame, a very beautiful gal, and somebody whose spirit was unflappable. There was a kind of positive, robust show-biz element to her—nothing threw her. She had a sense of humor about it. Other people would have been very stressed, but she seemed to think this might be a fun evening.
And so it turned out to be, because we went into dinner with hundreds of television critics, and Emma Thompson, James Cellan Jones (the director of Fortunes of War), John Thaw (there to promote Inspector Morse), and a number of other people were not only at tables having dinner with some of the critics—we also performed an informal show. Emma sang a song, and I gave some kind of speech. Generally there was a sense that entering Rebecca’s atmosphere in this kind of circumstance had a celebratory quality, which has been part of my impression of her ever since.
One of the things that also struck me about her is that for someone who on the surface would appear to be a devoted Anglophile (which she is), she also seems to me to be resolutely American. I’ve always felt that her taste and critical judgment about what she presents, what she invests in with Masterpiece’s money, gives you an interesting insight into the way smart Americans view the Brits.
She has enthusiasm and passion but no slavish worship of all things European or British, no hushed, uncritical admiration of what the Brits do. She casts an appropriate critical eye over what she chooses to present. She knows that the American public won’t lap up just anything British, or anything period on television, without judgment.
Quite the opposite: the Masterpiece audience is a highly intelligent and passionately point-of-viewed group. I always felt that Rebecca has a kind of vitality, infusing sharpness and wit to the way things are promoted and to the programs themselves: there’s a sense of fun around them. She has fun with the way the Brits are, and she has fun with the way the Americans see the Brits, not only through the vehicle of the programs but even in the way she meets actors and directors and everybody who has the good fortune to go to America to promote their shows.
There are dangers inherent in the word masterpiece, but she and her staff have been very inventive and imaginative, making sure that the name itself doesn’t suddenly evoke something museumlike or too dry. You have a real sense of a personal point of view in their work.
Rebecca has maintained that passionate and witty approach to Masterpiece right across time. She has that gift of enthusiasm and curiosity; and as a result, she’s had a big impact on the careers of a lot of British actors. Work on Masterpiece is sometimes the only way they have the great luxury of going to America and finding out how people there view their work.
And for many actors, it also happens to be a transition. Appearing on Masterpiece can be part of a journey to working more internationally and being seen by a very discerning audience. Rebecca has been a very vigorous and vital custodian of performances that can be seen by an audience that really demonstrates its loyalty—a loyalty, support, and interest she’s never taken for granted.
An ability to be vigilant about that, to maintain your enthusiasm and a critical faculty, yet still convey joy and intelligence and wit about what you’re doing, and therefore making other people feel the same way about it—never giving in to, “Here’s season seventeen, twenty-two, twenty-five,” or whatever it is—is a great tribute to an unflagging artistic vitality that sustains all the other hard work it takes to maintain a show like Masterpiece.
You’re not going to have a Downton Abbey every five minutes. You’ll be showing some material that’s interesting but that might not automatically appeal to that many people. Masterpiece has banged a loud drum for a very long time in a way that’s still resounding—confirming that television can reach a lot of people with work that might not otherwise be seen so easily.
Rebecca has the toughness a producer needs. If you want to sustain a project, or something that’s become an institution like Masterpiece, whilst acknowledging at all times that its longevity is not guaranteed, you need to know when to say no and when to push back a little. She certainly has that capacity to charm, to be bossy and persuasive and curious; but ultimately, you feel that she’s on your side—that indeed, she’s trustworthy, a friend, someone with whom you can have fun. Promoting shows for Masterpiece was never a chore.
Though Rebecca is unquestionably leading the charge, she’s a smart enough boss to let other people do lots of talking. Whether it’s presenting material, or imagining campaigns and artwork and posters, or introducing new titles, or bringing people in if it’s an unknown novel or a difficult set of characters or strange accents, you have to be alive to it and have a team around you who are going to enjoy delivering it. The program, the institution, and the many strands of Masterpiece punch way above their weight.
I say, well done, Rebecca, and thank you very much.
On a warm summer day in 2009, I was sitting on the screen porch of my house in Kennebunkport, Maine, reading an American novel, and falling asleep. My phone rang with a call from Laura Mackie, the head of drama at ITV, the largest commercial network in the U.K. She often tips me off to new British series that I might be interested in for Masterpiece. We chat, catch up.
“Rebecca, do you know Julian Fellowes?” she asks.
Just as a writer, I say: Gosford Park? Mary Poppins on Broadway? I know his work, but not him.
I think he’s an actor as well.
She tells me about an upcoming miniseries he’s written that she’s very excited about: a family saga set on a spectacular country estate, early 1900s; an American heiress whose money keeps things afloat; beautiful frocks; a downstairs “family” of complicated servants. She tells me directly that she thinks it’s going to be very good, and that the production needs Masterpiece co-production money to fill the financing gap. I’ve known and liked Laura for years. She has good taste and very savvy television judgment.
I listen, and then I think to myself that the project sounds a lot like a combination of Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers, which we’d already done in 1995, and Upstairs, Downstairs, of which we’d aired sixty-eight episodes from 1971 to 1975, and which we’re about to remake with the BBC. Does Masterpiece really need another aristocratic-family-charming-servant miniseries at this point?
I tell Laura, no thanks. We chat about the London weather, and I go back to my book.
I’ve been very, very lucky in my career, in spite of myself.
Letters from Maine
I’m writing this book in that same old house in Kennebunkport. It’s where I lived during the summers with my parents, and later with my husband and my daughter. My parents’ names, like my husband’s and daughter’s, were Paul and Katherine. But none of them are here now.
It’s a beautiful old house with lots of character, frustrating plumbing, and hallways that take you places you don’t expect—it’s been added on to for two hundred years. It’s a little labyrinthine and spooky because you often don’t know who else is in the house when you are . . . and I don’t just mean invited guests. My brother and nephews swear there are ghosts; once a psychic, unasked and unhelpful, said that someone was murdered in one of these rooms. So there’s history here, of all the families who’ve lived in this house since it was built in 1800. Big things must have happened here, as they did while my parents were in the house. Their lives had plenty of drama.
My mother, Katherine Emery, was an actress whose career ranged from playing the leading role in Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour on Broadway in 1932 to appearing as a contract player at RKO in Hollywood in the 1950s, when she had parts in genre films like Isle of the Dead with Boris Karloff. Now my daughter Katherine, named after her grandmother, is in theater too.
My father, Paul Eaton, taught Shakespeare and loved the language of the plays. He read history, biography, murder mysteries, and maybe the occasional novel. He was the class poet in his graduating class at Exeter and hoped to go to Harvard to study English. But his father insisted he go to MIT to study naval architecture. Belly-button design, as my father called it. He loved boats and could recite vast amounts of poetry.
I’m telling you about my family and our house because I’ve got to start somewhere. I’ve been asked to write a book about Masterpiece. It seemed doable at first, but then they asked that it be a book about my life too: Masterpiece’s memoir, and mine.
If you’re brought up being told not to “make a spectacle of yourself” and not to “draw attention to yourself,” how do you go about writing a memoir?
A memoir? I’m sixty-five, but I think I’m thirty-five—way too young to write a memoir. And I haven’t kept a journal. My friend Annie snorts at the idea: “Becca, you don’t remember anything!”
But this is an enviable problem: who gets the opportunity to look back on her life’s work and tell it publicly?
The memories that do return are random, and they refuse to fall into any order. Why am I remembering the evening I met Princess Margaret and chose to wear my daughter’s plastic barrettes, her “pretties,” just because I missed her so much? Or the time the head of drama at the BBC, sitting across from me in a difficult meeting, got up from his chair and walked over the coffee table and out the door, never to return? Or the matchmaking conversation I had with Benedict Cumberbatch at the Golden Globes? The hours and hours of reading scripts and talking on the telephone merge and seem impossible to animate.
But even as I procrastinate, I love being in this house. I feel very comforted here: in spite of the ghosts, it’s the light, the air, and the seasons that make it feel so welcoming. The sun comes into the kitchen, into my bedroom, over the beach, in exactly the same way I remember it did in 1969, when I graduated from college, and in 1986, the year my daughter was born. It shines down on this house and on this town in exactly the same way it did in 1900, when my grandparents were here.
So I’ve spent a summer rattling around this house with a head full of Masterpiece memories. I have a deep desire to do anything besides write this book: I do laundry, pull weeds, go to the dump, make vats of vichyssoise, and then read other people’s memoirs and despair because they are so good. I become obsessed with Alexandra Fuller’s Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness. I Google everything about her life in Africa and begin to cast the TV miniseries in my head. I cook and eat a lot of lobsters. I don’t work on the book.
One afternoon I unearth some disintegrating cardboard boxes and decide to go through them. I find bundles and bundles of letters and photographs of things I’ve never seen before: glass slides of my father as a two-year-old in a dress in southern New Hampshire; pictures of my mother as a tomboy in Alabama, surrounded by black servants, and then as a very young and beautiful actress. I unearth clippings and reviews for all the plays she ever did, and letters to, and from, her family. I find the eulogy from my grandfather’s funeral; I never knew him. I find notes from bouquets sent to my mother on opening nights.
And then I find every letter my father wrote to my mother from soon after they met in the late 1930s, until their marriage in 1945, when my father was thirty-nine and my mother was thirty-seven. Some of my father’s letters are half-eaten by mice. Some are so stained, you can’t read them; my mother’s handwriting is practically impossible to decode.
In these letters I find out things I didn’t know. My parents’ love affair and courtship were long and fraught. As a man of his time, my father didn’t go into emotional detail in the letters, but I can tell that my mother was ambivalent about giving up her career to marry him. In fact, she seems to have been ambivalent about marrying him at all. There were other men in her life, as there were other women in his. He tries to talk her through “tough passages.”
My father sought my mother hard: he truly courted her. He waited six years. In one of the very earliest letters, he is clear that he is ready to get married even then. But they don’t actually marry until they are both nearly forty. She kept him at bay. In his letters he remains steady and cheerful, eager to get on with life as he fights for her. There are very few letters from my mother to my father from that time—she was a successful actress in New York, and he was teaching in Boston.
In my father’s letters I hear his voice very clearly: he is loving Maine, loving New England, loving my mother. Her voice is hard to hear.
Then—and this part I’ve always known—they dramatically eloped, days before he was shipped out to the South Pacific during World War II. They had said their good-byes in New York when my father left for the naval base in San Francisco. But my mother suddenly changed her mind, found the last berth on a westward-bound train, and joined him. Good drama for television, I think.
They were married, by themselves, at the Treasure Island Naval Station in San Francisco Bay and spent four days at the Mark Hopkins Hotel before he left for a year. When my father came back, my brother, James, was three months old. There are dozens of letters from that year.
It’s a long and complicated story, and I’m riveted. This wonderful trove shines a new light on my parents. I’d never really thought about my mother as a woman in her thirties and forties. I always thought she was glamorous, and that was enough for me.
Suddenly I see her at thirty, moody and elusive, not just the beautiful movie star I’d bragged about. Through the letters, I see her struggling to be happy, even as she enjoyed terrific success and the attentions of many men. Though she was very beautiful, I think self-doubt was there early too. Later in her life it overwhelmed her. I remember that part.
I see my father heroically pursuing the love of his life, in spite of her deeply discouraging reluctance. He’s not just the jovial, multichinned “Daddy” all my friends loved. There’s another man inside that man.
It all begins to swarm together in my brain. I realize that right here, in this old house, I may have found the answer to the paralyzing question, How do I write this book? Maybe I’ve tripped over the really important thing—the stories, and the stories behind the family stories that we all have. The ones told over and over—and then the mysteries and secrets. Isn’t that what fascinates us about The Forsyte Saga; Bleak House; Upstairs, Downstairs; and even Downton Abbey? Isn’t that why we’re so drawn to books and dramas, even years after they’ve been written?
So as I read the letters and spread them all over the house in Maine, I relate them not only to my own life but also to the work I do. If you could distill the essence of Masterpiece, it might be that it is stories about families. Family stories are sagas: love, betrayal, money, infatuation, infidelity, illness, family love, and family deception. Those stories are our own stories writ large, usually with happy endings, and usually in times and places much more exotic or melodramatic than our own.
And that is what I love most in the world—stories. I love them on television, I love them in books, I love them in movies, and I love hearing them from the person I’m sitting next to at a dinner party. We all have them, but we forget they’re any good or have any rhyme or reason until someone new asks us, with real interest, to tell them who we are.
In this house in Maine, I feel surrounded by stories: my own, my parents’, my daughter’s, and the ones I put on television. I love them all.
For me, and maybe for you, books and dramas about families and romance have been relaxing and entertaining, but sometimes they’ve also been painkillers or anesthetics, when family life, self-doubt, lack of romance, or a romance gone badly just hurts too much. I comfort myself with stories that are full of wisdom, wit, and good writing. They provide relief from the difficulties of making a living, having a family, maintaining relationships, and living a life with meaning.
Brought up on a steady diet of classic British literature, I’m amazed at the inevitability of the fact that my life’s work has turned out to be as a purveyor of this particular opiate. The kind of drama we do on Masterpiece tends to be uplifting—the guy gets the girl, people escape jeopardy, justice is served, and the mystery is solved. But there’s something else, something perhaps more worthy: maybe the dramas are uplifting because of the exemplary quality of the writing, the acting, and the production values.
It’s not easy to describe the feeling you get when you’re in the presence of something well done, the aesthetic reaction you have to a fine ballet, work of art, piece of music, book, or performance. It’s a mysterious thing that lifts you and opens you and makes you feel better. It’s a very specific and strange connection. I’m sure many thoughtful books have been written about this.
Going for those moments is the reason I like being in this business. The moments are rare, but I would argue that over the years, there have been more of them on Masterpiece than on most other places on television. A perfectly written scene, a moment of transcendent acting, a delicately lit drawing room. . . .
But, I still have to write this book.
In a panic, I call dear Russell Baker—journalist, memoirist (Growing Up), Masterpiece host, and calming, steady friend—and ask him how to do it. “Keep it simple,” he says. “Avoid Latinate and use plain English. Figure out a good beginning and a good ending, and just tell stories in between.”
My daughter Katherine, a performer like the grandmother she never met, says, “Just lean into it. Creativity hurts.”
Steven Ashley, Masterpiece senior producer and a consigliere of thirty years, says, “You can’t executive-produce this book. You can’t get other people to do it. You have to write it yourself. So hush up and do it.”
And I hear my friend Alistair Cooke’s unmistakable voice, impatiently explaining to me for the thousandth time how he managed that inimitable style of storytelling in his radio broadcast Letter from America and in his introductions to Masterpiece Theatre: “I always think of myself as speaking to one person, as if in conversation. Ignore the fact that thousands of people are listening.”
So let me tell you some stories.
The Curtain Rises
Masterpiece Theatre would never have been born without the 1969 broadcast of The Forsyte Saga, a British drama based on John Galsworthy’s novels. Remember the lovely, elusive Irene (pronounced “I-REE-nee,” not “I-REEN”), relentlessly pursued and eventually raped by Soames Forsyte in the marital bedroom?
Galsworthy, a Nobel Prize winner, wrote a trilogy of novels that follow a successful British family from the 1870s to the 1920s, just as the Industrial Revolution begins to give way to the modern world: the gentry have to adapt to the fact that the sun will set on the British Empire. Downton Abbey? How many future Masterpiece Theatres will till this same garden? How much do we love to hear family stories, again and again?
It’s hard to overstate the impact of that broadcast of Forsyte: audiences in forty countries adored the twenty-six-part series, as they did in the United States. It aired on NET, National Educational Television. (PBS was still a few months in the future.) At that point “dramatic serials” were cheesy genre pictures or soap operas. The term seemed to mean schlock, no matter how it was presented. The whole idea of a “limited series” like Forsyte had appealed to none of the executives at American networks when it was pitched. They all turned it down, except for NET—even though its main offerings at the time were documentaries and academic courses. Forsyte was a blockbuster. Everyone now remembers it as the very first Masterpiece Theatre presentation, but it wasn’t. Masterpiece Theatre didn’t yet exist.
My mentor Henry Becton (much more about him later) points out, “The notion that well-produced drama based on literature was a good fit for educational television, as it was then called, began to show us that we could do more than illustrated lectures. After all, Julia Child had great expertise and authority but presented herself in a very entertaining and conversational way that spoke to everybody.”
And The Forsyte Saga’s success among the “intelligent audience” proved that you could show compelling long-form drama. American network TV at that time was mostly weekly series, movies rerun, and sitcoms. This was before prime-time soap operas like Dynasty and Dallas and before the dawn of the miniseries.
Forsyte was a revelation. Without it, there might never have been Rich Man, Poor Man (1976) or Roots (1977)—or Masterpiece Theatre. The audience numbers it commanded were huge. People canceled evening plans and stopped answering the phone on the evenings it aired.
The game was on; but how to build on the success of Forsyte? This was serious. NET had no idea what it had gotten into or what it was going to get out of it.
“Imitation is the sincerest form of television,” as Fred Allen said.
WGBH, the Boston affiliate of what was now PBS, was ready to step up—to try harder, as Avis used to say, because Boston, that center of culture and higher education, had originally been passed over when the Ford Foundation set up three production centers: New York, L.A., and Washington got the nod. It was a savvy executive in New York who had taken the flier on The Forsyte Saga.
So who had the idea to grab this tiger by the tail and turn it into a series called Masterpiece Theatre? This was all long before my time. Getting the true story of what happened next is tricky. In this instance, success truly had many fathers. Here are a couple of versions from a few of the Fathers.
Christopher Sarson, an Englishman who had been working in children’s and educational programming at WGBH, tells it this way: “In June 1970, Stanford Calderwood was hired as the president of WGBH. When he’d been an executive vice president at Polaroid, he’d had considerable experience finding television programs for sponsorship, like the Julia Child cooking series. He also went to England frequently with his wife, Norma Jean.
“Calderwood arrived in the summer and was gone by November 1970. But in that short time he very much wanted to make a name for himself in public television. When I mentioned the idea of taking on more British serialized drama, he leapt at the idea. At that time the BBC was very keen on expanding their presence abroad. They were very taken by the fact that Forsyte Saga had been on public television and were very receptive to the idea of someone doing this on a sort of permanent basis.”
But according to Henry Becton, then a producer and eventually the president of WGBH, “There’s evidence in the files that Calderwood and Norma Jean had already gone to London in the months before he took the job, and that he cold-called at the BBC to view tapes of dramatic programs.”
Calderwood told BBC executives that if they cut him a deal, he’d find a sponsor to underwrite a program in the United States that would showcase imported British programs. Everything on the new public broadcasting network needed a corporate sponsor. PBS had come into being, but it was a minimally funded network of just under 200 member stations (there are now 354). Then as now, there was never enough money.
Another Father was Frank Gillard, a BBC television and radio program executive and a frequent consultant to U.S. public television. In a letter written in 1994, when he was eighty-six, he described in detail how he had given Calderwood the idea for Masterpiece Theatre during the intermission of a Boston Pops concert. An enthusiastic Calderwood had invited Gillard and WGBH’s program manager, Michael Rice, to his house in the country the next day, where Gillard voiced concern that no one planned to build upon the achievement of The Forsyte Saga.
Back to Henry Becton’s version: “At Calderwood’s instigation, Michael Rice then assigned Christopher Sarson, who’d been voicing a similar concern, as executive producer of the new show even before a sponsor had been found.”
Finding a rich patron would prove to be no easy task. Calderwood made the rounds with videos of the premier episodes of Vanity Fair, Portrait of a Lady, and The First Churchills but was turned down by the first ten or fifteen prospective funders. Finally he was introduced to Herb Schmertz, head of public relations at Mobil Oil.
He was exactly the right guy to meet. Before he joined Mobil, Schmertz had been a labor lawyer specializing in arbitration. And he’d been active in John F. Kennedy’s and Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaigns. He was sharp and worldly, loved sophistication, and recognized that the trove of British programming could become a new high-quality brand and, by association, could make Mobil look classy.
Many people credit Herb Schmertz with originating a notion called affinity of purpose marketing. When you associate your corporation’s brand with something people love, they feel much kindlier toward you. And buy your product. As Henry Becton points out, “At that time Herb was looking for vehicles to do this for Mobil. Their goal was to build goodwill not just with the general public but also among those with influence in terms of government and regulation. It was partly a public relations strategy and partly a government relations strategy.”
Schmertz asked Stan Calderwood to come and help him pitch the idea of a new show of imported British drama to his boss.
Mobil CEO Rawleigh Warner, Herb’s boss, asked them, “Is this the kind of show that people are going to be talking about the next day at the country club?”
Herb said, “Absolutely.”
Calderwood proposed that Mobil fund thirty-nine hours of already-made BBC drama for about $390,000, to be run nationally. (The final purchase price was $375,000.) As Schmertz says, “Even in 1970, that was an absurdly low figure, so I was eager to learn more. My management thought it would be a good thing to associate Mobil with public television by underwriting a show like this.”
Soon they had a deal.
Compared to the cost of a single hour of commercial television, what Mobil kicked in was very short money. To this day, Masterpiece is a kind of financial miracle. You probably couldn’t produce one hour of Mad Men for the amount of money we pay for a dozen hours of programs with high production values, glorious costumes, and faraway landscapes.
So no matter which Father said what to whom or when, the program that became Masterpiece Theatre was an idea whose time, and more importantly, whose sponsor, had come.
“What was extraordinary,” Chris Sarson recalls, “was that by the end of October 1970, we were just envisioning this program of British dramas on American public television, and in January 1971, it was on the air. It all came together so quickly.”
Even more surprising was that the people in New York who had aired The Forsyte Saga so successfully didn’t envision a follow-up. Henry Becton explains: “In their defense, they were in the middle of transitioning from being an educational network to being a local New York–based public television station. They were preoccupied.”
Money for the first season of Masterpiece Theatre came both from Mobil and from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the federal funder of the newly formed PBS. No fewer than fifteen people made that first trip to London in the fall of 1970 to look at potential programs for the new series; it was a traveling circus.
But what to name this new baby?
When Stan Calderwood was shopping the series, the working title had been The Best of the BBC. It’s a good thing they didn’t pick that one, because over the years many of the most popular shows, like the original Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey, would come from sources other than the BBC. The Beeb, as the Brits fondly call it, often gets the credit for any English drama shown on American TV, but there are actually dozens of production companies and several broadcasters that have made many of the most memorable shows.
Sarson suggested the single word Episode as a title.
In the end, the program’s iconic name derived from a combination of corporate strategy and national pride. “I think Herb Schmertz and his associate Frank Marshall at Mobil played a role in calling the show Masterpiece,” Becton explains, “because they liked the idea of something alliterative with the word Mobil. And partly because Sarson was English, they all decided to call it Masterpiece Theatre, with re at the end in the British style.”
Christopher Sarson adds: “Herb Schmertz in particular was upset by the re because he thought it was affected. But I said, ‘No, this has to be distinctive. And it’s an English-created series to begin with. It’s got to be re.’”
To Sarson’s dismay, The New York Times refused to acknowledge the English usage, always referring to the show as Masterpiece Theater: “I sent a letter to the style editor. He replied politely: Theater in The New York Times is spelled ter instead of tre.”
And so it remained on the pages of the newspaper of record until Theatre was dropped in the rebranding of Masterpiece in 2008.
Sarson remembers what happened next: “NET didn’t have an on-air host for The Forsyte Saga: it just aired the episodes. I decided we’d do an on-camera introduction to each episode, summing up what viewers had seen so far and telling them what they’d see this time. When everyone agreed that a host would be a good thing for the new series, it took me about five milliseconds to think of Alistair Cooke, whom I had known for a long, long time, partly because he went to what I thought was my father’s school in Blackpool in the north of England, and partly because of his Letter from America, broadcast globally on the BBC’s World Service.”
Sarson might have also thought of Alistair as an ideal host for Masterpiece Theatre because of Cooke’s visibility as the host of the popular cultural magazine show Omnibus, which had run on CBS once a week on Sundays from 1952 to 1961.
“When I called him [Cooke] to propose the job,” Sarson says, “he politely declined, saying, ‘Absolutely not. I’m putting together my own version of The History of America for the BBC, and I want that to be my next foray into American television.’
“So I asked, ‘Do you have anybody else to suggest?’
“Being Alistair Cooke, he suggested half a dozen other people quite quickly.
“I said, ‘Mr. Cooke, they’re all dead.’
“He said, ‘Yes, I know. But good luck in your search.’ And he hung up.”
Sarson interviewed other people, “though no one was a patch on Alistair. A couple of weeks later he came to Boston and borrowed a WGBH crew to film his series America. I went along and tripped him up when he came back from lunch: ‘Hey, let’s have a drink afterward. You went to my father’s school.’
“To which he retorted, ‘No, I did not.’”
It turns out that there were two high schools in Blackpool.
“Weeks passed,” Sarson continues. “It was now December 1. The opening episode of The First Churchills was supposed to air on January first, so we were really down to the wire. Just as the production assistant and I were going to lunch, the phone rang. It was Alistair Cooke to say he’d spent Thanksgiving with his daughter, and she’d convinced him that he should in fact take the job. He figured we’d found somebody else by then.
“The contract was signed, and we got him into the studio.”
Alistair’s daughter, Susan Cooke Kittredge, explains her father’s decision to take the job: “Daddy was so proud of the America series: he’d put so much time and effort into its writing and production. Initially I think he thought that if he did Masterpiece Theatre, it would somehow interfere with America’s potential success. My view was that they’d have different audiences: one was on NBC, one was on PBS. Rather than detracting from each other, one might complement the other. Having them both on at a relatively similar time would increase the viewership for each program.
“I knew he would love hosting Masterpiece Theatre. It was so up his alley. He’d have a blast doing on the air what he did anyway at cocktail hour and at dinner parties—holding forth. On Masterpiece Theatre there’d be no one to interrupt him.
“We’d been discussing it all week, but as I recall he made up his mind on Thanksgiving—a time when the family had a chance to sit together and talk about things.
“After he went to the phone and called Christopher Sarson, he probably came back and poured himself a celebratory glass of scotch. Hosting Masterpiece Theatre gave him an outlet for his love of the arts.”
A complication arose when Sarson asked Alistair Cooke to record the credit for Mobil, and he refused. Cooke didn’t want to be associated with any kind of commercialism. So for twenty-five years it was British-born Christopher Sarson who intoned: “Masterpiece Theatre is made possible by a grant from Mobil Corporation, which invites you to join with them in supporting public television.”
And where did the glorious, famous Masterpiece Theatre theme music come from?
In 1962, when Chris Sarson was about to get married, “my wife-to-be and I got on a train run by Club Med in Paris and traveled to Sicily, where we stayed in straw-covered huts on the beach, where the waves washed us to sleep and woke us up in the morning. Up the hill was the main office of Club Med, where they served breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Before every meal, the music coming from the tower was ‘Fanfares for the King’s Supper,’ written by a guy called Jean-Joseph Mouret. Being a good TV producer, I locked it away in my head for a future series.
“Eleven years later, when Masterpiece Theatre came along, I could not get this theme out of my head. But it was written by a Frenchman: how could you have a piece of French music for an English series? Even as I looked frantically through Purcell and Elgar and Handel, all the time this theme was in my head. Eventually we used it.
“About twenty years ago, The New York Times sent a reporter to Club Med in Mexico to do a report on the establishment. The reporter wrote that Club Med was a classy operation because they used Masterpiece Theatre music to summon people to meals.”
The Fathers had come up with a name, a host, some catchy music, and a title sequence with a Union Jack flapping across the screen to make crystal clear the nation of origin. But what shows would Masterpiece Theatre broadcast? Where was the next family saga? What was this series going to be?
The First Churchills premiered on January 10, 1971. As Alistair Cooke famously said, it “was a lulu. Looking back on it, I sometimes marvel that it didn’t strangle the program [Masterpiece Theatre] in the cradle.”
Christopher Sarson chose that show, he recalls, “because it had the word Churchill in it, which would be familiar to Americans, and it starred Susan Hampshire, the star of The Forsyte Saga. I thought that carryover was important.”
Taken from a book by Sir Winston Churchill about his seventeenth-century ancestors, The First Churchills had the “opening episode problem.” Henry Becton explains: “In a multipart series you have to introduce a lot of characters and get them established, which is hard to do without confusing people and still get the plot moving along briskly at the same time. The First Churchills had it in spades, because everyone was wearing wigs. Their costumes all looked alike; you couldn’t tell anyone apart.”
The show got both good reviews and good ratings, Sarson recalls, “largely because of the way Mobil launched it. They had a big reception. They know how to take care of press people, and they offered a good press package, which in those days was not common in public television. They made damn sure the critics got tapes, and that they watched them.”
Though The First Churchills wasn’t great television, it established the series. And it was followed by excellent adaptations of novels by Balzac, Tolstoy, and James Fenimore Cooper, plus the favorite historical dramas Elizabeth R with Glenda Jackson and The Six Wives of Henry VIII with Keith Michell.
But success for Masterpiece Theatre was not universal and by no means instant. It didn’t get chart-busting audiences every Sunday night, but enough people started making it a part of their weekly routine to indicate a possible future for the series. Alistair Cooke was so uncertain about the show’s appeal that he had signed only a one-year contract. He was also a creature of habit with a very careful lawyer. He signed only one-year contracts for the next twenty-one years.
The First Churchills nearly landed all those Fathers in jail, or at least got them called up on charges at the FCC. Very early on in the broadcast, a toothsome young woman rose, completely naked, from the bed of the Duke of Marlborough and walked briefly toward the camera.
The phone of the president of WGBH lit up. The man on the line was incandescent with rage and could barely spit out the words: “Do you realize, sir, that you have just committed full nudal frontity?!”
But the series was well and truly launched.
• • •
The year 1969 was not only the year that The Forsyte Saga gave birth to the idea that would become Masterpiece Theatre; it was also the year PBS was created, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, and the amazin’ Mets finally won the World Series. It was the year I graduated from college. August 9, 1969, was both the day of the Manson murders and the day I left New York for London to begin my job at the BBC. It’s the date I mark as the intersection of my story and that of Masterpiece Theatre. I was twenty-one.
I remember being in a bookstore in Manhattan that day waiting for my night flight to London and hearing the cool, classical radio announcer break in with the news of the Manson murders in California. The world was moving full speed ahead, and there I was, looking for a British novel to read on the plane, searching for a way to be transported back to the nineteenth century. There was an odd logic to where I’d been, where I was headed that day, and where I would end up fifteen years later.
Drama was more or less inevitable in the house where I grew up. My mother, Katherine Emery, was born in Alabama in 1906, the product of a Yankee father from Maine and a southern beauty of a mother who was a lady who lunched, who had a cook and a driver—the life my mother could have had. But while she was a student at Sweet Briar College in Virginia in the 1920s, my mother began to act, and then she did some summer stock with the Surry Playhouse in Maine, and on Cape Cod with a group called the University Players, which included Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda. Growing up, hearing about this life, I idolized it.
Her life got even better when she began to get parts in Broadway plays. She had fabulous friends, handmade dressing gowns, and lots of beaux. She became famous. She was given the lead in the original production of Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour. She was twenty-eight, and Lillian Hellman was just twenty-five. Hellman had written a red-hot play about two women who run a private school for girls. Their lives are shattered when one of the girls spreads a rumor, a lie, that the women are lovers.
The play was a controversial hit. My mother got solid gold reviews, nightly bouquets of flowers, and more gentleman callers. The play ran for two years and was banned in Boston. That was 1934. In 1938 she met my father on a beach in Maine, and the letters began.
He was a Yankee from New Hampshire. At that point he was teaching English literature at MIT in Boston and spending every spare minute either on the coast of Maine or trying to see my mother wherever she was. Their lives, their friends, and their interests were as different as chalk and cheese, as the British say, but they were deeply drawn to each other. And they were both plying trades completely made up of stories. His audience was students; hers was theatergoers.
Once my brother and I came along, we became their best audience of all. We loved hearing about the New York days, the romantic four-day honeymoon in the Mark Hopkins Hotel, and my father’s dramatic return from the war to a newborn son. I pictured it all perfectly and played that movie in my head over and over again.
In 1948 the family picked up stakes in Boston and moved to southern California, where my father had been offered the job of dean of students at Caltech. It was an adventurous and supposedly temporary transplanting, much like a British family being posted to another part of the empire. But we stayed for thirty years, and I grew up to be a dark-haired, bookish teenager in a land of blond, nut-brown surfer girls.
My mother had stopped performing on the stage, but by the time we moved to Pasadena, she was making movies. Altogether she made about a dozen movies for the studio RKO. She kept what you’d call “theater hours.” When my brother and I got out of bed at seven or eight in the morning, she’d be gone, because it took hours to drive the fifteen miles from Pasadena into Hollywood then, all on small roads. At the end of very, very long days, she’d come home after we were asleep. I remember waking up as she kissed us good night in a dark bedroom with ivy wallpaper. Sometimes she slept till noon to recover.
By the early 1950s, my mother started to turn down parts. At forty-five, she wasn’t interested in playing harridans, which was all that was on offer. I remember hearing her say no over and over again to her agent when he called.
I always thought my mother was a star, or at least more of a star than anybody else’s mother. She may have been living a life that looked like the lives of all the other mothers in affluent Pasadena, but she had a past.
I think back and wonder if I ever wanted to be an actress. I don’t think I dared to because I knew I’d never be as good as she was. I surely didn’t want to challenge her for the lead. I was a bit player. In school productions, I was cast as a lineless member of the jury in Inherit the Wind and as the maid working for the Boston family in The Late George Apley, and I appeared in the chorus of Once Upon a Mattress, although I couldn’t sing. It was a small school—if I’d had any talent, I probably would have been force-marched into bigger roles. But I loved the productions: the auditions, the evening rehearsals, the stage makeup, and the addictive quality of stage fright and applause.
On Sundays my father and I would go to church, while my mother slept, and my brother probably got into some kind of trouble. I was the goody-goody; he was the “active child.” I sang in the choir, though I couldn’t carry a tune in a basket, just like my father. Afterward we’d go to the Rexall drugstore, where I’d buy Photoplay, Modern Screen, or Silver Screen. I couldn’t get enough of the personal lives of my favorite stars, or of the terrible things that happened to them: Debbie Reynolds, Eddie Fisher, and Mike Todd and that awful plane crash—poor Liz!
As we sat at the counter, my father would have a cup of coffee, and I’d order banana cream pie and a Coke. Afterward in his office, he’d do paperwork while I sat in the dean of freshmen’s armchair and read about Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner. On Sunday afternoons my father would take me to the movies, usually a double feature featuring some of my favorite stars, like Doris Day and Rock Hudson. The movies would put me in an altered state. I remember coming home from Love in the Afternoon with Audrey Hepburn as a cellist in Paris, in love with Gary Cooper. I tried to adjust the lighting in our house to look like the lighting in a Paris hotel suite, turning this one on and that one off. And I’d get a terrible hunger for whatever food they’d been eating and try to reconstruct it from the contents of our refrigerator. I discovered that drama can transport you to another world, another mood.
Every June, my family would go Back East by train and spend a few days in New York City, before heading off to the little island off the coast of Maine for the summer. We would stay in the grand old Gotham Hotel on Fifty-fifth Street and go to Best & Company to buy new outfits. Then we’d have lunch with my mother’s fancy friends. I remember having a tuna sandwich at the ‘21’ Club as they mellowed out over martinis.
Then it was off to the theater, usually matinees. Often we saw musicals like Bye Bye Birdie and West Side Story. When I was older, we saw straight plays like Death of a Salesman and Hamlet. Afterward my mother and I would discuss the shows. Sometimes she’d say, “The director hasn’t been in lately.” When I asked what that meant, she explained to me what a director does: how he—and usually it was a he—gets a production up and running, but once the wheels are on, the actors keep performing, and the director isn’t around much. Every now and then the director might come back and notice where the actors were slipping up or getting lazy. I was learning to deconstruct theater, to understand that it’s more than just a dream—that it’s discipline and routine.
I never saw my mother perform onstage. She’d stopped by the time I was born in 1947; I rarely saw her in the movies, either. She didn’t want me to see them, because she played some pretty scary people. But finally one of her movies came on TV, and I begged and begged and broke her down. But she was right—I shouldn’t have seen it.
It was a 1946 movie called The Locket with Robert Mitchum and Laraine Day, and she played a rich woman who accuses her housekeeper’s daughter (a girl just my age) of stealing a locket. She grabs the little girl and shakes the living daylights out of her. The child’s face looking up at my lovely mother’s snarling rage was an epiphany for me: normal people can transform themselves when they act.
My brother James (Jeremy to me, Jerry to the world) grew up to be a television executive, too, first at PBS and eventually at Westinghouse and CBS, running stations in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. When he was the program director in Baltimore, he used to honor our mother in a very special way. “We had an RKO film package,” he says. “Every year on my mother’s birthday I would program her movies, including Isle of the Dead with Boris Karloff and The Locket.”
He remembers that in Isle of the Dead there is a scene where our mother is buried alive—while she was pregnant with him.