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Dec 01, 2012
Rebecca Eaton: The True Mistress of Downton Abbey - Boston Common
Rebecca Eaton, 67, has an endearing trait of humming softly to herself when pondering something.  Given that her office is piled high with scripts awaiting her perusal, one expects this to be a musical place. In fact, she’s humming right now.


Rebecca Eaton



She’s pondering which character from “Downton Abbey,” the show she produces for PBS, “ she most identifies with. Suddenly the humming stops. “It’s got to be Lord Grantham,” she enthuses, picking “Downton’s” current master. “After all, he’s a producer isn’t he? He’s running everything, and he gets it wildly wrong every now and then.” Given her remarkable track record, it’s hard to imagine Eaton ever gets anything wildly wrong. Though, like Lord Grantham, even if she did, her unfailingly gracious manner and the enduring elegance of the edifice she presides over would probably make it easy to overlook.

As arguably one of the most influential TV producer in the country, one imagines Eaton has earned the right to park her private jet next to those of her colleagues in Hollywood. “I don’t have a private jet,” she laughs under a sculptural twist of stylish coiffed grey hair. “I have a private Toyota Camry. But also I have the best job in the industry.”

Now in its 40th year, PBS’ Masterpiece is the longest-running prime time drama on television having brought everything from “I Claudius,” “Upstairs Downstairs,” “Traffik” and now the wildly successful English Edwardian estate drama, “Downton Abbey”—the most watched series in the program’s history--to American living rooms. Presiding over this empire of impeccable literary taste for some 27 years—several lifetimes in TV terms—Eaton was recently named “one of the 100 most influential people in the world,” by Time magazine.

Married to sculptor Paul Robert Cooper and with a daughter now at NYU law school, Eaten is a native Bostonian, whose mother, Broadway and film actress Katherine Emery nurtured Eaton’s renowned instinct for drama.  After an undergraduate stint studying English lit at Vassar College and then a yearlong internship at the BBC in London, Eaton found herself in 1971 back in Boston working for the radio division of WGBH. She had been hired by the legendary Henry Beckton, widely credited with turning Boston into a creative vortex for public television, launching such enduring classics as “Masterpiece Theater,” “Antiques Roadshow” and “Nova.” 

 “Henry became my mentor,” remembers Eaton. “He was able to put together such a creative team because he had great taste and he had a business background unique to public television. WGBH became a magnet for superstars from so many of Boston’s great local cultural and educations institutions. Harvard actually owned the land that WGBH used to stand on.”

Following what she jokingly calls a “meteoric rise” of 17 years, Easton took over the helm of what was then called “Masterpiece Theater.”  But the venerable program was a dusty jewel in the crown, with an aging audience, barely-there public funding and a format that hadn’t changed in decades.  “We took a deep breath and decided to overhaul the show,” recalls Eaton. “It was risky thing, as we had such a loyal viewership. But they were getting so old we were worried they’d soon all disappear to ‘Masterpiece Heaven.” 

The program was rebranded as simply “Masterpiece” and split into three different genres, “Masterpiece Classics,” Masterpiece Contemporary,” and “Masterpiece Mystery,” each with a distinctive host--Laura Linney, Alan Cumming, and David Tennant—to appeal to different demographics.

Eaton also embraced online technology in the form of streaming videos and Facebook pages attracting a much younger audience. Some 750,000 viewers recently streaming “Downton” second season premiere online.

But ultimately, Eaton’s ongoing success as an executive producer is due her unrivaled “nose” for bringing in great programming, including “Sherlock,” “Prime Suspect,” “Bleak House” and the new “Upstairs Downstairs.” When Julian Fellowes’ script for “Downton Abbey” crossed her desk, she leapt. “It was a family saga set during an extremely visual time,” Eaton recalls. “The setting looked lovely and seemed perfect—and yet in the background there’s this amazing drama of the impending changes that came with the historical events.“

Eaton also had the good sense to give Fellowes free reign with the show—almost unheard of for American television programming--though once in a while her instincts will intervene. “It’s relationship based on the golden rule,” says Eaton.  “He who has the gold makes the rules. We give occasional notes on cuts and casting. “ For instance, when it came time to cast the mistress of Downton’s American mother, Eaton brought in Shirley MacLaine.

So when Season 3 of “Downton” premiers on January 6, we can expect MacLaine’s character to lock horns with Maggie Smith’s formidable Dowager of Grantham over the family’s fate. Other unfinished plot strands are wafting into the new season. Will the saintly valet, Bates, get out of jail to rejoin his true love, Anna? Will the odious, scheming Barrow ever get his comeuppance? And whatever happened to that mysterious burned guy who claimed to be the Abbey’s real heir?

Eaton knows. But when asked, she teasingly resumes humming.
 

Sidebar:

AN ANGLOPHILE’S BOSTON

A lifelong Bostonian, Eaton’s fertile insight into English culture has been inspired by some favorite spots around the city.

for tea:

“The Ritz Carlton on the Commons when they have blue crystal and butter with the lion imprint.”

for books:

“The library of the Boston Athenaeum with its elegant 19th century atmosphere.”

favorite local artisan:

Crosby, the butcher at Fresh Pond Market”

for Old World atmosphere:

“The ladies room in Symphony hall. It’s an exquisite little jewel box to touch up your makeup. You squint a little and you think you’re in London or Paris.”

favorite view

“I love driving along Memorial Drive going east towards Boston and looking at the golden light on the Statehouse dome.”
   
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