Making Masterpiece: 25 Years Behind the Scenes at Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! On PBS by Rebecca Eaton is a fun read for anyone who has enjoyed the many BBC television series and films brought to US viewers by WGBH, the Boston affiliate of PBS.
Eaton has been the executive producer of Masterpiece since 1985, and has great stories to tell about the hosts, actors, writers and directors who are in and behind the productions on Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery!. Why did it take so long to replace Alistair Cooke as host of Masterpiece Theatre? With what esteemed actress was Daniel Radcliffe’s first semi-nude scene? How happy is Rebecca Eaton that, after turning down the series when it was first offered, she got a second chance to accept Downton Abbey? There are behind-the-scenes peeks at popular shows like Inspector Morse, Prime Suspect, Cranford, Sherlock, and Downton Abbey. And you quickly will be on a first-name basis with Helen Mirren, Kenneth Branagh, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Benedict Cumberbatch.
Masterpiece Theatre began in the early 1970s, with the express purpose of showing British serial dramas from great literature and history. Early on, a second show, Mystery!, was added. Efforts to introduce American drama to the mix have been somewhat successful, and the author’s musings on the differences between British and American theater, film and how actors are trained is one of the most interesting parts of the book.
As popular as these two shows have been, it requires constant effort to attract funding and audiences. Eaton describes the rebranding effort that shortened the title of the series to Masterpiece and the use of social media to reach younger viewers. What has stayed the same, though, is the appreciation for “costume drama” and bringing favorite, classic stories to life on the screen.