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'Masterpiece' producer Eaton gives past contemporary edge

| Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of 'Masterpiece'
Anthony Tieuli
Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of 'Masterpiece' Anthony Tieuli

Forty-two Primetime Emmy Awards, 17 Peabody Awards, two Golden Globs, two Academy Award nods, the official recognition of Queen Elizabeth II with an honorary OBE (Officer, Order of the British Empire) …

Suffice to say, “Masterpiece” executive producer Rebecca Eaton may have accumulated just enough accolades to skate through any pending employee reviews. Since taking over the helm of the iconic PBS series “Masterpiece Theatre” and “Mystery!” in 1985, she's not only ushered in wildly successful programming — including “Downton Abbey,” “Sherlock Holmes,” “Little Dorrit,” “Miss Marple” and “Upstairs Downstairs” — she also oversaw the launch of the new “Masterpiece,” which proved to be it's saving grace from possible extinction.

Even more impressive? Figuring out how to catch the attention of a generation that's grown up expressing their emotions in 140 characters or less without completely offending their long-standing fans. Since the re-birth, viewership has gone up more than 50 percent. But at the very heart of it all, it's Eaton's passion for classic works of literature that have inspired her throughout her illustrious career.

Thursday, Eaton will be the guest of honor during the “Downton Abbey Season Three” party hosted by WQED. Details:

Question: What is it about British literature that resonates so well with American audiences?

Answer: Well, I think first of all, a lot of the work that we do are adaptations of the classics, and people are familiar with the classics. If they haven't read the Brontes, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, they know the stories having seen previous adaptations. So, there's the familiarity factor as a lot of us were raised on these classics. And when you have television shows like “Upstairs Downstairs” or “Downton Abbey,” they are often set in extremely picturesque times and places — 19th century or early 20th century. And, I think, there's a long history and love of costume drama, dress-up drama. They tell stories that are set in a very specific time and place — stories of a specific social order. And there's often great romance and love, sex and money and great betrayal. So, I think that explains it. I've often said Anglophelia is not a dirty word — we have a love of Britain and all things British. You know, for a long time it was the Mother Country for a lot of people who lived here. It was a very powerful cultural influence for centuries in the world and certainly in this country.

Q: What makes a show like “Downton Abbey” stand out?

A: Julian Fellowes knows how to tell a story — he knows how to present vivid characters and how to weave together their stories in a tapestry that is visually rich. The way he tells the story is pretty contemporary — the scenes are pretty short, there's lots of suspense, there's unresolved jeopardy, there's humor and the secret sauce is the beautiful house, actors and costumes. And of course, Maggie Smith…

Q: Were you surprised to see a show like “Downton” find an audience across the board from millennials to baby boomers?

A: Yes and no. I think we knew, looking at it, that it would appeal to younger people, especially younger women. We were a little surprised that it would appeal to younger men. So the challenge was to get the word out (but) it's a returning series, so it has a chance to build buzz. We also came at a time of social networking, social media and great interaction between younger people about what's going on, and we have been able to capture some of that, because we have a Twitter account, we have a Facebook page. ... We're working the social network very specifically to appeal to the way younger people communicate.

Q: Do you think life become harder when the class distinctions began to fall apart or did those rigid, societal boundaries of the Edwardian age keep things easier in a way?

A: I would say from looking at it from my perspective, because it's quite distant, that the Crawley family in “Downton Abbey” is ideal. The people upstairs care about the people downstairs. They are compassionate and generous people, and the people downstairs have dignity, good health, job security. So, I expect that people in service who worked for those kinds of people — it was pretty good. And when that all came apart that might have gotten harder. Except people found independence, they could live in their own houses and they could get their own jobs. But in any change, some things are sacrificed. I think it was very hard work downstairs. It was physically very hard. Yes, you have job security and a warm place to live and a roof over your head, but their days were extremely long and physically demanding.

Q: Do you get the sense that people long for the days of a much-simpler existence, even with all of the technological advances and luxuries of today's modern world?

A: Yes. I think it's nostalgia for something we've never known. So, I think it's quite romanticized — and this is a fiction — the way things are presented. It looks easier and simpler and more desirable. I do think, and this is completely my opinion, I do think that we live in a fairly frazzled time, and I think people almost universally feel overwhelmed by very modern things. ... They're almost overwhelmed by choice and stimulation. And it's very hard to think, “How can I get away from this?” And you watch a show like “Downton Abbey,” and it looks great because things are very simple and straightforward and move in a more humane pace. And I think we do want to slow down, and we don't know how. Most people I know want things to slow down, but it's impossible to do.

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