The True Mistress of 'Downton Abbey'
by finn-olaf jones
Rebecca Eaton has an endearing trait of humming to herself when pondering something. Since her office is piled high with scripts awaiting her perusal, it’s no surprise that this is a musical place. In fact, she’s humming right now. She’s considering which character from Downton Abbey, one of the shows she produces for PBS, she “most identifies with.” Suddenly the humming stops. “It’s got to be Robert, Earl of 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. Although, like the Earl of Grantham, even if she did, her unfailingly gracious manner and the elegance of the edifice she presides over would make it easy to overlook.
As arguably the most influential TV producer in the country, one imagines Eaton, 65, has earned the right to park her private jet next to those of her equally esteemed colleagues in Hollywood. “I don’t have a private jet,” she laughs under a sculptural twist of stylishly coiffed gray hair. “I have a private Toyota Camry. But also I have the best job in the industry.” Now in its 42nd year, PBS’s Masterpiece is the longest-running prime time drama program on television, having coproduced the acclaimed series I, Claudius; Upstairs Downstairs; Traffik; and now the hugely successful English Edwardian estate drama, Downton Abbey—the most watched series in the program’s history. Presiding over this empire of impeccable literary taste for some 27 years, Eaton was named “one of the 100 most influential people in the world” by Time magazine in 2011.
Married to sculptor Paul Robert Cooper and with a daughter now at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Eaton is a native Bostonian, whose mother, the Broadway and film actress Katherine Emery, nurtured Eaton’s renowned instinct for drama. After an undergraduate stint studying English literature at Vassar and then 18 months at the BBC in London, Eaton found herself back in Boston in 1971 working for the radio division of WGBH. Two years later she was hired by the legendary Henry Becton Jr., who was widely credited with turning Boston into a creative mecca for public television and launched such enduring classics as Masterpiece Theatre, 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 a business background unique to public television. WGBH became a magnet for superstars from so many of Boston’s great local cultural and educational institutions. Harvard actually owned the land that WGBH used to stand on.”
Following what she jokingly calls a “meteoric rise” of 17 years, Eaton took over the helm of what was then called Masterpiece Theatre. 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 a 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.’” In 2008 the program was rebranded simply as Masterpiece and split into three different genres: Masterpiece Classic, Masterpiece Mystery, and Masterpiece Contemporary, each with a distinct 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 streamed Downton’s second season premiere online this past January.
Ultimately, Eaton’s ongoing success as an executive producer can be attributed to her unrivaled “nose” for bringing in great programming, including Sherlock, Prime Suspect, Bleak House, and the new Upstairs Downstairs. When Julian Fellowes’s 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 these historical events.”
Eaton also had the good sense to give Fellowes free rein with the show—almost unheard-of for American television programming—although once in a while her instincts will intervene. “It’s a 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 supported bringing in Shirley MacLaine.
So when Season 3 of Downton Abbey premieres on January 6, we can expect MacLaine’s character to lock horns with Dame Maggie Smith’s formidable Dowager, Countess 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.
photography by ken richardson; Photographed at Castle Hill on The Crane Estate in Ipswich, a property of The Trustees of Reservations. 978-356-4351; thetrustees.org/crane-estate