PBS Masterpiece’s Rebecca Eaton on Highbrow Hits Downton Abbey & Victoria

They were ‘Lunching’ like it was 1999 today at Michael’s. The place was packed with wall-to-wall bold faced names, familiar faces and, of course, the usual suspects, all dining and dishing at decibel levels that make my task of chronicling the weekly Wednesday scene challenging to say the least. But, no matter. It’s always been a labor of love. And, I know you’re dying to hear who was there ho-ho-ho-ing in hopes of forgetting the sideshow attractions that have become our 24/7 news cycle if only in the time it takes to pick at a Cobb salad and sip some chardonnay. Come on, it’s the holidays!

The dining room was festooned in holiday greenery which gave it an even clubbier feel than usual. People were table hopping and air-kissing like mad. The always genial Michael McCarty made the rounds as he does asking in his characteristic booming way, “Are we having a good time here?” Today, the answer was a resounding ‘Yes!’ Among the revelers: Galvanized Media’s founder David Zinczenko and ‘Mayor’ Joe Armstrong celebrating Dave’s birthday (Cheers!), Penske Media’s vice chair Gerry Byrne and HollywoodLife.com’s Bonnie Fuller presiding over a table full of flacks and scribes at their monthly Table One schmooze fest and local news gals past and present Rosanna Scotto (Looking fabulous!), Janice Huff, Jane Hanson and Perri Peltz. A little birdie told me Jared’s sister (Do you really have to ask ‘Jared who?’) Nicole Meyer was also there.

But now, for the real reason I was there — I was joined by Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of PBS Masterpiece and the woman responsible for bringing Downton Abbey, the most-watched drama in PBS history, to this side of the Atlantic. With Rebecca at the helm, Masterpiece has won 62 Primetime Emmy Awards®, 16 Peabody Awards, six Golden Globes®, and two Academy Award nominations. She was named one of TIME’s 100 most influential people in 2011 and has earned the official recognition of Queen Elizabeth II — with an honorary OBE (Order of the British Empire). Her memoir, MAKING MASTERPIECE: 25 Years Behind the Scenes at Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! on PBS, was published by Viking in 2013. Surely, you can understand my excitement. I’ve been trying to ‘Lunch’ with her since Downton’s heyday, so I was thrilled that Boston-based Rebecca (the home of the mothership, WGBH) could squeeze in a chat as her last stop on a whirlwind few days in town with the cast and creator of another Masterpiece megahit, Victoria. (Much more on that later)

Rebecca arrived at high noon and within five minutes I felt like I’d known her forever. The Vassar grad who was born in Boston and raised in California had plenty of tales to tell. (Some of the juiciest ones are off the record, sorry) I barely knew where to begin. This is the woman who has provided me with one hour of civility on Sunday nights when, at 9 pm, I can tune into Masterpiece and forget the whole world is going to hell in a handbasket. Downton was and is a phenomenon in a class by itself (“We were struck by lightning”), but I told Rebecca I am also completely obsessed with Poldark which stars Aidan Turner (an Irishman whose on-screen’s brooding Brit smolders) as a post-Revolutionary War solider turned local hero who returns to Cornwall and has his life upended by various travails. It’s a remake of the popular seventies BBC production and it’s terrific. Rebecca also brought American audiences Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (which starred The Crown’s Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn) Sherlock, Grantchester, Prime Suspect, Wallander, Cranford, Little Dorrit, and The Complete Jane Austen. Basically every show I watch or have watched religiously for the past decade.

And speaking of decades, it was just about ten years ago when Rebecca, having been at Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! since 1985, embarked on a re-branding effort having come to the realization that it was time for some new ideas. “Corporate underwriting was changing dramatically,” she said as she sipped her pumpkin soup. Mobil (which then became ExxonMobil) had ended its long run as underwriters in the early aughts. “They weren’t interested in philanthropy, they wanted to look cool,” said Rebecca. “And I was going to be the captain on whose watch the ship goes down.” She and the series’ senior producers Susanne Simpson and Steven Ashley knew that the one constant amid the changing climate was the fans. “When I went to events, people would come up to me with tears in their eyes” profusely grateful for something to watch of real quality.

So, “over my dead body” Rebecca hired brand consultant Bob Knapp (“I think branding is snake oil”) and told him to do whatever a brand consultant does and come back with “do-able ideas” not pie in the sky thinking. “I had seventy-five cents [to spend].” The resulting makeover in 2008 included dropping ‘Theatre’ from the series’ title, streamlining its look and hiring Laura Linney as host. “I wanted people to know that ‘anglophile’ wasn’t a dirty word and they could understand the British accents [of the actors].”

Part of the rebranding effort also included an extensive social media presence to get the word out at a time when Facebook and Twitter were exploding. It all proved perfectly timed for the premiere of Sherlock that November and Downton the following January. “It blew the doors off.” I’ll say. The incredible viewer response to Downton resulted in previously unheard of ratings, plenty of award show love, a place in the zeitgeist – and a ripple effect that was more like a tidal wave. “It was a rising tide that lifted all boats.” Suddenly, younger viewers discovered Masterpiece in droves and the core older viewers were watching more programming than ever.

All of which was music to the ears of Viking Cruises (“a big fish”) that wanted to hitch their yachts to PBS Masterpiece’s rising star. They remain series’ sponsor today. “It’s a great partnership,” enthused Rebecca. “Eighty percent of their clients are the same demo.” I told her I knew they’d really struck a bull’s eye when Ralph Lauren started as a sponsor in September 2012. The designer’s well-known obsession with British country life made his affiliation with Downton fit as perfectly as one of his custom made suits. Remember when he used the show’s distinctive soundtrack for one of his shows that featured plenty of looks that Lady Mary could have worn? It all started when he saw his first episode. “Ralph contacted us,” Rebecca told me. “He was going to Jamaica over Christmas and someone in his family gave him the DVDs to watch.”

By the time Downton wrapped, said Rebecca, the audience had grown “astronomically” and she found that viewers “stayed for other shows.” The local PBS stations also benefited from the bounce and saw an increase in their underwriting. “It was a game changer and Masterpiece was on a fast track.”

Masterpiece’s renaissance coincided with the height of the era of the ‘quality drama’ that included Mad Men and Breaking Bad which helped to create even more buzz. “It was a confluence of events,” said Rebecca, who added that streaming the show on Masterpiece’s website brought in lots of new viewers. If you love any of their shows, the series’ site is a treasure trove of content with videos and podcasts that offer viewers in-depth looks at the shows and conversations with the actors.

Last night, fans turned out in droves wearing their tiaras and period costumes for a special screening of Victoria’s season two premiere and a panel discussion with Rebecca, series creator Daisy Goodwin and the show’s stars Jenna Coleman and Rufus Sewell. Damien Timmer, joint-managing director of Mammoth Screen, which produces the series was also there because he’d lost his passport. “Jenna [who plays Queen Victoria] carries the whole show. She’s in almost every scene. Her performance is so much about her expressions which is so hard to do.” I was thrilled to learn ‘Lord M,’ played by Rufus Sewell, will return this season having had to gently untangle himself from the simmering mutual attraction between the young Queen and the much older prime minister. The chemistry between the actors is off the charts.

Fans of the show have created countless tributes to the star-crossed couple on YouTube (Yes, I’ve watched most of them) featuring the gorgeous and tender scene where ‘Lord M’ tells the besotted Victoria she must “keep her heart intact because I have no use for it, you see,” (but he was just fibbing) because he was like the birds – the rooks – that flew just above them – he could not return her feelings. “Like a rook, I mate for life,” he told her using the excuse of his deceased wife to turn her away.

Rebecca told me that when Jenna and Rufus shot that scene it was early on in the production and they hadn’t known each other at all. But something clicked. “They kind of just looked at each other and saw that they both understood they were going to play the scene the same way. Trust me, Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon couldn’t do it any better.

This season, promised Rebecca, viewers will see a lot more of Tom Hughes, who plays Prince Albert, the real love of Victoria’s life. The actor had to learn to ride for the role and master a German accent (he’s British, of course). “There’s some information that’s shared [about Albert] that deeply affects him. Tom gets to really strut his stuff.”

As it enters its second season on January 14th, the show is another hit that found its way to PBS because of Rebecca’s unfailing instincts about what the viewers will want to watch. “About four years ago, ITV floated the idea of a series about [Queen] Victoria and we said, ‘Yes, send the script.’ Then we got another [pitch] from the BBC.” It was “a tense few weeks’ deciding which one to bring to PBS,” said Rebecca. She was later told by the ITV executives that it was Masterpiece’s interest that got the greenlight for the series.

The upcoming slate of show’s includes a sequel to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (“We are ready and waiting”), Little Women produced by Colin Callendar premiering on Mother’s Day with a cast that includes Johan Hauer-King (“Keep your eye on him!”) and Angela Lansbury and The Child in Time adapted from Ian McEwan’s novel starring and co-produced by Benedict Cumberbatch. There’s also Press, about two competing newspapers in London, coming in 2019.

As we finished up lunch so Rebecca could make her plane back to Boston, I asked her how it felt to have Masterpiece thriving after all these years at such a competitive time in television.“It’s very gratifying,” she said. “I’ve spent most of my career at PBS. It has been my life’s work. I’m from the generation that came of age in the sixties. We wanted to change the world and make it better.”

The Scene

Scene & Heard Around the Room

Gerry Byrne and Bonnie Fuller hosting a crowd on Table One that included Gold Derby’s Tom O’Neil, 42 West’s Scott Feinstein and Marshall CohenMickey Ateyeh, Betsy Perry, Brenda Vaccaro and Joan Jakobson on Two … The boot is back! David Zinczenko and Joe Armstrong on Three … Kathie Lee Gifford, Eva Mohr, Valerie Simpson (Yes, from Ashford and Simpson!) and Kate Edelson on Four … Allen & Company’s Stan Shuman at his regular perch, Table Five.

Moving On … New York Social Diary’s David Patrick Columbia and Jeff Hirsch on Table Eight .. Jill Brooke on Seven … Producer Beverly Camhe on 10… Gerry Laybourne on 11… PR pros Lisa Linden, CEO of LAK PR, with Chris Heywood of NYC & Company on Table 17 … Joan Gelman on 20.

More Faces in the Crowd … Joan Hamburg, Suzanne Dawson, Cathie Black (long time no see!) and Andy Plesser spotted at different tables in the dining room … Haspel’s Laurie Aronson Haspel and her husband Mark Haspel were there, too. They’re the folks credited with creating the seersucker suit. Gregory Peck wore one in To Kill A Mockingbird. Just thought you’d like to know.

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Diane Clehane

Diane Clehane is a leading authority on celebrity and royalty who has written for Vanity Fair, People, and many other national outlets. She is a New York Times best-selling author of five books, including Diana: The Secrets of Her Style and Imagining Diana. She appears regularly on CNN.

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