This weekend, as snow came down in Connecticut and I anticipated the start of Season Four of Downton Abbey, seemed the right time to read Rebecca Eaton’s Making Masterpiece (Viking), her entertaining saga of guiding Masterpiece—which, with a nod to its British inflection and contributors, was long known as Masterpiece Theatre, and continues to be television’s classiest and longest-running drama programming. After 28 years as the executive producer of the series, Eaton has delivered a memoir that is as full of twists of plot and characters as its scores of memorable adaptions from novels, biographies, and original narratives.
After a fellowship at the BBC in 1969, which was instrumental in shaping her deep appreciation of Britain’s dramatic artistry, Eaton landed at Boston’s public-broadcasting channel WGBH and was eventually recruited to Masterpiece, which was then funded by Mobil Oil. An early patron of the enterprise was Mobil’s colorful public-relations chief, Herb Schmertz, whose goal was to associate the oil company with this special series, which he astutely understood would give “big petroleum” an aura of sophisticated benevolence.
Read more. [Image: Viking]
For all of his wealth, land, servants, and evening jackets, Downton Abbey’s Robert Crawley, the fictional Earl of Grantham, lacked one very important asset: a male heir. Under the British law of entail, which dates back to the Middle Ages, none of Lord Grantham’s three daughters could inherit his property or title.
Instead, his earlship would pass to Matthew Crawley, a distant cousin. So began the plot line of Downton’s most delicious soapy couple: Lord and Lady Grantham’s attempting to fix up Matthew with their daughter Mary, Mary resisting, Mary finally falling in love at an inopportune time, and so forth.
The uncertain fate of Downton provided for hours of crumpet-munching TV drama, but now it’s become fodder for British aristocrats who want to change the country’s anachronistic primogeniture rules.
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At the center of it all is the master of Downton, Robert, Earl of Grantham, played by Hugh Bonneville. Imagine Tony Blair stripped of that wolfish gleam of self-interest, inflated with 20 or 30 brisk strokes of a bicycle pump, squeezed into a tweed hunting jacket, and then sent out into the world with a fixed frown of genteel incomprehension.
Read more. [Image: Miles Donovan/AP]
Currently cracking us up: “20 or 30 brisk strokes of a bicycle pump”.