PBS ‘Masterpiece’ chief dishes on ‘Downton,’ ‘Foyle’s War’ and more during Chicago visit

SHARE PBS ‘Masterpiece’ chief dishes on ‘Downton,’ ‘Foyle’s War’ and more during Chicago visit
SHARE PBS ‘Masterpiece’ chief dishes on ‘Downton,’ ‘Foyle’s War’ and more during Chicago visit

For more than a quarter century Rebecca Eaton has presided over PBS’s “Masterpiece,” the longest running weekly primetime drama series on American television, bringing U.S. viewers British hits like the soon-to-return “Downton Abbey” and “Sherlock.”

The Emmy Award-winning producer reflects on her lengthy career — filled with plenty of drama –in her new memoir, “Making Masterpiece: 25 Years Behind the Scenes of ‘Masterpiece Theatre’ and ‘Mystery!’ on PBS” (Viking, $29.95).

Local PBS affiliate WTTW-Channel 11 arranged for Eaton to swing by Chicago’s Union League Club on Wednesday to sign books and share stories mostly about “Masterpiece,” past, present and future. (“Don’t ask me any questions about plot points for ‘Downton Abbey’ season four or how Sherlock didn’t die,” Eaton joked before opening up her lunchtime talk to questions from the audience.)

Here’s what Eaton had to say about…

The fate of fan-favorite detective dramas ‘Inspector Lewis’ and ‘Foyle’s War’

Both shows stopped production because a key actor in each wanted to call it quits — but not necessarily forever, Eaton said.

“These actors reach a point where they just can’t bear to be the character anymore. In the case of ‘Lewis,’ it’s Laurence Fox, who plays [Det. Sgt.] Hathaway, who said, ‘I have to go back on the stage.’ So it went on break.”

“Many of them then come back and do them again,” she added. “Keep your eye on the ‘Lewis’ space. Michael Kitchen in ‘Foyle’s War’ said, ‘That’s it, I’m not doing anymore,’ and he came back.” (The show’s most recent season, its seventh, returned this fall on PBS. Acorn Productions, ITV, and Eleventh Hour Films announced Wednesday that an eighth season has been greenlit.)

Upcoming season of ‘Downton Abbey’ (stop reading if you haven’t seen the end of last season)

“I am very sorry to say Matthew is gone. It wasn’t a dream. I can tell you no more about season four of ‘Downton Abbey’ except that it starts Jan. 5. It’s about six months after Matthew had a little accident. The house is in mourning. It’s a brilliant episode about grief and coming back to life. The secret star of that episode is Penelope Wilton who plays Isobel, Matthew’s mother. She has a few scenes and those are the heartbreakers to me. She’s lost her only child.”

Michelle Dockery as new mom Lady Mary in ‘Downton Abbey.’ (Photo courtesy PBS Masterpiece)

‘Downton Abbey’ creator Julian Fellowes

“He’s like a character of ‘Downton Abbey.’ He is writing about what he knows. He says many of his aunties were like the Maggie Smith character [the Dowager Countess]. He’s been to those houses. He’s married to a member of the aristocracy. He really knows the world. He’s also an actor so he knows how to write dialogue. He writes every word of it, by the way. He’s written every word for four seasons and he’s working on a fifth, which is unique. In this country we would have bunches of writers doing such a thing.”

Disappointment over the 2011 death of ‘Zen,’ starring Rufus Sewell as an Italian police detective

“We would have done endless ‘Zens.’ But a new head of drama came into the BBC — a new broom sweeps clean — and said, ‘That was the previous head of drama’s idea. I want to do something new’ and canceled the show. We were devastated. He would have been one of our detectives with legs.”

Her favorite ‘Masterpiece’ actors

“The ones who have been the best to ‘Masterpiece’ and have been the most fun to work with have been the likes of Kenneth Branagh (“Wallander”) and Helen Mirren (“Prime Suspect”). She understood what ‘Masterpiece’ is, which is a showcase of the very best British drama being made. It has made the careers of many people. In the early days, that’s how casting directors and producers in this country would see the work of some of these people. Ralph Fiennes was in an episode of ‘Prime Suspect.’ So many actors have gone on to be big movie stars. Probably the biggest of all would be little Daniel Radcliffe who was in ‘David Copperfield.’ It was Maggie Smith who said to the director of ‘Harry Potter,’ ‘Look at that little boy, you should look at him.’ And off he went.”

Venerable ‘Masterpiece Theatre’ host Alistair Cooke

“Today would be the 105th birthday of Alistair Cooke. I think of him all the time. ‘Masterpiece’ was 15 years old when I became the executive producer. Alistair had been doing it from the beginning. I was terrified when I first met him. He was his wintry self. He had a way of being slightly dismissive, partly because many people would come up to him and say, ‘You’re Alistair Cooke.’ He developed a way of deflecting that … by actually denying it and saying he was someone else.”

She recalled a story about Cooke attending the San Francisco wedding of former Secretary of State George Shultz. Another guest, “a tiny, elegant lady,” got out of a limo, climbed the church’s stairs and approached Cooke.

“She looked up at him and said, ‘Are you Alistair Cooke?’

He said, ‘No. I’m Bob Hope.’

And she said, ‘Oh, I’m Mrs. Bob Hope.’

That’s the last time he did that.”

Memories of Chicago

“My family, every year, we would take the super cheap train from Pasadena to Chicago, spend a day in Chicago and then get on either the Broadway Limited or the 20th Century Limited to go from here to New York, get in a car and drive up the coast to Maine where we’d spend the summer. So I spent about 12 hours a year in Chicago for most of my life. I remember vividly the Blackstone Hotel. I remember going to a science museum and there was a huge plastic walk-in heart. And I remember my first real taste of movies and how movies could transform you. My mother had taken me to a matinee of ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’ and it changed my life.”

Her favorite ‘Masterpiece’ performance

“I have two. One is Maggie Smith in a monologue she did for Alan Bennett called ‘Bed Among the Lentils.’ He wrote a monologue for Maggie and it’s about 40 minutes. She is a vicar’s wife and I won’t tell you more than that. It’s one of the best pieces of acting I’ve ever seen.”

“My other favorite is Judi Dench in a film we did called “Mrs. Brown,” the story of Queen Victoria in the years after her beloved husband, Albert, had died. She goes to talk to the Archbishop of Canterbury confessing that she’s beginning to feel better and less sad about Albert. She’s very confused and asking permission, ‘Is it alright to feel better?’ It was such a brilliant moment in human life because that often happens. People feel as if they’re betraying or leaving somebody. And he gives her permission to feel better.”

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