Masterpiece Contemporary executive producer Rebecca Eaton talks a new season and future plan

The long-time PBS program, Masterpiece, began a new season of Masterpiece Contemporary on Sunday, Oct. 25. The series features three programs airing through November.

Masterpiece has been produced by Boston’s WGBH Channel 2 for 38 years and gone through various changes. 

Masterpiece executive producer Rebecca Eaton

Masterpiece executive producer Rebecca Eaton

Masterpiece’s executive producer Rebecca Eaton has been at WGBH since 1972. After graduating from Vassar College, she worked in London as a producer for the BBC World Service prior to coming to ‘GBH to work on the children’s show Zoom. Eaton became the executive producer for Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! in 1985.

She’s been responsible for high-profile and popular shows including Prime Suspect, Inspector Morse, Cranford, Bleak House, Miss Marple, The Lost Prince, Wallender, The Complete Jane Austen, Skinwalkers, Coyote Waits, A Thief in Time, and Little Dorrit which recently won seven Emmy Awards.

M&C recently caught up with Eaton and discussed Masterpiece’s changes, how she selects stories, the upcoming series, future plans, and, its new host.

M&C: Masterpiece has evolved over the years. Now there’s Masterpiece Classic, Masterpiece Mystery! and Masterpiece Contemporary. How did the latter come about?

Eaton: Three years ago, we decided to rebrand the programs. We took a long, hard look at ourselves. We thought it would be easier to put programs by genre. Classic are the period adaptations; and the mysteries have a loyal following. Then there’s a group that are neither. They are of the contemporary, issue-driven category. Contemporary is a showcase for made-for-TV, high-end programs. So, Masterpiece runs three times a year, and each series has its own opening and music.

M&C: How was actor David Tennant, who played the 10th Doctor in the popular British TV show Doctor Who for the past three years, chosen as the new host?

Eaton: Our hosts are Laura Linney for Classic, Alan Cumming, Mystery! and our new Contemporary host, David Tennant. He’s been in a number of Masterpiece dramas including Casanova, He Knew He was Right and Foyle’s War. He’s likeable, intelligent, a versatile actor and has lots of fans from Doctor Who.

M&C: How do you select scripts?

Eaton: I read lots of scripts. I look for ideas in a book or a script. Fifty percent of what we do are from the BBC. Fifty percent are co-productions. 

M&C: What are the shows on this season of Masterpiece Contemporary and can you tell us about them?

Eaton: They are excellent stories, well-written, well-produced, have excellent casts, and interestingly are relevant in today’s society: Collision is about a car crash, a massive pile-up. Place of Execution is about a documentary journalist.

Endgame is a co-production. In this script, it was important to tell contemporary history that hadn’t been told. Little was known of these secret meetings which ended apartheid with the release of Nelson Mandela. I think all Americans should know how sitting down talking to intractable enemies [can bring about peace].

David Tennant

David Tennant

M&C: Do you like your job?

Eaton: I love it. It’s the best job in TV. Two to three times a year I go to Washington, DC for PBS, and to New York City to see our partners. I get to see British actors on stage; I go to Los Angeles for press, and to the Emmy Awards.

M&C: What do you see as Masterpiece’s future?

Eaton: Our future is bright. Everyone is plleased that Little Dorrit recently won seven Emmy Awards.

Masterpiece Classic will run in January. There will be another Cranford [with Dame Judi Dench]; a new Jane Austen – Emma; a new Sharpe with Sean Bean; and Small Island, an adaptation about post-World War II Jamaicans.

Mystery! runs in June with Miss Marple, Poirot, Wallendar, Inspector Lewis and Foyle’s War.

M&C: What would you like the TV audience to know about these programs?

Eaton: They are very different and watchable. People will recognize the good production values. Absolutely everybody should watch!
About the programs (check times and listings): 

Endgame the week of October 25
Endgame is an emotional, roller coaster political thriller. It is the true story of how one man, in the mid-1980’s, organized a series of dangerous and secret talks to help bring about the end of apartheid in South Africa, the release of Nelson Mandela, and eventually peace. Michael Young, the head of public affairs and communication for Consolidated Goldfields (played by Jonny Lee Miller) brings bitter antagonists together to a British country estate and acts as a facilitator for the meetings.

They include Professor Will Esterhuyse (William Hurt), one of a group unofficially representing white South Africa, and Thabo Mbeki (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who is the leader of exiles from the African National Congress. Also in the film are Mark Strong, Derek Jacobi, Timothy West and Clarke Peters as Mandela. 

Place of Execution: Part I: Nov. 1; Part II, Nov. 8
Set in England, Place of Execution stars Juliet Stevenson as Catherine Heathcote, a workaholic TV documentary journalist and single mother of Sasha, her teenage daughter. She’s been working on a documentary about respected policeman George Bennett.

His career took off when, in 1963, 13-year-old Alison Carter went missing and was presumed killed. Her stepfather Philip Hawkin was convicted of the crime and hanged, though Alison’s body was never found. But now, Bennett mysteriously drops out of the film, leading Catheriine into more and more mysteries in the village, and in herself. 

Collision: Part I: Nov. 15; Part II: Nov. 22
On a Friday afternoon at 5:57 p.m., on a highway leading into London, a car inexplicably swerves and causes a six-car accident that affects many strangers. Their lives are scrutinized by the police, headed by DI John Tolin (Douglas Henshall of Primeval).

He becomes obsessed by the case partly due to the death of his wife and injuries to his daughter in a car accident a year before. He is joined in the investigation by his former lover SI Officer Ann Stallwood (Kate Ashfield). Collision is a thriller involving murder, smuggling, conspiracy and more.
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