We now live in a world where the long-running PBS series Masterpiece is rarely mentioned without the hit British import Downton Abbey in the same sentence — but what now seems like an obvious pairing almost didn’t happen. In fact, Downton almost didn’t make it across the pond at all.
As Masterpiece executive producer Rebecca Eaton relates in her new memoir Making Masterpiece (out today), she initially passed on Downton. When ITV, Downton‘s U.K. network, called with a pitch in 2009, it sounded too similar to past projects like Upstairs, Downstairs, which was due for a remake at the time. Eaton initially said ‘no thanks.’ The British network got the same response from HBO and all the American networks (even though NBC had business ties to the production company that made the show). Nobody wanted to air Downton…which meant that, in 2010, when Eaton changed her mind, it was still available for PBS to broadcast. The rest was Crawley-family history.
(MORE: Rebecca Eaton in the TIME 100)
The history of Masterpiece is full of similarly dramatic moments, especially within the last decade. ExxonMobil had sponsored the show from its 1971 debut, but they pulled their sponsorship in 2002; then, in 2005, HBO won the battle to air Helen Mirren’s Elizabeth I mini-series. “Helen Mirren was our star at time because of Prime Suspect and Elizabeth was exactly our kind of show,” Eaton, who has run Masterpiece since 1985, tells TIME. “That was a kind of a nadir. My mantra was that I never wanted to be the captain on whose watch the ship had gone down, and the ship had definitely sprung a leak.” The turning point came when, following a rebranding effort launched in the wake of the Elizabeth loss, a story about the Masterpiece relaunch ran on the front page of the New York Times Arts section. “I knew then that we’d plugged the hole in the ship,” Eaton says.
Making Masterpiece traces the history of the series as well as Eaton’s own life. For example, she opens up about the relationship between the two, including what happened when she “‘leaned in’ so far that occasionally I fell over,” as she tells TIME. Here are some of our favorite factoids:
Masterpiece Theatre was almost called Episode. The now-iconic title (which was shortened to Masterpiece in 2008) was developed after rejections of The Best of the BBC — a problem because not every British series is made by the BBC — and other suggested monikers. Why Masterpiece Theatre? The “M” went nicely with the name of the sponsor, Mobil, and the “re”-spelling seemed extra British, though some American publications refused to use the British spelling of “theater.”
(MORE: TIME on Upstairs, Downstairs)
Your memory of Masterpiece host Alistair Cooke sitting in a red chair is wrong. Cooke, the original Masterpiece host, had a different set built for every single miniseries he introduced. (Later hosts haven’t been so lucky, as the expense of the sets started to pile up.) Cooke has been seen in a red chair — but that wasn’t his go-to Masterpiece seat. Another common topic for Masterpiece misconception: the Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice did not originally air on PBS in the U.S., though it has since been broadcast there. The original honor went to A&E.
Downton wasn’t the only close call. Masterpiece almost didn’t bite for Prime Suspect, either, and passed on a chance to air future Oscar-bait My Left Foot.
Cranford, Pride and Prejudice and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince were all shot in the same place. A village called Lacock, in Wiltshire, is maintained by the U.K. National Trust and has been preserved in a state that can pass for the 18th and 19th century — or earlier, as it contains buildings in styles going back to the 14th century. It’s open to visitors, and still inhabited by about 1,000 people.
There’s a reason Downton doesn’t air in the U.S. and the U.K. at the same time. If the show were broadcast on both sides of the Atlantic at the same time, the cast would not be available to promote the show in both places — and Masterpiece has crunched the numbers to prove that’s worth the wait. Though Eaton and her colleagues are very aware of piracy problems (and the fact that fans want the show sooner), their data show that delaying the broadcast doesn’t significantly hurt their viewership numbers.
The Maggie Smith performance that helped convince Eaton to spring for Downton was one she describes as a “fairly obscure television monologue.” Smith had many famous performances to her name, but the one for which Masterpiece‘s guru geeks out is Bed Among the Lentils, an Alan Bennett monologue about a vicar’s wife with a drinking problem, which was shown on Masterpiece in 1989. The beginning of it can be seen here: