12 Things You Didn’t Know About ‘Downton Abbey’ and ‘Masterpiece’


A certain kind of person gets really excited about a book like Rebecca Eaton’s memoir Making Masterpiece: 25 Years Behind the Scenes at Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! on PBS, and I am one of those people. Eaton has been in charge of the series, which premiered on PBS in January of 1971, for almost 30 years now, a period that has seen Masterpiece winning awards, acclaim, and admiration from generations of fans who love a good costume drama.

In the book, Eaton gives us a behind-the-scenes account of her time working on shows like Downton Abbey and Sherlock, the latest incarnation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s hero, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. On a more personal note, she also reveals how she became the show’s producer. Making Masterpiece is a must for people who prefer the original House of Cards to the Netflix adaptation. Click through to learn 12 things you probably didn’t know about the award-winning series.

Daniel Radcliffe got his start on Masterpiece.

As a few Harry Potter fanatics already know, it was his role as the young David Copperfield in the 1999 BBC adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic that helped Radcliffe eventually earn the role of the famous boy wizard — which he got after he impressed his co-star, Dame Maggie Smith, in part by walking right up to her and asking if he should call her “Dame.” Radcliffe says Smith burst out laughing, and told him “Absolutely not!” Eventually it was her recommendation that scored Radliffe the role of a lifetime.

Upstairs, Downstairs almost didn’t make it as a Masterpiece series.

One of the earliest Masterpiece successes almost didn’t get picked up because “it wasn’t an obvious choice for the producers; it was not based on a great enduring classic, and its fate was a close call.”

The show’s most iconic host, Alistair Cooke, didn’t use a teleprompter.

Eaton says he took about 30 minutes to memorize his three- to four-minute introductions, sometimes filming up to six of them a day.

Eaton passed on the first film for which Daniel Day-Lewis won an Oscar.

Before Daniel Plainview and his epic role as the 16th president of the United States, Day-Lewis won his first Oscar for Best Actor in the moving 1989 drama, My Left Foot. After Masterpiece passed on it, the film was eventually picked up by the Weinstein brothers.

Masterpiece was also offered a chance to produce Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

Eaton says that even though Daniel Day-Lewis was a possible fit for Mr. Darcy, they figured “the world didn’t need another adaptation of it.” Of course, the world did need another version of the classic — the one that gave Colin Firth ownership of that role for all eternity.

John Updike was considered to take over hosting duties when Alistair Cooke retired in 1992.

“His nose is a turn-off,” one test viewer said when shown a picture of the famous American author, while another said that the host needed to have a British accent.

The Museum of Broadcasting put together an amazing panel to discuss Middlemarch when it was adapted for Masterpiece.

You probably didn’t realize that the then-nearly-100-year-old Brooke Astor got together with Sister Souljah and Tina Brown to discuss their shared love for George Eliot’s classic, but it happened, and was probably awesome.

The producers got angry letters from Edith Wharton scholars about the film version of Wharton’s unfinished novel The Buccaneers.

They felt that Masterpiece was “sensationalizing Edith’s book and sexing it up,” according to Eaton, due to the ending writer Maggie Wadey wrote for the book that wasn’t completed before Wharton’s death.

Julian Fellowes looked to some fairly improbable sources of inspiration while constructing Downton Abbey’s storyline.

“I was constantly thinking in terms of those American structures. I had liked E.R. There was something called Chicago Hope that I liked very much, and Thirtysomething, with all those stories going at once.”

Elizabeth McGovern and Hugh Bonneville had played an American wife and British husband before Downton.

It’s true! Check out the short-lived BBC sitcom Freezing.

Half of Downton Abbey is actually filmed inside of Highclere castle.

Eaton writes, “The stately library with its red velvet couches and priceless books; the drawing room; the grand hallway; and the dining room” all take place in the actual castle that was built in the 17th century. “The cast and crew take extraordinary care not to stain, scrape, ding, rip, or in any way alter anything in the castle.”

The downstairs scenes for Downton are filmed an hour away in London.

The scenes where all the servants gossip and quarrel in their quarters are filmed in the same studio used for Shaun of the Dead.