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The Emmy Award-winning producer of PBS's MASTERPIECE reveals the secrets to Downton Abbey, Sherlock and other hit programs in her new memoir, Making Masterpiece: 25 Years Behind the Scenes at Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery!
Ita€™s a beautiful old house with lots of character, frustrating plumbing, and hallways that take you places you dona€™t expecta€”ita€™s been added on to for two hundred years. My mother, Katherine Emery, was an actress whose career ranged from playing the leading role in Lillian Hellmana€™s The Childrena€™s Hour on Broadway in 1932 to appearing as a contract player at RKO in Hollywood in the 1950s, when she had parts in genre films like Isle of the Dead with Boris Karloff. If youa€™re brought up being told not to a€?make a spectacle of yourself a€? and not to a€?draw attention to yourself,a€? how do you go about writing a memoir?
But this is an enviable problem: who gets the opportunity to look back on her lifea€™s work and tell it publicly? So Ia€™ve spent a summer rattling around this house with a head full of Masterpiece memories. And then I find every letter my father wrote to my mother from soon after they met in the late 1930s, until their marriage in 1945, when my father was thirty-nine and my mother was thirty-seven. In my fathera€™s letters I hear his voice very clearly: he is loving Maine, loving New England, loving my mother. Thena€”and this part Ia€™ve always knowna€”they dramatically eloped, days before he was shipped out to the South Pacific during World War II. They were married, by themselves, at the Treasure Island Naval Station in San Francisco Bay and spent four days at the Mark Hopkins Hotel before he left for a year. Suddenly I see her at thirty, moody and elusive, not just the beautiful movie star Ia€™d bragged about.
I see my father heroically pursuing the love of his life, in spite of her deeply discouraging reluctance. So as I read the letters and spread them all over the house in Maine, I relate them not only to my own life but also to the work I do. In this house in Maine, I feel surrounded by stories: my own, my parentsa€™, my daughtera€™s, and the ones I put on television. For me, and maybe for you, books and dramas about families and romance have been relaxing and entertaining, but sometimes theya€™ve also been painkillers or anesthetics, when family life, self-doubt, lack of romance, or a romance gone badly just hurts too much. Brought up on a steady diet of classic British literature, Ia€™m amazed at the inevitability of the fact that my lifea€™s work has turned out to be as a purveyor of this particular opiate. Ita€™s not easy to describe the feeling you get when youa€™re in the presence of something well done, the aesthetic reaction you have to a fine ballet, work of art, piece of music, book, or performance. In a panic, I call dear Russell Bakera€”journalist, memoirist (Growing Up), Masterpiece host, and calming, steady frienda€”and ask him how to do it. My daughter Katherine, a performer like the grandmother she never met, says, a€?Just lean into it. Steven Ashley, Masterpiece senior producer and a consigliere of thirty years, says, a€?You cana€™t executive-produce this book. And I hear my friend Alistair Cookea€™s unmistakable voice, impatiently explaining to me for the thousandth time how he managed that inimitable style of storytelling in his radio broadcast Letter from America and in his introductions to Masterpiece Theatre: a€?I always think of myself as speaking to one person, as if in conversation.

Funding for MASTERPIECE is provided by Viking River Cruises and Audible with additional support from public television viewers and contributors to The Masterpiece Trust, created to help ensure the series' future.
While most college football and men's basketball teams are profitable, there is a big difference in the amount of money generated by different schools and different teams. Here's a breakdown of the profit reported by 243 division I football and men's basketball programs representing 11 different conferences. Ita€™s where I lived during the summers with my parents, and later with my husband and my daughter.
Ita€™s a little labyrinthine and spooky because you often dona€™t know who else is in the house when you are . Why am I remembering the evening I met Princess Margaret and chose to wear my daughtera€™s plastic barrettes, her a€?pretties,a€? just because I missed her so much? I feel very comforted here: in spite of the ghosts, ita€™s the light, the air, and the seasons that make it feel so welcoming.
I have a deep desire to do anything besides write this book: I do laundry, pull weeds, go to the dump, make vats of vichyssoise, and then read other peoplea€™s memoirs and despair because they are so good.
Some are so stained, you cana€™t read them; my mothera€™s handwriting is practically impossible to decode. They had said their good-byes in New York when my father left for the naval base in San Francisco. Through the letters, I see her struggling to be happy, even as she enjoyed terrific success and the attentions of many men. I realize that right here, in this old house, I may have found the answer to the paralyzing question, How do I write this book?
If you could distill the essence of Masterpiece, it might be that it is stories about families. I love them on television, I love them in books, I love them in movies, and I love hearing them from the person Ia€™m sitting next to at a dinner party.
The kind of drama we do on Masterpiece tends to be upliftinga€”the guy gets the girl, people escape jeopardy, justice is served, and the mystery is solved.
The moments are rare, but I would argue that over the years, there have been more of them on Masterpiece than on most other places on television. He was the class poet in his graduating class at Exeter and hoped to go to Harvard to study English. It seemed doable at first, but then they asked that it be a book about my life too: Masterpiecea€™s memoir, and mine. Or the time the head of drama at the BBC, sitting across from me in a difficult meeting, got up from his chair and walked over the coffee table and out the door, never to return? The sun comes into the kitchen, into my bedroom, over the beach, in exactly the same way I remember it did in 1969, when I graduated from college, and in 1986, the year my daughter was born. I unearth clippings and reviews for all the plays she ever did, and letters to, and from, her family.

As a man of his time, my father didna€™t go into emotional detail in the letters, but I can tell that my mother was ambivalent about giving up her career to marry him. In one of the very earliest letters, he is clear that he is ready to get married even then. But my mother suddenly changed her mind, found the last berth on a westward-bound train, and joined him. Maybe Ia€™ve tripped over the really important thinga€”the stories, and the stories behind the family stories that we all have. Family stories are sagas: love, betrayal, money, infatuation, infidelity, illness, family love, and family deception. We all have them, but we forget theya€™re any good or have any rhyme or reason until someone new asks us, with real interest, to tell them who we are. They provide relief from the difficulties of making a living, having a family, maintaining relationships, and living a life with meaning. But therea€™s some- thing else, something perhaps more worthy: maybe the dramas are uplifting because of the exemplary quality of the writing, the acting, and the production values.
It shines down on this house and on this town in exactly the same way it did in 1900, when my grandparents were here. I Google everything about her life in Africa and begin to cast the TV miniseries in my head. Those stories are our own stories writ large, usually with happy endings, and usually in times and places much more exotic or melodramatic than our own.
The hours and hours of reading scripts and talking on the telephone merge and seem impossible to animate. My brother and nephews swear there are ghosts; once a psychic, unasked and unhelpful, said that someone was murdered in one of these rooms.
In his letters he remains steady and cheerful, eager to get on with life as he fights for her. Isna€™t that why wea€™re so drawn to books and dramas, even years after theya€™ve been written?
So therea€™s history here, of all the families whoa€™ve lived in this house since it was built in 1800. There are very few letters from my mother to my father from that timea€”she was a successful actress in New York, and he was teaching in Boston.

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