As a viewer since the early Masterpiece Theatre days (when the spelling of the second word in the title was a matter of controversy), I expected this memoir of the series producer from 1985 on to be more diverting. The autobiographical parts are unremarkable, and there’s an occasional sense of public-relations puffery. Contents range from superficial summary to revealing anecdotes. The sparse coverage of the mystery programming, possibly because Rebecca Eaton has no particular enthusiasm for mystery fiction generally, is especially disappointing. Though there are scattered references to the great roster of TV detectives (John Thaw as Morse, Roy Marsden as Dalgliesh, Jeremy Brett as Holmes, David Suchet as Poirot, Michael Kitchen as Foyle, Joan Hickson as Miss Marple), there isn’t much about those programs. Most criminous coverage is given to the adaptations of Tony Hillerman’s Leaphorn and Chee novels (about four pages), mystery buff Kenneth Branagh’s appearance as Kurt Wallander (two pages), and the 21st-century Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch (three or four pages), compared to 40 pages plus for Downton Abbey.
The portrait of longtime host Alistair Cooke and description of his working methods (he wrote and quickly memorized his program introductions) is certainly enlightening, and in some ways surprising. Cooke admired John Mortimer’s Rumpole stories and was unhappy that series wound up not on Masterpiece proper but on the spinoff, Mystery!