ARTS / Show People: A very popular practitioner: 44. Andrew Davies

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The Independent Culture
'IT'S not the stories you forget, it's the characters and the names of the people you're in contact with. They ring up and say: 'This isn't working, can you get her to say X?' And you think, who's she? Who are you?' One of Britain's busiest writers is musing on the perils of popularity. To Serve Them All My Days (Broadcasting Press Guild Award), Mother Love (Bafta Writers' Award), House of Cards (Writers' Guild Award), The Old Devils (award pending if judges still have eyes and ears), Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (ditto): think of an incandescent moment of television drama in the past five years and scroll up the credits looking for the bright spark who illuminated it. Andrew Davies: a plain kind of name for a wizard.

Davies made his reputation knocking other people's novels into shape for the box. But his adaptations were consistently more interesting than anything 'original' from our major playwrights. In 1986 his own hilarious A Very Peculiar Practice, which put an endoscope up the swollen self-image of the medical profession, won critical and popular acclaim. This gave him the confidence to be a full-time hired pen after 23 years of doubling as a lecturer, latterly at Warwick. His first novel, Getting Hurt ('a breathtaking achievement', Times Literary Supplement), ventured into virgin territory - the heart of A Bloke - bringing back amazing news: there was life going on there, even pain.

Next week his second, the terrific B. Monkey, will confirm its creator as a great writer about love and and one of the rudest people in print. The man who plans to strip Mr Darcy to his Fitzwilliams in Pride and Prejudice is not squeamish about bodies. Only John Updike is better at the squelch and wow of sex.

The owner of this large talent turns out to be a slight, almost dainty, figure. When he opens the door of the house on a scruffy fringe of Holland Park, where he lives two days a week before going home to his family in Warwickshire, the first thing I notice are the speedwell eyes, more vivid for peering out from an aureole of Father Christmas hair. Davies is 55, but looks 15 years younger. The arrogance which he must need to gut other people's books is tucked away: he is all self-deprecation and infectious laughter, worrying 'about writing novels, not dialogue but the bits where you're supposed to have profound thoughts. I give my ideas to a character, and when someone says 'that's daft' you say, 'well, she's not very educated, is she?' '

He was born just outside Cardiff into a tidy Chapel family. 'Tidy' is Welsh for respectable. Cleanliness may be next to godliness, but tidiness is higher than both. Young Andrew grew secretive, a habit it was hard to shed as he got older: 'I thought I was wicked because I had sexual thoughts.' After a spell as a shop- lifter - 'a lonely, Dostoevskian gesture' - he escaped to University College, London, where he read English and wrote stories and poems. He was looking forward to doing National Service 'under the illusion that I could sign up for Hong Kong and meet Oriental women', but a postcard inviting him to Catterick had him retreating to Cardiff and teacher training. He went on to Coventry and training teachers himself - 'a lovely soft job with plenty of time for writing'. It was here that he heard Kingsley Amis on the radio: 'He said he found it a rich source of literature to take aspects of himself that worried him and to push them to their conclusion.' Davies took note: in B. Monkey, the sometime shoplifter imagines an armed robbery that lifts the hairs on the back of your neck.

After a stint writing radio plays ('good on atmosphere, poor on stories'), he appeared to get an early break on television in 1967 when the BBC accepted a piece about a knicker factory. But it was to be five years before they took another. The long apprenticeship made a craftsman of him: no one now works faster or finer. His tools are wit, ingenuity, an acute crap-detector and ruthlessness when it counts. Talking about To Serve Them All My Days, he once said: 'R F Delderfield wrote wonderful plots; he couldn't do characters, he couldn't do relationships, he couldn't do sex and he couldn't do jokes. That didn't matter - I could do all of those.' Quite right. There were plenty of vintage Amis lines in The Old Devils, but the real sparklers came from Davies.

What next? Deep breath: House of Cards sequel, Middlemarch, David Lodge's Out of the Shelter. Already in the can are Lisa Cody's female detective, Anna Lee, and Mary Wesley's Harnessing Peacocks. While we talk, the photographer cheerfully points out the tackiness of all the awards squashed on the fireplace. We agree that Bafta's eyeless bronze mask would make a lovely door-knocker. 'But I've only got one,' says Davies, hooting. 'If I had another I'd do it.' He's going to need a lot of doors.

'B. Monkey' is published by Lime Tree ( pounds 13.99) on 28 Sept.

(Photograph omitted)