The old ones are the best

What's so great about classic novels that they're always on TV? How about plot, characters, dialogue...

There is a backlash against BBC bonnets and bustles in some quarters. In announcing its version of Anna Karenina - a trespass on what has traditionally been BBC territory - Channel 4 recently declared: "we're not treating this with the deferential reverence that the BBC has for costume drama. Our Anna Karenina is young, it's hot, it's funky."

So is Auntie too fusty for today's audiences? Not according to perhaps the leading partnership in the field - adaptor Andrew Davies and producer Sue Birtwistle. They were behind the 1997 version of Jane Austen's Emma, which won the Best Television Film Award at the Barcelona Film Festival. But more memorably, they were also the team responsible for the BBC's phenomenally successful adaptation of Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

More than any other, this landmark 1995 period drama is credited with reviving interest in the form. Pride and Prejudice fan clubs sprung up all over the world. "It would be arrogant to think that you were having an effect when you make a simple television programme," says Birtwistle, "but it's odd how one thing strikes a chord with so many people. I suppose Pride and Prejudice is the best romantic novel ever written."

Now Birtwistle and Davies have collaborated once more, this time on Wives and Daughters, an immaculate reading for BBC1 of Elizabeth Gaskell's unfinished novel. But the serial has competition: it's going head-to-head with ITV's big-budget period drama, Oliver Twist, from next Sunday. The tabloids have seized on this as a heavyweight clash between Gaskell and Dickens. How the authors themselves - good friends and colleagues (they both wrote for Household Words) - would have laughed about it.

The very ferment this rivalry proves that there's life in the old costumes yet. Birtwistle, for one, cannot envisage a time when we will tire of classic dramas. "There's no reason why we should - as long as they're not done cynically," she argues. "After Pride and Prejudice, I suspect that one or two were. It was almost as if the commissioning editors were saying, `what other books can we wheel out?' But if the series come out of a passion for the book, then I can't see people ever getting fed up with them. As long as there are rattling good stories, people will want to watch them."

Davies is the adaptor of a list of classics, including Middlemarch, Moll Flanders and Vanity Fair. "I am worried that the bubble may burst," he confesses. "I know that a ridiculous amount of classic serials have been commissioned and that reviews show a reaction against them. The critics seem fed up."

For all that, he remains confident that viewers can bear more of these corsets-and-carriages series because he believes there will always be a thirst for the universal stories they tell. "They'll continue to be popular because they're so good. We've had time to realise which ones stand the test of time.

"Look at Jane Austen. Her characters derive in a reasonably straight line from fairy tales. Her lead females are like Cinderella or Snow White, endangered women waiting for a prince who is tantalisingly out of reach. They've got the simplicity of the struggle for love and self-realisation, supported by brilliant dialogue and plots like Swiss clocks. Compared with most modern novels, the classics have far more vivid and rounded characters. Added to that, there aren't enough actual incidents in modern novels to fill more than one television episode."

Wives and Daughters certainly has a timeless feel. It centres on the sentimental education of Molly Gibson (Justine Waddell) whose life is bouleverse by the sudden acquisition of a social-climbing stepmother (Francesca Annis) and a seductive stepsister (Keely Hawes).

Penelope Wilton, who plays Molly's friend and neighbour, Mrs Hamley, the wife of the irascible Squire Hamley (Michael Gambon), believes that the story doesn't have to be set in a specific period. "It has characteristics that people from any era can relate to," she says. "People will see their own mothers and daughters, husbands and wives in these characters. Period is almost irrelevant. Period pieces can be very dry and viewers often find themselves concentrating on the waistcoats rather than the characters. I don't think that's going to happen with Wives and Daughters."

"What happens to Molly when her father remarries," adds Davies, "is a common modern-day experience. People who never expected to be living together have suddenly to try to get on with one another."

Though now in his sixties, Davies shows no sign of slowing up. He is currently working on a BBC interpretation of Take a Girl Like You, a retread of Othello, set in the contemporary Metropolitan Police force, a Miramax version of Northanger Abbey, and an adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo. "For Polanski to direct," he says. "I just love saying that because I can hardly believe it. We have our meetings in Paris, so I can't moan too much. This job gives me such great pleasure."

So with yet another high-class adaptation under his belt, what is Davies planning to do next? "Well," he says with a chuckle, "I've heard that Gaskell's Sylvia's Lovers is well worth looking at ..."

`Wives and Daughters' starts on BBC1, 28 November, 9pm; `Oliver Twist', ITV, 9pm

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