Screenwriter of sense and sensibility

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Indy Lifestyle Online
When they're next handing out the Queen's Award for Industry, Andrew Davies, the country's premier adaptor of novels for television, could lodge a reasonable claim for official recognition. His CV reads like an album of British TV drama's greatest hits over the past decade: To Serve Them All My Days, Mother Love, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, Harnessing Peacocks, House of Cards, Middlemarch and To Play the King. His latest literary screenplay is the six-part version of Pride and Prejudice. These classic serials have a showcase slot in Sunday primetime (the BBC apparently runs its prestige dramas then as it is the one night MPs are guaranteed to be watching). And the name Andrew Davies lends the product artistic cred.

The producer, Sue Birtwistle, commends Davies: "I couldn't think of anyone better to adapt Pride and Prejudice. He is exceptionally good at soaking in the spirit of the original, he is enormous fun to work with and he delivers on time - the three most important things for a producer."

Davies, an affable man with a shock of wiry white hair and a cheeky smile, confesses, when pushed, to a sense of guilt about his ubiquity: "I'm not too keen on all this exposure. It makes it a bit difficult for other writers. It's all to do with packaging projects. To sell an idea to the BBC or ITV, independent production companies have got to have a writer everyone's heard of.

"That means a handful of writers are getting more offers of work than anybody else. Perhaps you could use the name of Lynda La Plante, or Jimmy McGovern, or Alan Plater, or Andrew Davies, to clinch the deal. Then you could turn up with a different writer and say, `Oh, this is another Andrew Davies'."

It was this Andrew Davies's interpretation of Middlemarch that, in his words, "started a craze" for classic adaptations - Scarlet and Black, The Buccaneers and Martin Chuzzlewit all zipped out of their Penguin Classic covers on to the screen. He tries to account for the classic-drama monster he has spawned. "I don't think it's to do with people liking girls in pretty frocks - Scarlet and Black and The Buccaneers weren't very successful. It's more to do with a strong story. Viewers get bored stiff unless they're gripped by the story and care about the characters. They yearn for something a bit deeper."

That's just what they have got with his Pride and Prejudice. Davies's aim was "not to spend the whole time abjectly sprawling at Jane Austen's feet. I was trying to interpret the book, not slavishly copy it."

So he has taken some liberties with the text - the first scene of his screenplay is not even in the book. The novel's oft-quoted opening sentence - "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife" - has been cleverly turned into a line with which Elizabeth mocks her mother's aspirations.

Still, he breathed a sigh of relief when his version received the seal of approval from the Jane Austen Society. "I hoped I'd please them, because I didn't want them coming to picket my house," he laughs. "What was more important was to turn the larger viewing audience on to Jane Austen. It's a shame if the people who enjoy EastEnders and Heartbeat don't realise Jane Austen is also about hopes and fears and human interest and who's going to get off with whom."

Davies is a one-man heritage industry. He is in the process of adapting Moll Flanders for Granada and The Mill on the Floss for the BBC. "But there's something worrying about executives saying, `More classics, we need more classics,' because everything goes in pendulum swings. I fear that after three more of these adaptations, newspapers will write, `Do we need all these classics? Have we no confidence in contemporary writers?' "

Davies himself is concerned that his original screen-writing is falling by the wayside. "I'm beginning to think that it's about time I made up a story for myself. But adapting texts that are wonderful to start with is such an enjoyable way to spend your time. It's impossible to turn them down because it's like being paid to reread your favourite books."

`Pride and Prejudice' starts on BBC 1 this Sunday at 9pm.

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