Andrew Davies: The man who made Colin Firth a sex god

But the screenwriter's 'South Riding' is less steamy than much of his work. Susie Mesure meets Andrew Davies

If Colin Firth is still working on his Academy Awards speech, there's an extra name he might like to add to his thank-you list: Andrew Davies. Without the bodice-busting screenwriter, Firth would never have had his Mr Darcy moment because there would have been no Pride and Prejudice. Or, at least, no Davies's Pride and Prejudice, which means Firth might never have become a household name courtesy of a certain wet-shirt scene that catapulted him to pin-up status, opening the door to a string of film parts, culminating in this year's hot Oscar ticket, as "Bertie", George VI.

Davies knows that a win next Sunday will be the end of an era: the Darcy era. But he's "absolutely happy" to bid it farewell, safe in the knowledge that Firth is but one of a string of his period protégés. Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan, Andrea Riseborough, and Claire Foy all sharpened their acting teeth speaking his lines, not to mention Anna Maxwell Martin, the star of his latest adaptation, of Winnifred Holtby's South Riding, which starts tonight.

Just don't blame Davies for setting them all up in competition. Over a fizzy water at the BFI café on London's South Bank, he recalls sitting next to Mulligan, who got her first break in Bleak House, at an awards do. It was just after the series had scooped multiple Baftas and Emmys. "I was saying, 'How's it going? Isn't it great?' And she said, 'No. I'm having a terrible time.' And I said, 'Why, what's the matter?' And she said, 'I go up for all these parts. And I get called back and I get called back and I get called back until it's down to two, and then Keira Knightley gets it. And that has just happened to me six times in succession. I'm wondering when my luck is going to change.'"

The 74-year-old Davies, a former teacher who didn't embark on his screenwriting career until he was 50, is proud of those who flourish. "It's as if they were in my class at school, or if it was someone I taught. In fact, it's very much like that with Keira; she was barely 17 [when she landed Lara in his Doctor Zhivago] and trying to do her art A-levels because she had her coursework with her in Prague, and so I felt very thrilled and proud when she became a big star. It's silly in a way, but that is the kind of feeling, like she lived in our road, or I knew her when nobody else did."

He's anxious for a bit of the Davies magic to rub off on Charlie May-Clark, the 16-year-old who plays Lydia Holly – "a rough diamond from the slums" – in South Riding. "I'm just hoping she'll be a big star one day." Casting May-Clark, a local girl, is typical of the BBC, he says, which will take a punt on a "complete unknown... just because the director, and the casting director, and we all think she's got it, which is lovely, thinking about the viewers watching it, because the audience has no preconceptions and really think she's the character. Which is so hard to do if it's..." he pauses, while he tries not to offend, "one of the famous ones."

If South Riding isn't quite up there with Vanity Fair or Little Dorrit in terms of blockbuster appeal, blame the BBC's recent tentative approach to period drama, which has seen the corporation scrap Davies's planned adaptations of Anthony Trollope's Palliser novels and Dombey and Son, another by Charles Dickens, in favour of modern works such as Andrea Levy's Small Island.

Ever protective of his lucrative income stream, Davies says: "I don't see why there isn't room for both. I think they've been through a bit of a funding crisis; period drama is expensive to do and the Pallisers was to be at least eight episodes. I'm going to annoy them again, but a lot of it, I think, is driven by regime change. They've got new controllers – Jane Tranter went to the US and I was very much a Jane Tranter pet – and the new guys are obviously going to want to make their mark and not just do what the last people did. I'd be the same."

Davies is known for speaking his mind about his paymasters, and once you wind him up, he can't stop. "Then they do Upstairs, Downstairs but only do three of them. Why not just go for it? It seems like either extreme shortage of money or extreme shortage of confidence." Again, there's that pause while his brain catches up with what he's saying. "You're not just going to write this, are you? Because they get so upset." But he laughs, so I figure he can't be too worried.

While Davies – Cardiff-born and bred, although you wouldn't know it to listen to his flat, slightly nasal voice – is best known for his BBC mini-series, his repertoire is much broader and includes films such as the Bridget Jones movies and Brideshead Revisited in 2008. He came down to London today – from Kenilworth, Warwickshire, where he lives with his wife Diana – to talk about a possible new series for ITV. It's been nearly a decade since he last worked for ITV, which commissioned Doctor Zhivago, and he says the broadcaster is unrecognisable. "They're much more sparky and optimistic than they were a year ago. It's partly Downton Abbey, but partly they've got a lot of new drama projects in the pipeline that they're very bushy-tailed about."

For all that British drama has suffered of late compared with headline-grabbing US imports such as Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire, Davies points out that both here and in the States the erudite American shows that the media raves about "are all minority tastes". "Interestingly, in the meeting this morning, although we were trying to imagine the main character was American, the executive we were talking to said, 'I don't want it to seem like an import from America to anybody, because even if it's very good, that means nobody will watch it on ITV. It will just completely bomb because [ITV viewers] like their drama to feel home-grown.'"

His American favourites, for the record, are The Sopranos – "which I absolutely loved, more than just about anything I've ever seen" – and Mad Men, although he confesses to a recent Waterloo Road addiction, born of the many hours he spends watching television; a perk of the job when you're a screenwriter, I guess. Not that he has much in the way of downtime: he tries to write every day, including "quite a bit of Sunday", although he reckons that for all the hours he spends sitting in his office, handily based in the house that adjoins his own, he "probably gets about two hours' solid work done in the day". He does, however, make time for the gym – surviving bowel cancer last year after a major operation and six months of chemotherapy means the former 60-a-day smoker takes better care of himself these days.

If ever the adaptations dry up, he's keen to try his hand at fiction again: "I'd quite like to imagine the lives of somebody like my parents before I was born." Getting to be someone else for the day is another bonus of his occupation; when working on South Riding he particularly enjoyed writing the teenage girls' parts. "One of the big thrills of doing an adaptation or any kind of telly writing, is you get a bit fed up being a 70-odd-year-old man and it's very nice to be a 14-year-old girl for a time." His penchant for younger women comes through in much of his writing, which has featured many strong female characters; Anna Maxwell Martin's Sarah Burton in South Riding is a particularly fine example. He clearly knows older women well, too; despite the odd rocky patch, his marriage has lasted since 1960.

Then there's the sex. His Pride and Prejudice pretty much coined the phrase "sexed up", and he has lived up to his bodice-busting reputation ever since. That said, South Riding isn't one of his steamier dramas; a quickie in a doorway is about as X-rated as episode one gets. He claims he is "always very unfairly traduced" in the steaminess department: "If there is sex in the book, whether explicit or implicit, I'll bring it out, as it were," but concedes, "I don't mind, really; things could be worse. What I like to do more, and people don't usually comment on, is bring out the humour, in even very serious books."

It was the sex appeal, though, not the humour, that made Colin Firth's name. Not to mention smoothing the path to all those rather less alpha-male parts Firth went on to mop up, such as the stammering Bertie; after all, there's no one an Oscar voter likes so much as an actor playing a real-life character with a handicap. Cinema audiences around the world will be thanking Davies, even if Firth's speech omits him.

'South Riding' starts on BBC1 tonight at 9pm

Curriculum vitae

1936 Born in Cardiff, Wales; his parents are both teachers, although his mother stops working to bring him up. There is an eight-year gap between him and his younger brother as a sister is still-born. Goes to the local Whitchurch Grammar School before reading English at University College London.

1958 Follows in his parents' footsteps and gets a job teaching, first at St Clement Danes Grammar School, then at Woodberry Down Comprehensive, both in London.

1960 Marries Diana Huntley, with whom he has two children, a son and a daughter.

1963 Joins Coventry College of Education, which later merges with Warwick University, as an English lecturer.

1964 Writes his first play for radio, but it is not until his series A Very Peculiar Practice, two decades later, that he establishes his reputation as a screenwriter.

1987 Aged 50 he leaves lecturing to write full time.

1990 Adapts House of Cards for television.

1995 Pride and Prejudice, starring Colin Firth as Mr Darcy, makes Firth a household name. Other notable adaptations include Middlemarch, Vanity Fair, Bleak House, Little Dorrit and Tipping the Velvet.

2010 Undergoes chemotherapy after being diagnosed with bowel cancer.

2011 BBC1 screens his adaptation of Winifred Holtby's South Riding with Anna Maxwell Martin and David Morrissey.

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