Andrew Davies: The man who puts sex into the Victorian novel

In the first episode of the BBC's new costume drama, Anthony Trollope's He Knew He Was Right, the jealous husband warns his lovely wife that he doesn't like the way she is being courted by her godfather, the sneering, top-hatted Colonel Osborne. Strong words are exchanged and he retires to an armchair. "That was badly done," he tells himself - and then, glancing direct to the camera, he apostrophises the viewer: "She has to realise she's not in the Mandarin islands now. She's in society."

It's an extraordinary moment in a classic literary drama, as startling as having Mr Darcy take you by the sleeve and say, "I really fancy Lizzie Bennett, but her mother is sooooo common." It's also, of course, a classic moment of Andrew Davies cheek. The straight-to-camera address was used to great effect by Francis Urquhart, the oily and homicidal chief whip in House of Cards, Michael Dobbs's political thriller, which Davies scripted in 1990. It's more effective as a hotline to a character's thoughts than a voice-over or a soliloquy, but it can't help seeming intrusively modern.

Laura, the wronged wife, has a similar moment. When she writes to the rascally colonel, the camera follows her up the stairs, whereupon she turns to face it (and us) defensively. "What?" she says. "If I send him away and refuse to receive him, it will be as if I were admitting there was something wrong with our friendship." The explanation is Trollope's work. But the way she says "What?" - that one-word shorthand for "Why are you looking at me in that critical way?" that first appeared in When Harry Met Sally and now turns up as a cliché in advertisements for Toblerone - is a pure Davies moment.

Andrew Davies has been the undisputed champion of the modern TV adaptation of the classics since the mid-1980s. He was being called "king of the adapters" as long ago as 1992. The list of heavyweight literary tomes that have passed through the Davies re-assembly line reads like the Everyman catalogue: Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda, Dr Zhivago, Moll Flanders, Martin Chuzzlewit, Pride and Prejudice, Vanity Fair, The Way We Live Now, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, The Old Devils, Take a Girl Like You... He seems to be working through the entire Western canon of letters. He specialises in taking baggy, 800-page Victorian monsters and turning them into lean, edgy, sexually charged, emotionally coherent dramaticules. He's just done a new version of Brideshead Revisited. In his Tudorbethan home in Kenilworth, Warwickshire, he's currently mid-way through his next project, Bleak House. You can imagine him glancing atWar and Peace on his shelves and murmuring, "All in good time..."

He is famously competitive about other people muscling in on his patch. When he learned that Emma Thompson was adapting Sense and Sensibility, he threw a small fit. "I got quite cross," he said at the time. "It was absolutely childish of me, but I thought, 'I should be doing that.' They didn't even ask me. I didn't ask to play the female lead in Howards End. So what's she doing nicking my classic adaptations?"

The question mark over Davies's snow-white head, however, is not whether it's right for him to corner the market in adapting classic texts, but what he's done to English literature. He is famously ruthless about inventing scenes and extra dialogue to clarify a muddy narrative and make the book's emotional core explicit. He is notoriously keen on inserting sex into classic texts, emphasising seduction and shagging in the polite salons of quadrille and farthingale. He caused outrage by insisting that Jane Austen's characters were all healthy young people longing to jump on each other. The lesbian scenes in Moll Flanders drew groans from John Mullan, the English don. ("That was terrible. In the book there's no sex at all... Davies did a milder version of what Playboy would have done with Moll Flanders.") When, in The Way We Live Now, he allowed the caddish Sir Felix Carbury to have his evil way with the poor but innocent Ruby Ruggles (Ruby remains inviolate in the novel), there was uproar at the Trollope Society.

"When you're adapting period novels," says Davies, "the sexual imperative is one of the clearest links between us and them. [In Pride and Prejudice] the engine of the plot is Darcy's sexual desire for Elizabeth. In The Way We Live Now, sex is a powerful reason why people do things." He draws parallels between He Knew He Was Right and the world of 2004. "It's about a strong woman who is seeking to make her own decisions and lead her own life, and a rather fragile man who can't stand up to her. That strikes all kinds of chords today. I detect a crisis of confidence in men as women are succeeding at everything."

John Sutherland, professor of English at University College, London, is impressed by the huge audience Davies finds for unpromising literary works. "There are three long-serving modern editions of He Knew He Was Right," he said. "Over the two decades, I guess they've together sold about 120,000 copies. But the BBC is aiming at an audience of seven million. He and his producer are like a new Merchant-Ivory team. Nigel Stafford-Clark talks huge amounts of cash out of the BBC, and Andrew Davies goes and spends it." According to Sutherland, Davies likes to feature lots of locations, and for He Knew He Was Right, the production team spent a fortune re-creating 1860s Wells and shooting the book's melodramatic conclusion in Sicily.

Sutherland was chief adviser on the 2000 adaptation of The Way We Live Now. "Advising Andrew Davies," he says, "is like carrying a soap bubble around. You're dealing with an artist, someone who doesn't want crude scholarly objections like 'You're wrong'. What he wants is a kind of insurance against making crass mistakes, but beyond that he wants you mostly to keep off." Davies, he says, became very focused on tiny details. "One thing he was obsessive about, I mean really went on and on about, was that the men in the Bear Garden - Trollope's version of the Marlborough Club - should be playing poker, not whist. He wanted to emphasise the new world of materialism and risk that the world was sliding into. But poker was an American card game, unknown in England at the time. Artistically I think he was right, even if historically he was wrong."

Indeed, he knew he was right. Davies is a charming man to meet - short, feline, softly spoken, slightly camp, with a wicked laugh and a disarmingly frank manner - but any breath of opposition or criticism brings out his inner snarling bitch. Historians who question his accuracy (such as Michael Wood), newspaper columnists (such as Philip Hensher) and distinguished literary advisers (such as D J Taylor, the biographer of Thackeray, who helped him out on Vanity Fair) can find themselves lacerated in print if they utter a murmur of protest about Davies's babies.

This may be the key to Davies. Behind the bluster, the vainglory and the obsession with sex ("When I was younger, I used to think about sex every four seconds," he says disarmingly. "Now I find it's food") lies a man deeply embedded in the thinginess of English fiction, its vast dramatis personae, its spooling, serpentine narratives, its rich, spicy textures and great clanging symbols. He knows the architecture of a novel, the armature and scaffolding and the reason why it doesn't fall down, better than anyone else.

Far from being the man who's dumbing down the classics for TV, he works like a sophisticated critic, spotting inept plotlines, half-realised characters and dialogue that doesn't work, and supplying the deficiency. One of his first ever adaptations was R L Delderfield's To Serve Them All My Days, of which Davies memorably remarked: "R L 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. But that didn't matter. I could do all of those...."

He was born on the outskirts of Cardiff, his parents both schoolteachers. As a child he had Dostoyevskyan moments, when he would shoplift pens and exercise books and have "fantasies about myself as a lonely bold adventurer". He read English at University College, London, wrote stories and poems as a student, and did teacher training in Cardiff and Coventry.

His first scripts were radio plays. In 1967, the BBC accepted his play Who's Going to Take Me On? about a typist in a knicker factory. There followed 23 years combining lecturing at Warwick University with writing plays and TV scripts, including the deeply weird A Very Peculiar Practice set in the medical department of "Lowlands University". He wrote two comedy series for children, Educating Marmalade and Danger - Marmalade at Work. Then the adaptations started - Mother Love, House of Cards, The Old Devils - and in 1988, he resigned to write full-time. With a nice burst of Mr Toad braggadocio, he treated himself to a vintage Mercedes.

People forget that the Adaptation Man is a novelist in his own right. His first book, Getting Hurt, was about a lawyer, Charlie, who falls hopelessly in love with a barmaid called Viola because "I knew that she could do me harm", and systematically destroys his marriage, career and life for his self-destructive passion. It was a savage dispatch from the land of blokes, revealing that they can be damaged by love just as much as women. Someone asked him why he'd waited until his 50s to write his first novel. It was, apparently, the sex scenes. "I thought people might be laughing behind their hands, saying, 'So this is how he thinks it's done! Blimey. Why didn't anybody tell him?'"

For a man who has spent his life in mild, suburban Warwickshire, Davies has a interior life crammed with vivid sex and violence, which he sublimates into the veins and arteries of the classics, pumping them with steroids, charging them with electric bolts. People can disapprove of his methods, his interpolations and inventions, his viewer-buttonholing tricks and anachronisms of dialogue, but few would bother denying the vigour with which he reanimates mouldering Victorian relics and makes them sparkle.

"Forget the details and look at the viewing figures," said John Sutherland. "Every publisher will tell you that, after Andrew Davies has finished with a book, whether it's Wives and Daughters or Take a Girl Like You, its sales figures are three times what they were before. What Davies is doing is actually putting these writers back in the centre. If, in doing so, he transgresses a few fine lines of historical authenticity, then so be it."

A LIFE IN BRIEF

Born: 20 September 1936 in Cardiff, to Wynford and Hilda Davies.

Family: Married to Diana Lennox Huntley in 1960, one son and one daughter.

Education: Whitchurch Grammar School, Cardiff, and University College, London

Career: Teacher at St Clements Dane Grammar School. 1958-61; Woodberry Down School, 1961-63, lecturer, Coventry College of Education, 1963-71, University of Warwick, 1971-87.

Novels: Including A Very Peculiar Practice, 1986; The New Frontier, 1987; Getting Hurt, 1989; 11 children's books including the Marmalade series.

Screenplays: More than 40 including House of Cards, 1990; Middlemarch, 1994; Pride and Prejudice, 1995; Emma, Moll Flanders, 1996; Vanity Fair, 1998; Wives and Daughters, 1999; Bridget Jones's Diary, 2002; Tipping the Velvet, Daniel Deronda, 2002.

He says...: "When you're adapting period novels the sexual imperative is one of the clearest links between us and them."

They say...: "Davies did with Moll Flanders a milder version of what Playboy would have done." John Mullan, English don

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