How We Met: Andrew Davies & Tom Courtenay

'We were kindred spirits – but not enough to stop me pinching his girlfriend'

Tim Walker@timwalker
Sunday 07 December 2008 01:00

Andrew Davies, 72, is a screenwriter who has written some of the best-known film and television dramas and adaptations of the past 15 years, including Pride and Prejudice, Bridget Jones, Bleak House and Sense and Sensibility. His latest is Charles Dickens' Little Dorrit. He lives in London with his wife

Tom and I met in October 1955, when he was in his first year reading English at University College, London, and I was in my second year. The English department was relatively small, and everybody tended to know each other by name. Tom was well-known then, as now, for his acting. He was in virtually all the drama-society productions and everybody thought he was something quite special. He was very bright, but I don't think he can have worked very hard; he's just about the only person who failed the degree.

Tom went through a short James Dean phase. There's a sequence in Rebel Without a Cause when Dean is rolling a beer bottle across his forehead to soothe his fevered thoughts, and I remember Tom doing that, only with a milk bottle.

He was going out with a girl called Diana Huntley at the time, who I fancied as well. UCL was heavily weighted in favour of posh girls from private schools in the Home Counties. I was an outsider because I came from a grammar school in south Wales, and Diana was a northern, working-class lass whose dad was a train driver, while Tom's father was a docker from Hull. Still, we were all kindred spirits – but not enough to stop me pinching his girlfriend. I remember making my move when she was sitting on his knee at a student party in the college bar. I asked her to dance and we never looked back – I'm still married to her.

It was thrilling when Tom went into a London production of The Seagull by Chekhov after a year or so at Rada. I remember an ecstatic review describing how this wonderfully talented young actor manages to suggest his neuroticism and inability to fit in with ordinary life "in his very walk". We all laughed and said, "But Tom always walks like that!"

I watched him have a glittering career from afar and always resisted the temptation to get in touch. While his career was taking off with Billy Liar, I was just a schoolteacher and a lecturer; my writing career took a long time to develop, but I had this little dream that one day I'd write something and Tom would be in it.

In 1998, I did a script for television called A Rather English Marriage, which Tom was in with Albert Finney. So we all got to meet again and had dinner together. Diana thought he was exactly the same: quirky, apt to worry about little thingsand wanting everything to be just right. I get the sense that he's quite impractical in everyday life; he needs somebody to remember where he's hung his coat up.

It's been absolutely delightful to have him in Little Dorrit. He's terrific in it. He has the ability to get inside a part and completely transform himself into that person. It's been such fun. I'll have to see if I can write him another part.

Tom Courtenay, 71, is a twice Oscar-nominated actor who began his career starring in classic British films such as Doctor Zhivago and Billy Liar. He is currently playing William Dorrit in the BBC production of Little Dorrit. He lives in London with his wife

Andrew and I were both in the English department at university and his wife, Diana, was in my year. She wasn't my "girlfriend"; we didn't do that sort of thing in those days. But we went to the pictures together a couple of times. There were lots of rather attractive girls in the English department; she was certainly one of them.

I studied English Lit, though not as successfully as Andrew; he got a degree, which is more than I did. But then I spent all my time in the dramatic society. He said to me the other day that he remembered me from Dramsoc. Then all of a sudden he was in the West End and there I was, with my name up in lights at the Cambridge Theatre. It came as quite a shock to him.

Andrew had very black hair in those days, which, seeing him now after many years, is not the case. We made a film for television 10 years ago called A Rather English Marriage, which Andrew adapted, with Albert Finney, Joanna Lumley and myself. I wasn't sure, when we started, whether it was the same Andrew Davies that I'd known at university, but there he was – with different-coloured hair!

Little Dorrit is an adaptation of a very big book, and Andrew does the whole thing rather wonderfully; he's got a great ability to get the best out of something.

He's very true to the original, but he has ideas of his own. He didn't sex-up my part; Dickens wouldn't have countenanced anything like that – nor would Victorian society. The character of Little Dorrit is slightly sentimentalised in the book, but not in the adaptation, and I think it's a better part on television – that has something to do with Andrew. But he allows one to have ideas of one's own. I remember at the read-through saying, "I've got one or two suggestions, might I put them to you?" And he said, "Of course." He doesn't mind other people having ideas, which strikes me as a sign of strength.

'Little Dorrit' is on BBC1 on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8pm, with an omnibus on Sunday evenings

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