October 10, 2008

Burlesque, Bonnets and Writer’s Block

By Sarah Freeman

It seems Andrew Davies is human after all. Since he first came to public attention with A Very Peculiar Practice in the mid- 1980s, the former university lecturer has rarely paused for breath, finding a niche for turning classic novel after classic novel into television gold.His impressive CV, which rattles through 30 or so TV series, more than a dozen one-off dramas, a handful of films and three novels, suggests a man who can dash off an award-winning script before the rest of us have decided what to have for breakfast.It's a career of envy-making proportions, but, throwing a nugget of solace to struggling writers everywhere, he admits his latest project isn't going to plan.Davies, whose vision of Colin Firth as a soaked-to-the-skin Mr Darcy in the now iconic BBC version of Pride of Prejudice brought a whole new audience to Jane Austen, has been desperately trying to dramatise the true story of an African woman, who was paraded around the freak shows of 19th century Britain.Hottentot Venus became a symbol of the dark side of colonialism, and while her story is rich in historical detail, it has given Davies a mild case of writer's block. "It's a fabulous tale," he says, ahead of an appearance at Sheffield Hallam University. "She had incredibly pronounced buttocks and a figure so alien to Western eyes that she was seen as a curiosity, but there is much debate as to whether she was a slave or a willing participant."It hasn't been going well. I've tried forcing myself to sit at my desk until inspiration strikes; I've tried walking away to see if a bit of distance helps. "Neither approach has worked, so the plan now is to get on with a couple of other projects and hopefully it will start to flow."I am aware that there are a lot of other writers out there who look at me and think, 'that bastard Davies, getting all the plum jobs', so I hope they can take some comfort from knowing I share their pain."If Davies never wrote another script, it wouldn't matter. Just a fraction of his contribution to film and television drama is worthy of a lifetime achievement award and the likes of Tipping the Velvet, the sapphic frolic which no doubt had Mary Whitehouse turning in her grave, will go down in television history.Given his wont for sexing-up period dramas, Davies is frequently described as having put the burlesque into bonnets, but he learnt early on not to believe the hype."I'm not sure I'm particularly prolific," he says. "There's a lot of brilliant hard-working writers out there. It's just that I have a higher hit rate than most. Scriptwriters tend to be pretty anonymous, it was the same for me until A Very Peculiar Practice which really caught the public imagination. Suddenly people were interested in the name behind the series and doors started to open."I have been very lucky."He has also worked incredibly hard. While still an English lecturer at the Coventry campus of the University of Warwick, Davies began to teach himself the art of screenwriting, and it was his time in academia which later inspired his first hit A Very Peculiar Practice. As more and more opportunities came his way, he spent the intervening years describing his career as happy accident, but more recently he has been forced to admit there may be more to his success than serendipity."In the 1960s there weren't courses on how to write screenplays, so I watched a lot of television and read as much as I could about the business," he says. "Now and again I'm asked to do creative writing workshops, and what it's taught me is that those who are talented get a lot out of them, but it's impossible to teach a bad scriptwriter how to be a good one."For a long time I thought it was something anyone could do, so the revelation came as a bit of a surprise."Since Davies' first classic adaptation of Middlemarch in 1994, a year has rarely gone by without a screening of one of his adaptations. While acknowledged as the master of heavy-bosom drama, his success has spawned a raft of copycats, and critics have now diagnosed the public with bonnet fatigue."Every time a new period drama comes on the TV there is always a group of people who say, 'Surely we've reached saturation point?', but I'm not sure we've got there yet," he says. "They are still very popular with viewers and I think my job is safe for a while. Really it's nothing to do with the bonnets and the bustles, it's about great stories and great characters."People can be sniffy about the state of drama, but I honestly think it's pretty good at the moment. What's really good is that ITV have had a couple of gems recently. I loved Lost in Austen and it's healthy the BBC should come up against some competition."Given that Davies is reported to earn 200,000 an adaptation and his version of Dickens's Little Dorrit, starring Spooks' Matthew MacFayden, is one of the BBC's autumn highlights, a lot of people's reputations, and the broadcaster's balance sheet, hang on the fact he's right."Budgets always seem to be fairly tight," he says. "It's something which has never really changed. You only have to look at the creaky sets of the older versions for proof of that. The action of Little Dorrit moves between London and Italy and I was told early on that Venice was a no go and they'd have to fake it."Having said that there's a scene when the whole house falls down and I full expected there would be the sound of a great big crash and we'd cut to characters covered in dust and a pile of rubble. "Sometimes the producers surprise me and they've worked out a way of showing the whole thing, which should be pretty impressive."While clearly excited by seeing the finished product, Davies tries hard not to interfere in the filming, often contenting himself with the occasional set visit."The end result is never exactly how I imagined it, but by and large that's a good thing," he says. "You really have to hand over the script and forget about it. I don't go on set a lot because I just end up getting in the way. It's really not a good idea to end up in shot on a period drama and the only way you can guarantee that is by standing directly behind the cameraman. "Needless to say they tend not to appreciate that kind of close proximity."What I really like to see is the vast army of people who work behind the scenes, from the set designers to the costume makers. Although I often think to myself guiltily, 'Gosh, what a lot of work I've given them'."If Davies first love is television, success also brought him to the attention of the film studios. It was his hand that turned Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary into two hit films and following the remake of Brideshead Revisited he has also completed a big screen remake of Middlemarch, which is scheduled to be released next year."Middlemarch was such a big, big TV series," he says. "I spent so much time refining the original script but when I was approached to do the film, they wanted it finished pretty quickly. Basically I got out the original and started cannibalising it. In a couple of hours there isn't the time to go into the small town politics, so this version is much more of a simple love story."The TV adaptations I feel are very much mine, you're consulted about casting and there's a sense of involvement from start to finish. It's a really cosy process. With films you feel like a hired hand, but by way of compensation they pay you more."The critical reaction to Brideshead Revisited was lukewarm. Even before the film came out, many wondered whether anything could top the classic television series, but for Davies when someone asks, 'Why remake a classic?', his stock answer is always 'Why not?'"A lot of what I do is a reaction against previous versions," he says. "In the past people were so scared of not being faithful to the book, what they ended up doing was sapping the life out of the characters. "I always keep the book close at hand when I doing an adaptation and often much of the dialogue comes direct from the page, but ultimately my job is to create drama not a televised book reading."I'd be lying if I said I don't read reviews. I don't have that kind of iron will. However, what I tend to do is leave it in the hands of my agent, who helpfully weeds out any bad ones and forwards on only the good ones. "I have been very lucky, most of the time people like what they see."Andrew Davies in Conversation, Sheffield Hallam University, Oct 21. 0114 249 600.

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