Writer Andrew Davies is, of course, the go-to man when it comes to literary adaptations. His 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth set pulses racing while 2005’s Bleak House became a twice-weekly addiction thanks to its soap-opera-style cliffhangers.
But Davies’s first big hit came in 1986 when he penned a contemporary comedy drama called A Very Peculiar Practice in which Peter Davison played a callow doctor who joins the staff of a campus medical centre. The surreal satire, which arrives on DVD this Monday, is one that’s remembered fondly by both its creator and star.
“It’s the thing I’m proudest of having done,” Davies, 75, tells RadioTimes.com. “It reflected my own life more than anything else I’ve been known for.”
Davison, now 60, is forever seared in the public consciousness for All Creatures Great and Small and Doctor Who, but also looks back on his time as the naïve Dr Stephen Daker with a great amount of affection:
“I rate it very highly indeed. I judge these things by the quality of the scripts and with that, you wanted to play every word as it was written on the page because it was so expertly done.”
The screenplays took a strong swipe at the Thatcherite policies of the day, which saw higher education suffering spending cuts amid private finance initiatives, and the show soon garnered a cult following and critical acclaim including a Bafta nomination. But had it not been for Davies’s own financial situation, the series might not have ever existed.
“I was writing something else about three mature women students but it all went wrong. I sort of lost interest after three episodes but the BBC said that I’d been paid for the whole lot so owed them £17,000, which was a lot of money in those days. And they said I had to either pay them back or write my way out of debt. Necessity was the mother of invention, really.”
This period of forced creativity, in which Davies drew on his work as a lecturer at the Warwick Institute of Education, resulted in such wild creations as the alcoholic Jock McCannon (Graham Crowden), who headed up the medical team at the fictional Lowlands University, and ruthless entrepreneur Bob Buzzard (David Troughton).
The brutalist, concrete jungle of the University of East Anglia was meant to double for Lowlands but permission to film there was denied. “They’d had their fingers burned with The History Man,” says Davison, referring to Malcolm Bradbury’s story of a libidinous teacher, which had been dramatised five years previously. Davies also notes that they weren’t too keen for their institution to be shown strewn with litter.
Instead, Keele and Birmingham became the locations where the well-intentioned Daker navigated a sea of monsters. “I was quite happy to be surrounded by lunatics,” Davison admits. “In effect, I was the one who the audience related to in the midst of these madmen – or madwomen.”
One of the women to whom Davison refers is Rose Marie, the unscrupulous feminist who did her best to seduce and terrify her peers. Barbara Flynn’s performance lives long in the memory of viewers, including in comedian Chris Addison’s who, in a recent Radio Times interview, cited the character as the object of his first crush:
“She features very large in the psyche of men of a specific age,” he commented. Did Davies foresee the impact she would have?
“I wasn’t surprised at all because she had this hardline feminism twinned with a teasing sexuality which is a devastating combination. It was all very deliberate: fake erect nipples were sewn into her uniform so there was always that little bump there.” He laughs. “I hope it didn’t warp Chris Addison in his burgeoning manhood.”
We’re now 25 years on from Stephen Daker’s time at Lowlands, but in an era of fresh belt-tightening, could there be scope for a revival? With Davies so much in demand for dramatizations of other people’s work, it seems that chances are slim.
“It’s sad that Andrew has never done more stuff that is ‘original’,” Davison says. “But he loves imagining what classic writers would have written if they’d have been able to do it now. He has this ability to twist a story around and almost make it better than it originally was.”
Davies, however, has this further take on his later career. “Making up the plot is the thing I’ve always found the hardest about writing. Without being boastful, I’m good at creating a believable atmosphere, characters and dialogue. But the actual plot I’ve always found tricky and with adapting a book, you’ve got one ready-made for you.
“When I was younger, I used to write very much from my own experience and back then I had a job and knew a lot of people so there were a lot of experiences to be had. But when you’re a writer, you don’t really meet many people, so you don’t have much direct material to draw on.”
Yet despite the fact that Davies now ploughs his energies very successfully into projects such as South Riding for television and The Three Musketeers for the big screen, A Very Peculiar Practice continues to resonate for those who saw it upon its original transmission.
“It had this groundswell of popularity,” says Davison. “I’ve always found it amazing. When people talk to me, it’s still one of the first things they mention. Right at the top of the list. And in terms of my preferences, it’s probably number one or two out of everything I’ve been in.”
The Complete A Very Peculiar Practice is available from Monday. Watch a trailer here: