War & Peace writer Andrew Davies: “People say I could sex up the Tube map”

The writer behind Bridget Jones and Pride and Prejudice talks about sexing up the classics. His next project? Les Misérables...

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Andrew Davies is pretty pleased with life. As the country’s most fêted TV screenwriter of epic classic adaptations, he has much to be pleased about, but right now his blue eyes are twinkling particularly strongly.

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First (but probably not foremost) is the news that no less a figure than Vladimir Putin enjoyed his adaptation of War & Peace, which earlier this year transformed Tolstoy’s colossal vision into a lavish, emotional BBC TV six-parter, and included elements people might have missed in the 1,000-page classic, such as incest and people having sex on dinner tables.

“Putin apparently said he thought it captured something of the Russian soul,” smiles the snow-headed, blue-eyed Davies. But sexing up Tolstoy in such a way? Might that not be seen as sacrilege? “No! It’s all in there!”

Davies is acknowledged as the master of his field, but his modus operandi for boiling down your average literary classic is frighteningly simple. “I bring it to life and present things I found brilliant in the book, as thrillingly as I can.”

It’s a format Davies has been applying throughout his long career, from works by Thackeray and Eliot, to Tolstoy and Austen by way of Michael Dobbs’ House of Cards and the first two Bridget Jones novels.

He shows no sign of stopping; Davies, who turns 80 this month [a landmark to be celebrated with RT events at the BFI in London and the Cheltenham Literature Festival], is currently scaling the mountain of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables for the same team that created War & Peace. He’s loving it, hence the twinkles.

“We were all in Cannes last year celebrating selling War & Peace across the world. And Harvey [Weinstein, legendary US producer] says, ‘D’ya wanna do Les Mis? Let’s do it! Tagline is ‘Nobody Sings!’ ”

Davies hoots with laughter. “Of course that might back fire terribly with people expecting all the songs, but we think there’s so much more to the novel that never got into the musical.”

Davies started his career as an English teacher, and it was undoubtedly in the classroom that he honed his particular skill. “I was teaching in a school in Hackney in east London and I found that even sixth-formers couldn’t really get how funny Jane Austen was, unless I read the books aloud to them, her intonation was so different.”

He pauses. “Although it would have been good to have had my adaptation handy then.”

It was his peerless 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, with the sparkling Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet and a wet shirt inhabited by a brooding Colin Firth as Darcy, which made Davies a sensation. Before Firth climbed memorably out of a lake (a moment not penned by Austen) Andrew Davies was simply a successful writer.

Afterwards, he was “Andrew Davies”. “There are only a few TV writers who have name recognition, of whom I am one. All since Pride and Prejudice,” he says. “Before, people would say ‘A BBC adaptation’. Now they say ‘An Andrew Davies adaptation.’ I like it.”

Why was Pride and Prejudice the watershed, I ask, innocently? “It was really my own fault,” says Davies, equally innocently. “I was asked by a newspaper what I was doing next and I said, ‘Oh, a really sexy adaptation of P&P’ and the paper wrote a wonderfully silly piece all about romps in the hay, and rang up the Jane Austen Society and asked them if they would be shocked, and they all said yes.

“Of course, once the series came out, they loved it and I was immediately commissioned to write Moll Flanders for ITV.”

Since then, anticipating the next Andrew Davies classic series has been a rather pleasurable discussion. Given that romps will be a given, the focus is now about what sort of romps there will be, how many corsets will be ripped, and whether they will be in hay, on dining tables, and so on. Sexing up the classics is essentially what we know Davies will do.

“People say that I could sex up the Tube map,” he says, twinkling ferociously. Does he mind that “An Andrew Davies adaptation” has become a byword for “a sexy adaptation of a worthy classic”?

Of course not. “It’s very useful, because people know it won’t be boring. Sex is a wonderfully disruptive force. It can make everything go in a totally different direction.

“Although something that people don’t remark upon, but is also usually there, is that I try to bring out the comedy in things that people don’t usually think of as funny, for example in Tolstoy.”

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Indeed, but it’s the sex that people talk about. Was it a hallmark of his early work?

“No, probably not. Which is odd, because I used to think about sex all the time when I was young. Don’t most people?”

He sighs. “I think more about food now really, but there you go. Writers get nervous about sex scenes, because of the Bad Sex Awards, and because you are aware of people reading them, and thinking, ‘God, he thinks that’s how that’s done, what an idiot.’ ”

Has he ever been approached to adapt a book like Fifty Shades of Grey? He collapses with laughter. “No!” Has he ever thought about writing an erotic novel? “Never to the extent of actually doing one.

“Years ago when I was teaching at Warwick University a group of us had a project of writing an erotic novel.

“We would each write a chapter. It fizzled out, but some chapters got written and I remember people being rather shocked by other people’s sexual fantasies, ha ha ha.” Did he write a chapter? “Yes. I can only vaguely remember what was in it. No, I am not going to tell you what that was.”

One thing about which he is very unamused, however, is what he sees as the abandonment of classic drama by our third terrestrial channel. “I hope it will change, but in recent years when you go to ITV [with a proposal] they say, ‘We don’t know if this is for our audience.’

“You can tell that they are referring to people who are old, who are badly educated, who are conservative with a small ‘c’ and who just want what they have had before, and nothing new. ITV doesn’t have a public service remit any more.

“They might talk about having one, but they don’t. I don’t think I have ever watched TV like that anyway. I don’t just sit there and watch BBC1, or BBC4 all night. I see what’s on and I pick what I want to watch.”

He says he rarely chooses which book he’ll work on next. “I’m usually given a book somebody has thought needs doing, or hasn’t been done for ages.” Sometimes this can backfire; Davies was halfway through adapting Dickens’s Dombey and Son for the BBC when the management changed and the new boss didn’t want it. Interestingly, his CV is not overly weighted with adaptations of the great Victorian serial writer.

“I came a bit late to Dickens,” says Davies. “And I think I read the wrong ones to start with, like Pickwick Papers and things which I find a bit tedious. The ones I like are the dark ones: Bleak House and Little Dorrit [both of which he has adapted], and Great Expectations, which they do all the time.

“I still hope to do Dombey. In fact, I must say that to somebody. But at the moment, I’ve got this,” he says, excitedly patting his vast, well-thumbed copy of Les Misérables.

Why do 19th-century epic novels appeal so much? “It’s the era. It’s just so rich. People wrote huge novels with a lot of story, and they have rich, deep characters which don’t insult your intelligence.

Modern literary novels are… fine, but a lot of them seem to be about the style in which they are written. And they don’t have enough story to fill two hours. Or they have masses of story, but you can’t believe a word of it, and characters you can’t believe either.

“In 1958, my first job was teaching at St Clement Dane’s Grammar School, which was in Hammersmith [it’s since moved to Hertfordshire]. And just as you do with a receptive audience, you try to enthuse kids with your own enthusiasms.

“I remember thinking I was teaching kids who were brighter than I was, or at least as bright. They were so quick, and anything you gave them, they just gobbled it up.”

He pauses. “This summer I was talking at a literary festival in Cornwall. And a woman said to me, ‘I want to tell you that my husband and a lot of his friends went to St Clement Dane’s, and they all went on to have literary and artistic careers because they were taught English by you. You got them excited about all those books.’ It was something… it was a very moving thing to know.”

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Does he not think he is doing the same thing now, only with a global classroom? “Yes, it’s the same thing, in a way. I just say, ‘Look at this, isn’t it wonderful?’” And we all watch it.