Screenwriter Andrew Davies has made a career of taking on literary classics and adapting them for the screen. Sitting on his TV CV are series based on Middlemarch, Vanity Fair, Bleak House and, of course, Pride and Prejudice and 2016’s War and Peace.
But far from being cowed by the titans of literature who created them, Davies reckons he has an opportunity to improve upon their famous works.
“I’m trying to bring out the wonderfulness of what’s in the book,” he said at Cheltenham Literature Festival, “and I’m also, sometimes, trying to camouflage the faults and often write some scenes that I think Tolstoy or Jane Austen should have written which is very cheeky and arrogant but there you go.”
Davies, who turned 80 this year, used his 1997 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice as an example. “I wanted to write a very pro-Darcy adaptation because the thing is, when you read the novel you see Darcy entirely through Elizabeth’s eyes and she is so prejudiced against him for at least the first half of the novel that you don’t realise what a good guy he is until almost right at the end and so you have to read it all again.
“I wanted to give the audience a clue or an inkling that there was more to Darcy than meets the eye so I was writing scenes for Darcy when they were together and dramatising [his] early life.
He added that when it came to War and Peace, “Tolstoy didn’t really manage a satisfactory ending so I had to give him one,” jokingly labelling himself a “boastful bugger”.
But it was Davies’ most famous work, starring Colin Firth as Mr Darcy, that dominated much of the conversation, with the writer recalling how he wrote the first three scripts of the series for ITV who passed on them, upon which he and producer Sue Birtwistle approached the BBC.
Of course, Davies is also partly responsible for another Mr Darcy, having collaborated on the scripts for the first two Bridget Jones films, although he admitted “there’s not much of me left in the two films.”
“I think my contribution there, really, especially with the first one, was to say this is not just a comic series of adventures about a group of friends – this is a romantic comedy. Mark Darcy ought to be more like Mr Darcy and that will be more satisfying, however funny it is, so that’s what I did.”
He added: “The other reason I did it was because I wanted to go drinking with Helen Fielding. I wanted to go to all those wine bars and drink chardonnay with the girls and she kindly took me on a wine bar crawl.”