Andrew Davies has shaped the historical and literary imagination of millions around the world, through his adaptations of classic novels. A Davies series often becomes must-see television, a bonding moment in a fragmented, multimedia world. So as the BBC prepares to air, with great fanfare, his new version of Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit, I arranged to meet this former university lecturer for lunch.
He told me he wanted to eat at the Ivy, where London’s celebrities and media brokers like to be seen. Davies is British media royalty. His Pride and Prejudice (1995) remains the most famous filmed version of Jane Austen’s book. The scene where Colin Firth as Darcy emerges from a lake in a wet shirt went on to become an in-joke in Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones books and films, which Davies helped script with Richard Curtis and which also starred Firth. After Davies’ brilliant adaptation of Michael Dobbs’s House of Cards, Dobbs was inspired to write two more novels, which Davies went on to adapt for television. It’s a very small, very successful world.
Armed with the Davies name, I easily booked a coveted Ivy alcove table. Arriving before him, I found it was less glitzy than I had hoped. There was no one I recognised and there was very little wine arriving at the tables.
When Davies arrives, I shake hands with a man who is slightly-built, casual, and much younger-looking than 72. I didn’t recognise him, nor did he turn heads. As we wait for our brisk waiter, he seems a little distant. He chooses the wine, a Viognier, and once it is poured, he thaws.
He was born in 1936 in a village that is now part of the Cardiff suburbs, which he describes as “nice but a bit slow”.
“I couldn’t wait to go to university,” he says. “I could have gone to Oxford if I’d done national service but I thought, ‘Sod that’ and went to London, University College. Just what I wanted, in the middle of London. And so the first people I met were Welshmen, who said, “Oh, Andrew bach, you’re a Welshman are you, we all ’ave a get-together in the bar of a Friday, sing the old songs, you know,’ and I thought, ‘F**k this, I’ve come here to get away from all that.’” His own Welsh accent is barely perceptible but the imitation of his boyhood self catches the lilt perfectly.
We pause to order: he chooses asparagus with berries to start and I pick artichoke galette. We both opt for fish main courses. He tells me he always wanted to write but his father told him to do something that earned a living. So in 1958 he became a teacher, first in a Hertfordshire grammar school called St Clement Danes. He married in 1960 (he has a son and a daughter) and a year later moved to a comprehensive in Hackney in east London. “It was run by a very efficient headmistress who worked us very hard and the class I was form master of was full of very nice girls. They looked after me, brought me cake, covered for me when I was late. I was quite cute in those days,” he says and giggles.
In 1963 he became a lecturer in English at a teacher training college in Coventry, later incorporated into Warwick University. He stayed there until 1987, long after he had become a successful writer.
By the time Davies has finished the run-down of his early career, and our starters have arrived, the Ivy is filling and even in our cosy alcove we have to hunch a little closer to hear each other. I ask why he carried on teaching when he had made enough money to stop. “I really liked combining the two lives. Universities are wonderful places to be in to check out the zeitgeist. The 1960s happened late but when they did happen, universities were the place to be, and then the 1970s were all bad tempered and political.
“There were walkouts from exams, students saying we don’t want any of this stuff; there were occupations of the vice-chancellor’s office. Certainly universities got touched by the sexual revolution: extreme separatist feminism and lesbianism in the 1970s and the early 1980s were terrifying. But most of the students still wanted to learn. I thought that universities were places where, without straining yourself, you could write about almost anything. Generally, I just enjoyed the experience.” He talks in these illuminating bursts that are often funny.
And the teaching was also important to his writing, often as a backdrop. While he was lecturing, he also wrote radio plays, works for the theatre and children’s books. At the very end of his time at Warwick, he had his first big TV success in A Very Peculiar Practice, devised and written by Davies, which first aired in 1986. It was about a dysfunctional GP surgery on a university campus.
As our starters are cleared away, he tells me the story of one of his stage plays, Rose, which played to full houses in the West End in 1980. Glenda Jackson played the schoolteacher heroine. “The producer sent her the play. I wouldn’t have dared! I was scared stiff of her. I remember when I met her for lunch: I was a provincial boy in those days, didn’t have many lunches in posh London restaurants. I was so in awe I couldn’t get anything down, I couldn’t swallow!” Rose went to Broadway but flopped, lasting 68 performances. No longer terrified of Jackson, Davies says he found her “very kind actually. The morning after all these horrible reviews were in, she rang and said, ‘These bastards know nothing. Come to the bar at the Plaza and we’ll get sozzled at lunchtime.’ That was very nice, wasn’t it?”
Several times during lunch, he deprecates his achieved greatness with the observation that it has been thrust upon him. His is a split personality: now part of the metropolitan media, he puts his provincialism round his shoulders like a comfort blanket when needed. He is most famed for his TV adaptations but they came, “as with almost everything else, because someone asked me to have a go. In the 1970s I did an adaptation of a Dickens short story called ‘The Signalman’ for the BBC, which they still do as a Christmas ghost story. I’m quite touched.
“A lot of the vogue for classic adaptations now is a matter of changes in politics and taste. In the early 1990s the classic serial had virtually died a death. No one was very keen about doing it except the BBC board of governors, who were chafing and saying (posh voice), ‘Isn’t this the kind of thing we should be doing?’ So there was I, all clued up and ready to go. I had read all the books, I knew what I thought about them, I had my interpretations already, I’d always tried to teach them in a way not just to transmit the great tradition but to ask students to find out how relevant it all was. Here are these great books about things which concern you ... so that if you want to solve your personal problems, don’t go to an agony aunt, go to George Eliot, go to Jane Austen ... but of course don’t go to Charles Dickens.”
He is interrupted by our main courses arriving and we turn to our respective fish dishes. He goes on: “Austen is the easiest to do because she was such a craftsman, or craftsperson, or whatever you say now. These great writers go on being born in different ways in different centuries – you seize on highlights, whatever seems to speak to us most clearly – which is why there’s almost a case for saying, every 10 or 12 years, let’s have a new ... whatever. Of course (sly smile) some don’t have to be re-done ... my Pride and Prejudice...”
I ask him what was the largest difficulty he found in adapting great novels.
“For me, it’s a very mundane answer. I’m relieved from having to make up a story. I’m not so rawly exposed, which I think a lot of writers feel. No one talks about it very much but I think a lot of writers feel that. It’s tough. People like DH Lawrence or Hanif Kureishi just come right out with it, take it or leave it, I can be no other. Of course everybody knows it’s their bloody life. But I quite like to hide behind characters. I think that’s why I took to adaptation. It’s a matter of hiding behind another’s characters.
“I always found it hard with the novel because I thought, ‘What about these bits in between the dialogue, that’s where you reveal yourself.’ My first novel was written in the first person, the voice of one who was clearly not like me ... except it was.
“With adaptations ... well, take Middlemarch. I suppose I was trying to get through to what Eliot was trying to say. OK, I’m Casaubon [the scholar-cleric whom Dorothea, much younger, marries], how do I feel? And then I’m thinking about how Dorothea will see him. With these two I tried very hard, I don’t know if it’s possible to get it across ... I wanted to show how it could be that Dorothea could fancy this guy. So I thought, ‘She’s had a very sheltered life, and here’s this guy, it’s like going to university, he’s the professor and he’s talking about big ideas.’ It takes her time to see he may have big ideas but he’s too small a man for them.
“The great thing about all of these was, after all these years teaching students, saying, ‘Come on, these books are about real human beings,’ then I could do the scripts, and there they are, wonderfully acted! I’ve been very fortunate.”
Recently he has done an adaptation of Sarah Waters’ second novel, Affinity, which will be shown on ITV. It’s a book about the consuming sexual passion between a late Victorian middle class young woman, and a murderess, incarcerated in a grim woman’s prison at which the former is a visitor.
“She [Waters] does a wonderful pastiche of a Victorian novel, I mean that in a nice way. She’s the only person who could pull it off. She’s steeped in classic fiction ... and Victorian pornography, which oddly enough is the best way of getting at how people really talk.”
Over coffee, the media babble intense, I ask if he would do the Russian novelists. “[Dostoevsky’s] The Idiot is wonderful. I’d love to do that some time. The BBC people – I suppose they must have done some research – say (pompous voice), ‘No appetite for European fiction!’ In the great days of the BBC, they wouldn’t have said that, they would have said, ‘These are great books! We will give you them! And you will enjoy them!’”
Davies was probably the most successful media figure in the Ivy that day but no one comes to our table to kiss, chat or network. On the way out, the maître d’, whom I’d known when he was in a humbler job, makes a fuss of me. Davies looks amused and wanders off into the London afternoon.
1-5 West Street, London WC2
1 x artichoke galette
1 x asparagus with berries
1 x swordfish with creamed spinach
1 x Thai-style sea bass with steamed spinach
2 x espresso
2 x bottle of sparkling water
1 x bottle of Viognier
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