BEVERLY HILLS, Calif.—As a teacher, Andrew Davies used to lecture on English literature. Not exactly your bodice-ripping, sword-flashing, adrenalin-pumping subject. But Davies managed to parlay that dry subject into glorious drama with his myriad adaptations of classic novels.
To the Welsh-born Davies, writing adaptations for authors like Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Helen Fielding is a lot like lecturing on English lit.
“Because I’m taking a book and saying, `Look, these are the interesting things about it. Have you noticed this, and this, and that?’ And putting it on the screen. I sometimes think it’s like doing a lecture, only having millions of pounds (worth) of visual aids. All these beautiful young girls in period costume and so on,” says Davies on a sunlit day in a hotel here.
While his wife, Diana, is painting upstairs in their Kenilworth, England, home, Davies is in his office figuring out how to make Elizabeth Bennett forgive the arrogant Mr. Darcy from Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” or compress the massive “Bleak House” into a cohesive TV series.
No doubt about it, Davies is the go-to guy when you need an intelligent but accessible entree into the world of literature. And PBS’ “Masterpiece Theatre” will display his talents when it offers “The Complete Jane Austen” beginning Jan. 13. Included in the series are Davies’ adaptations of “Northanger Abbey,” “Pride and Prejudice,” “Emma” and “Sense and Sensibility.”
Davies began as a radio dramatist. “Then I started writing television plays and I did all original work at first, and then very slowly and gradually got into doing the adaptations,” says the graying Davies.
Both his parents were teachers. His dad taught French at a prestigious boys’ school in Cardiff. But, like most youngsters, Davies was eager to leave Wales.
“I was brought up right in the middle of Cardiff, but it was really restricted and dominated by the chapel. I was desperate to get away and go to London and go to Soho and stay up all night and drink and do lots of bad things,” he says.
After university he got a teachers’ training job in Coventry and he and his wife moved to Kenilworth, where they still live.
His first writing assignment almost landed him in court. It was about a student teacher on his initial teaching job. “I suppose it was basically about the contrast between his aspirations and the grim reality and comic reality of what a school is really like,” says Davies, smiling.
“It was really comic coincidence because I based it on my own school practice, which I’d done in this school in a mining valley north of Cardiff. And this play was produced by the Welsh BBC. And this very experienced producer—it was just about his last job—and he said he wanted to record it on location. `I want to go back to my old school where I haven’t been for 40 years and do it there.’
“And the headmaster there got quite excited and said, `Can I look at the script?’ and recognized himself in the script and threatened to sue the BBC and sue me. I hadn’t said anything dreadful about him, but I had made him out to be a rather comically pompous character, which he was. So I had to rewrite the whole thing, changing it so nobody could be recognized. But it was a rather grim experience. I didn’t really learn that lesson properly for a long time, I don’t think.”
His first TV adaptation was “To Serve Them All My Days.” But Davies had to wait half a decade before he got another writing job.
“I went five years nearly getting things on—but not quite—and getting things rejected, and people changing their minds and that sort of thing. So I had to keep faith in my own ability. But the great compensation for that was I was able to comfort myself by saying, `Well, you’re a good teacher and you enjoy that.’”
In fact, Davies kept his day-job for eight years after he was a successful screenwriter. “In a way it’s good doing something else,” he says.
“Unless you’re the kind of writer who writes about the fundamentals of life, because what do you know if you’re just a writer? If you spend all your time writing, stuck in a room from the age of 21? I sometimes think the ideal thing for a writer would be to take a series of not-well paying jobs, like be a butcher for a bit.”
Davies, 71, says he’s never overwhelmed by an assignment. “I think I’ve always been cocky to the point of arrogance of being able to do things. I suppose occasionally there is an element at the beginning of a new script. I sometimes go, `Oh, golly, I don’t know how to do it anymore, maybe it’s not coming.’ But usually, by the time I’ve gotten to the end of the first couple of pages, I’m all right. And actually, more recently, the older I get the more confident I get,” he says.
Writing begins early in the morning for Davies, who works until about 6 p.m. This diligence is interrupted by bouts of e-mailing, computer games or shopping.
“I’m a bit of a split personality because I tend to be an extrovert and like being the center of attention when I’m out,” he says. “But at home I tend to live a very quiet life.”