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Davies, Andrew (1936-)


Main image of Davies, Andrew (1936-)

Commercially successful and critically acclaimed, Andrew Davies is one of television's most sought-after writers. Despite being best-known for the seemingly anonymous form of literary adaptation, he brings a personal voice both to his neglected original dramas and his respected adaptations.

Born in Cardiff on 20 September 1936, he graduated in 1957 with an English degree from University College London and taught at schools and then Universities. Despite radio and theatre credits, his early progress in television was slow: after Who's Going To Take Me On? (BBC, tx. 8/2/1967) for the Wednesday Play strand that had inspired him to become a writer, he did not consistently sell full-length work until the 1970s, while working at the University of Warwick. A lover of literature, he combined teaching with writing until going full-time in 1987, aged 50.

His 1970s work is marked by versatility. Is That Your Body, Boy? (BBC, tx. 9/5/1970), a play about a disciplinarian PE teacher struggling to adapt to changing educational practices, was almost stylised in action and dialogue, while A Martyr to the System (BBC, tx. 2/4/1976) also explored education through a student teacher at a comprehensive. Early adaptations included dramatised extracts for Second House (BBC, 1973-76), The Water Maiden (BBC, tx. 10/3/1974) for the fantasy-reinvention strand Bedtime Stories and skilled versions of Edgar Allen Poe's The Imp of the Perverse (BBC, 1975) and Charles Dickens' ghost story The Signalman (BBC, 1976). Biographical pieces included Cowboy in the White House (1977) for educational series The Prizewinners, a serial on Karl Marx's youngest daughter, Eleanor Marx (BBC, 1977), a dramatisation of Jean Renoir's Renoir, My Father (BBC, 1978) and the non-naturalistic Fearless Frank (BBC, tx. 4/10/1978) about Frank Harris. At the turn of the decade Davies wrote ambitious thirteen-part serials: co-production The Legend of King Arthur (BBC, 1979) and To Serve Them All My Days (BBC, 1980-81), one of his R.F. Delderfield adaptations, in which he returned to educational settings and established a willingness to reshape material.

His versatility accommodated work for children - books and series including Educating Marmalade (ITV, 1982-84) and The Boot Street Band (BBC, 1993-94) - and the adult sitcom Game On! (BBC, 1995-98), co-written with Bernadette Davis. This sitcom underlined Davies's acerbic wit and sexually-charged, nuanced characterisation. These features sparkled throughout his inventive University satire A Very Peculiar Practice (BBC, 1986-88), a landmark series packed with memorable one-liners and characters in an all-too-plausible catalogue of Higher Education mismanagement. Other original pieces included A Few Short Journeys of the Heart (BBC, tx. 10/8/1994), a challenging studio play (derived from Davies's Dirty Faxes short story collection) conflating authorship, identity, sexuality and memory in a psychological space akin to Dennis Potter. It may seem as though the distinctive voice in these pieces - tonal complexity, postmodernism and dark humour - was lost as Davies concentrated upon literary adaptation.

However, this neglects his craft as a writer-adapter able to move between the jovially satirical Lucky Sunil (BBC, tx. 17/4/1988), the darkly psychological Mother Love (BBC, 1989) and the audacious reworking of political thriller House of Cards (BBC, 1990) and sequels To Play the King (BBC1, 1993) and The Final Cut (BBC, 1995), over which Davies gained greater influence than original novelist Michael Dobbs (which is partly reflected in Dobbs's sequels).

BBC Drama in the 1990s prioritised such modern dramas over the literary adaptations and costume drama craved by Davies. He was steered away from Jane Austen for George Eliot's Middlemarch (BBC, 1994) with its clearer socio-political resonances. However, its success brought the commission for Pride and Prejudice (BBC, 1995), whose joyful confidence (with Davies keen to avoid the beautiful but rigorously stately visual style of Middlemarch) contributed to its enormous success.

He has become synonymous with distinctively personal approaches to 'classic' adaptations. His approaches can involve highlighting sexual tensions (as his critics are keen to dwell upon) but he also reshapes or invents scenes where he feels the original novelist was restricted. His statements about 'improving' originals (apart from the 'perfect' Austen) raise eyebrows, but academic studies stress that approaches to adaptations that focus on 'fidelity' are anyway dangerously reductive. While honouring the spirit of the original, he has described adaptation as interpretation akin to teaching from another angle, or having conversations with texts that still exist for others to interpret. His style is sufficiently recognisable for television profiles including a South Bank Show (ITV, tx. 17/11/2002) and a long interview with Clive Anderson (BBC, tx. 16/12/2003).

Despite cinema credits such as Bridget Jones's Diary (US/France/UK, d. Sharon Maguire, 2001), Davies prioritises television because it respects writers. Selected highlights from his prolific later career demonstrate his impact: costume dramas with tabloid-overheating sexual content such as Moll Flanders (ITV, 1996) and Tipping the Velvet (BBC, 2002) and confident reworkings of Thackeray and Trollope in Vanity Fair (BBC, 1998) and The Way We Live Now (BBC, 2001) respectively. Davies tackled Kingsley Amis's The Old Devils (BBC, 1992) and Take a Girl Like You (BBC, 2000), wrote a pulsating modern variation on Shakespeare's Othello (ITV, tx. 23/12/2001) and, with Doctor Zhivago (ITV, 2002), contended with Boris Pasternak's novel and David Lean's film. Returning to Dickens, Davies adapted Daniel Deronda (BBC, 2002) and serialised Bleak House (BBC, 2005) into a hugely successful period soap.

Recent work includes heartfelt pieces on British social shifts: The Line of Beauty (BBC, 2006) adapting Alan Hollinghurst's Thatcher-era novel, and The Chatterley Affair (BBC, tx. 20/3/2006), an original play about jurors at the 1960 Lady Chatterley's Lover trial. Broadcasters covet Davies's profile: Deronda and Zhivago were scheduled against each other, and though ITV held his adaptation of Northanger Abbey (ITV, tx. 25/3/2007) for eight years before shooting it, it was almost poached by the BBC before ITV created an Austen season around it. His originality and verve produce not simply reinterpretations of literature but truly modern television drama.

Dave Rolinson

Further reading
Sarah Cardwell, Andrew Davies (Manchester University Press, 2005).

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Educating Marmalade/ Danger: Marmalade at Work (1982-84)Educating Marmalade/ Danger: Marmalade at Work (1982-84)

Children's comedy series about the world's worst-behaved girl

Thumbnail image of House of Cards (1990)House of Cards (1990)

Andrew Davies' gripping adaptation of Michael Dobbs' political thriller

Thumbnail image of Little Dorrit (2008)Little Dorrit (2008)

Masterful adaptation of Dickens' tale of the corrupting effect of money

Thumbnail image of Middlemarch (1994)Middlemarch (1994)

Andrew Davies' dramatisation of George Eliot's classic novel

Thumbnail image of Othello (2001)Othello (2001)

Contemporary update, with Othello as the Met's first black head

Thumbnail image of Pride and Prejudice (1995)Pride and Prejudice (1995)

Andrew Davies' memorable Austen update

Thumbnail image of Signalman, The (1976)Signalman, The (1976)

Charles Dickens adaptation set in a haunted railway station

Thumbnail image of Very Peculiar Practice, A (1986-88)Very Peculiar Practice, A (1986-88)

Satirical drama series about a crisis-stricken university

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Thumbnail image of TV Literary AdaptationTV Literary Adaptation

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