With a credit list stretching longer than dozens of other writers combined, 80 year-old Andrew Davies knows the secrets of a good script. He tells Jesse Whittock about his writing process, how he’ll save Les Misérables from itself, and why he is planing for another productive decade
Andrew Davies has a good shout for screen’s most prolific writer of them all. Since writing his first play for radio in 1964, he has penned dozens of television plays, miniseries, long-running dramas and comedies, and a number of feature films.
His filmography includes the first two Bridget Jones movies, Brideshead Revisited and John le Carré adaptation The Tailor of Panama, but it is in television where his longevity is truly felt. His best known creations include the critically acclaimed A Very Peculiar Practice (1986-88), the original House of Cards (1990), Pride and Prejudice (1995), Game On (1995), The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders (1996), Bleak House (2005), Sense and Sensibility (2008), South Riding (2011), Mr. Selfridge (pictured below, 2013), and War and Peace (2016).
The exhaustive list even includes a credit on Netflix’s mission-defining remake of BBC miniseries House of Cards, though he openly admits his sole participation in the Beau Willimon-penned series was allowing them “to do what they liked with it in exchange for acknowledgment and quite a lot of money”.
Last year, his reworking of Leo Tolstoy’s seminal Russian novel War & Peace for BBC One in the UK and A+E Networks in the US was described by one paper as “the greatest TV costume drama of the past decade”, which is high praise in an era of many worthy contenders in the historical drama space.
“I have the same kind of process with everything I write,” he tells TBI of his writing style. “I try to immerse myself in the work and feel my way into it. I try to identify with the characters, I very much work through them and what they tell me. In War and Peace there were three characters – Natasha [Rostova], Pierre [Bezukhov] and Prince Andrei [Bolonsky] – whose stories resonated most with me, so I focused on them.”
Davies is next turning his hand to adapting another classic European novel for the BBC: Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. The series is, after War and Peace, a second collaboration with Lookout Point, which has been on a roll under Simon Vaughan and Faith Penhale. BBC Studios and The Weinstein Company’s television division are also attached.
“It’s almost a rescue mission to save Hugo’s masterpiece from the musical. People think they know Les Misérables, but they don’t.”
For Davies, the project is one his most significant, and pressing. “With Les Misérables there’s a new factor coming in [to my process], because of the fame of the musical,” he says. “It’s almost a rescue mission to save Hugo’s masterpiece from the musical. People think they know Les Misérables, but they don’t. I’m going to tell that story.”
Les Misérables will rework Hugo’s story about the original anti-hero, Jean Valjean, a criminal with a strong moral code who over many years rises through 19th century French society, while attempting to avoid the clutches of a fanatical police inspector, Javert.
“Jean Valjean is an extraordinary character,” says Davies. “He’s like a tragic Shakespearean hero because he’s grappling with the great big questions in life. Is it possible to change from a criminal to a hero?”
Extraordinary characters are synonymous with Davies’ work. His version of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders for ITV in the 1990s drew huge audiences for his version of the lovable working class criminal, while Francis Urquhart from House of Cards – originally created in Michael Dobbs’ novels – was the basis for Kevin Spacey’s villainous protagonist, Frank Underwood, in the US series.
On the subject of the Urquhart/Underwoods: how does Davies feel about the iconic British character being better known in a disguise? “Francis Urquhart is there for the taking,” he responds. “A new version had to be different by virtue of being American. Mine was a right-wing, old-fashioned Tory – an Englishman from Scotland – and it’s nice that Beau Willimon made his very specifically Southern and from much more humble roots. I was fascinated by the whole thing.”
What is perhaps more intriguing for the Wales-born writer is the platform on which the second House of Cards goes out. “I haven’t had the experience of working with Netflix, but I would love it,” he says, though he notes the process would be a very different experience, both for writer and viewer.
“I like going out on a Sunday night once a week on the BBC, and if [the show] goes well the press writing about it to create a national conversation. Netflix is more private, furtive and mysterious”
“I like going out on a Sunday night once a week on the BBC, and if [the show] goes well the press writing about it to create a national conversation. Netflix is more private, furtive and mysterious: nobody knows how many people watch it, and people watch it alone when they feel like watching.
“So far there has been space for both styles of watching. When I first starting doing shows such as Pride and Prejudice in 1995 it was getting 12 million a week, and Moll Flanders did 15 million. Those figures are no longer there, and you’re quite happy with five million and delighted with six. There are so many different ways to watch.”
Davies is open to all of them. Despite BBC Worldwide bringing Davies to Cannes in October at MIPCOM to celebrate him reaching his ninth decade, he has no plans to slow down, seeing opportunity for writers everywhere in the modern high-end drama ecosystem.
“I want to keep going,” he says. “I’ve just turned 80, but I’m hoping to have a very productive decade. War and Peace (above) was the first show I’ve done with Faith Penhale, and Les Misérables is with her too. Simon [Vaughan] has always been very smart and creative, and Lookout Point is now being very much more creative than in the past. That’s great and it’s one way in which things are changing.
“BBC Studios and ITV Studios seems to be proportionally less important, and a lot of the most interesting ideas are coming from the independent sector.”
The master scribe clearly plans to be around for some time yet.