For him, it's all a matter of adapting

Special to The Times

It's hard for American viewers to grasp the near-monopoly that a single screenwriter can exert on a nation's TV drama in the way Andrew Davies does in Britain.

You want a multi-part costume drama? Davies is your man. An entertaining adaptation of a literary classic? He is the name at the top of all British broadcasters' lists. He's not only gifted, he's also prolific -- which adds to the impression that Davies is the only game in town.

It has been this way since the mid-1990s, when Davies pulled off two astonishing coups in consecutive years. In 1994 the BBC aired his critically acclaimed adaptation of "Middlemarch," George Eliot's dauntingly complex Victorian novel about the inhabitants of a town in the English Midlands. The following year Davies unveiled his miniseries version of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice." It was a phenomenon, making Colin Firth, who played its smoldering hero Mr. Darcy, a household name in Britain. The BBC cleaned up with "Pride and Prejudice," selling broadcasting rights all over the world; the video still notches up healthy sales today.

Davies' latest adaptation, of Eliot's Victorian novel "Daniel Deronda," can be seen tonight and Monday on KCET.

"After 'Pride and Prejudice,' I thought, yes, I probably am becoming first choice," Davies reflected modestly. "When I first started doing adaptations, there were other people in the field. I knew if I was offered something, it had probably [already] gone to two or three others.

"But 'Pride and Prejudice' was a phenomenal success. It got a huge prime-time audience. And that was when ITV started thinking: 'We should do some of those ourselves,' " he said of the BBC's commercial rival broadcaster. "They asked me to adapt 'Moll Flanders,' which was also a hit. It's a nice feeling."

A perusal of Davies' resume confirms his career is remarkable in its own right. But there is an additional factor: He is a late bloomer. Now 66, he gave up teaching trainee teachers to became a full-time writer when he was 50.

For a man so attuned to British tastes, it's fitting that he lives in the heart of England, in this attractive Warwickshire market town. Tourist agencies call this area "Shakespeare Country" after another popular, prolific dramatist. Davies and his artist wife, Diana, appear to inhabit a large, semidetached 1930s house with mock Tudor beams; but they also own the adjoining house, where he writes and she has a studio. They chose not to make huge structural alterations in the houses, so one moves between them by passing through an upstairs closet that shares walls with the two houses.

Davies is a healthy-looking individual with a light tan and close-cropped, receding white hair. He is agreeable company and talks in amused, ironic tones. He sounds puzzled when speaking of his success, but the facts are undeniable: After "Middlemarch," "Pride and Prejudice" and "Moll Flanders" (with Alex Kingston, quickly snapped up for the "E.R." cast, in the title role), Davies actually stepped up his already prodigious work rate.

For ITV he wrote a two-hour adaptation of Austen's "Emma" (1997), starring Kate Beckinsale and Samantha Morton. The next year saw his BBC miniseries version of Thackeray's novel "Vanity Fair," with its forbidding heroine Becky Sharp; in 1999 his BBC adaptation of "Wives and Daughters" sent viewers back to the original novel, by the largely forgotten Victorian writer Mrs. Gaskell. He maintained his pace past the millennium, with his script for a miniseries of Trollope's Victorian masterpiece "The Way We Live Now" that conveyed stern warnings about modern greed and excess.

Last November, Davies was in the odd position of having written two high-profile adaptations scheduled to be shown simultaneously by rival broadcasters: "Daniel Deronda" for the BBC and Boris Pasternak's "Doctor Zhivago" for ITV. The possibility of head-to-head airings was averted when the BBC switched "Deronda," the more rigorous and less accessible work, to another night. It earned a laudable 25% audience share.

Most of his work, then, has been long-form TV drama. "That's not necessarily what I prefer, especially when I'm starting out," he noted. "It can seem a long haul. But I like the sense of reaching a big British audience, and most films don't do that. It's only big blockbuster movies that lots of people see.

"The status of the writer in TV is much better. One has more control and clout over how things are done. In films generally, the writer's a hired hand. There's only so much money in British TV, so once they spend money on a script, they'll probably make it. In film, years can go by till the casting is right. Once they decide to do something in TV, there's a filming date, and they just cast the best people available at the time, who are often as good as if they'd waited."

Some five or six years ago, Hollywood studios were courting him. He wrote four screenplays in a year, but just one, the spy thriller "The Tailor of Panama," got made. "I was the first writer on that, and it was heavily rewritten by the director [John Boorman] and by [author] John Le Carre himself," Davies recalled. "I got paid all right, but it wasn't my work that got on the screen -- which is another reason to prefer TV."

Not that Davies is averse to reworking or finding new emphases in original texts. He likes to strip a story to its essentials and concentrate on what it is really about. Indeed, some British critics complain that he dwells too long on the submerged sexual content of the period dramas he adapts; for his part, he called David Lean's film of "Doctor Zhivago" "asexual."

A matter of identity

He has a radical take on "Daniel Deronda," about a young Victorian Englishman who discovers his Jewishness: "The established critical view, handed down from people like F.R. Leavis, is that Daniel is too much an idealized creation, that the Jewish bits in the novel are full of worthy thoughts that don't come across well, but that [the heroine] Gwendolen's story is a magnificent portrait of a bad marriage. I worked closely with the producer, Louis Marks, who's Jewish. He had a totally different view of the novel. He thinks it's more perfect than even I think it is. We decided I should really have a go at Daniel's story, which is about self-discovery."

In Eliot's novel, Deronda is initially smitten with the haughty, married Gwendolen, but as he learns more about his own Jewish heritage, he starts to admit his feelings for Mirah, a young Jewish woman. Whom will Deronda choose? "The hard thing," admitted Davies, "is to make the audience feel he's made the right choice."

Davies still sounds tentative about the quality of his work, a throwback to the day 16 years ago when he finally quit teaching for full-time writing. "The immediate effect of not going to work was scary," he said. "I got writers' block. I had no ideas whatever. It was like a mild depression. I found myself totally uninteresting, and I couldn't think properly. But it only lasted about six weeks. It was partly fear, and partly having been going into a university and bouncing your brain off other people, compared with the loneliness of coming downstairs and staring at a blank screen."

Clearly he overcame those fears; he is now renowned for his speed and formidable output. "I allow roughly four weeks per one-hour episode, and hope to get it done in three," he noted. "If I seem prolific, it may be that I write good first drafts. They're usually pretty much there. My rewrites are fine-tuning rather than curing major structural flaws. Everyone tells me I'm fast compared to other writers, but I don't feel quick to myself, particularly the first 10 or 20 pages. I sometimes have days when I finish with less than I did the day before."

Davies is old enough to qualify as a senior citizen but has no plans for retirement. "I keep trying to make myself slow down, but I never do. I'd really like to have the discipline to stop [adaptations] for a while and do some original things, see if I have anything to say. I just hope no one offers me 'War and Peace.' I'd probably say yes, thinking if I didn't do it someone else would, and then get it wrong."

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Six degrees of adaptation

Andrew Davies agreed to critique half a dozen of the works he had adapted for screen:

Vanity Fair (A&E;, 1998): "This one's my favorite, because it was directed with such extraordinary originality by Mark Munden. He was so inventive, strange and unexpected. It certainly wasn't one of my most popular adaptations, which has a lot to do with the book itself. Becky Sharp is dishonest, she betrays her friends, she's unfaithful to her husband. And Mark didn't try to make her more appealing than she was. I imagined when I was writing it that Becky would be cheeky, forceful, outgoing and would get men by sheer determination and force of energy. Natasha [Little] did it differently. She stepped back and drew them in. That is, of course, how women do get men."

Middlemarch (PBS, 1994): "It's a huge book. I remember thinking it was like trying to get an elephant into a suitcase, there was so much plot. It was difficult but mostly a pleasure. I had battles with Anthony Page, who directed it. He's principally a theater director and he has tremendous respect for the word, so he'd say, 'Oh, you must have all this passage in,' and I'd say, 'No, we can do that with a single look.' It seemed to be the wrong way round."

The Way We Live Now (BBC, 2001): "I wrote it around the time the dot-com bubble was bursting. It was this idea of people pouring money into the stock market. I was also thinking of Robert Maxwell, which wasn't strictly contemporary. Also I slipped in a bit of homage to the film 'Wall Street' -- 'greed is good.' "

Moll Flanders (PBS, 1996): "I finally decided I was going to take big liberties with the book. It's so crammed with incidents, you're not going to get them all in. So it was a case of choosing aspects of the book, or little plot lines. In the book, Moll teams up for quite a while with a woman pickpocket and they get close. I thought it would be fun after all her affairs if she had one with a woman. It was sort of liberating and good fun. But the love affair with this woman wasn't in the book. You couldn't risk it with Jane Austen, because there are so many Austen purists, and they'd be banging on my door. There aren't so many Defoe purists."

Pride and Prejudice (A&E;, 1995): "I wanted to make the spine of the story about sex and money, about Darcy's sexual desire for Elizabeth Bennet. Which is what it is. I don't think we were doing anything that's not in the book. It wasn't just about stuffed shirts standing around making polite conversation. There were lots of opportunities for piercing glances, but we also wanted to remind viewers that these characters had bodies. So for the girls, we put in a lot of backstage scenes where they talked about the meaning of life in their nighties. For the boys, lots of strenuous swimming and sweating and horse-riding."

Bridget Jones's Diary (feature film, 2001): "Helen Fielding, who wrote the novel, was the first writer. When I got her script it was very funny, like the book, but it still hadn't decided what it was. The book is a diary of a whole year, and it didn't have much shape. In meetings, I argued strongly that it should be a romantic comedy. It's loosely based on 'Pride and Prejudice' and ought to be more like 'Pride and Prejudice' in its rhythms. Mark ought to be more like Mr. Darcy and we should work toward a conclusion between two people who see themselves as antagonists. [The production company] Working Title wanted more of a structure. But by the time Richard Curtis had done his polish -- he stripped the dialogue off, left the structure -- very few lines in the script were mine. But I didn't mind by that time. I spent time working with [Fielding], which was enjoyable. So we did a fair bit of drinking Chardonnay, hanging out and laughing."

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'Masterpiece Theatre: Daniel Deronda'

When: Tonight and Monday, 9-11 p.m.

Channel: KCET and KVCR

Rating: PBS has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

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