Master adapter gets real
Welsh screenwriter Andrew Davies is primarily known for his superb adaptations of literary classics. Among his many, many TV credits are To Serve Them All My Days, House of Cards (the original version), The Old Devils, Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice, Moll Flanders, Vanity Fair, Doctor Zhivago, Tipping The Velvet, He Knew He Was Right, Bleak House, A Room with a View, Sense and Sensibility, Little Dorrit and the in-production War and Peace.
To this list must be added film credits such as Circle of Friends, The Tailor of Panama, the two Bridget Jones movies and Brideshead Revisited – confirming the view that Davies could probably adapt any book on the planet.
In a 2014 interview Davies was asked why he invested so much time on adaptations and came up with a beautifully succinct answer – that “fuck all happens to you” when you are a full-time writer. “There was plenty of material in the early days about infidelity, friction and all those kind of things. But I’ve settled down to a very even plane. So I haven’t really got material I would want to write about from my own life.”
As if to support this observation, one of Davies’ most famous original creations was A Very Peculiar Practice, a 1980s drama about a young doctor who takes up a post as a member of a university medical centre. This series, reportedly, was based on Davies’ experiences as a lecturer at Warwick University. In hindsight, it’s remarkable that Davies didn’t become a full-time writer until 1987, aged 50 – juggling his teaching responsibilities with a burgeoning career as a TV writer.
While Davies’ work on War and Peace shows that he continues to be in demand as a novel adapter, he has entered an interesting new dimension in his work in recent years – dramas based on real lives. The link is obvious, which is that both areas provide source material to work with. But the beauty of the real-life/biopic format is that Davies can take greater liberties with storytelling. On the one hand, he doesn’t have to try to shoehorn any book-based dialogue into his screenplay. On the other, he can enter the central character’s story wherever he chooses, taking a pivotal period in their life and using it as the starting point to provide a coherent character analysis.
ITV’s Mr Selfridge, for example, focuses on Harry Selfridge as he begins setting up Selfridge’s department store in London. But TV movie A Poet in New York looks at Welsh poet Dylan Thomas as he moves towards his untimely death (aged 39).
The idea for the Dylan Thomas project was initially brought to Davies by comedian/presenter/producer Griff Rhys Jones via his indie company Modern TV. Davies has talked about it in affectionate terms because of similarities between his own upbringing and that of Thomas. With both Welsh and born into teaching families, Davies says Thomas was “very big in my life.”
Now, Davies is writing another film-length biopic about a Welsh icon, Aneurin (Nye) Bevan. Once again the idea, entitled A Nation’s Health, has come to him via Modern, and once again he will take a tangential look at his central character’s life.
Bevan is best known as the post-Second World War health minister who founded the UK’s National Health Service in 1948. But that could potentially make for quite a dry piece of TV. So Davies is going to drive the narrative along by focusing on Bevan’s fiery romance with his wife Jennie Lee. Speaking to The Sunday Times, he said: “I want it to be both personal and political. They would argue a lot. She kept him socialist and would have the last word on political matters, last thing at night in bed.”
The timing of the project is interesting, given the polarisation of British politics being witnessed at present. With the BBC also at loggerheads with the UK government over its future funding model and the question of impartiality, telling the story of an ardent Tory-hating socialist could be seen as bear-baiting. So the way Davies handles the story will attract close attention. That said, Davies is the man who adapted Michael Dobbs’ wicked political satire House of Cards for TV, so if anyone can steer a steady course through political controversy it’s him.
There was good news for another of the UK’s screenwriting titans this week with Stephen Poliakoff’s Closer to the Enemy being picked up by pay TV channel Starz in the US.
The six-part series, distributed by All3Media International, is a post-Second World War thriller that sees actor Jim Sturgess playing British intelligence officer Captain Callum Ferguson. Ferguson’s final task for the Army is to convince a captured German scientist (August Diehl) to hand over cutting-edge military technology crucial to national security – the jet engine.
The show will premiere in the UK on BBC2 before appearing next year on Starz, which previously picked up The Missing from All3. Stephen Driscoll, senior VP for sales at the distributor said: “Stephen Poliakoff and this wonderful cast of actors are creating a thrilling miniseries that will enthral audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. We look forward to announcing further deals in the near future.”
Still in the US, there was news this week that Kevin Williamson (Dawson’s Creek, Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer) has been commissioned to write the script for Time After Time, a TV adaptation of the 1979 novel of the same name by Karl Alexander.
Time After Time, which has already been adapted as a movie, imagines a world in which author HG Wells has invented a time machine that is then stolen by Jack the Ripper. Wells pursues the Ripper to 1979 in a bid to bring him to justice. Williamson is writing the script for Warner Brothers TV with Disney-owned ABC the commissioning network.
Another interesting story to come out of the US is a new Directors Guild of America (DGA) study that shows TV series with female showrunners are more likely to employ female writers, directors, editors and actresses than those exclusively run by men: “The findings suggest that creators and executive producers play an instrumental role in shifting the gender dynamics,” says the report’s author, Dr Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.
“For example, on broadcast programmes with at least one female creator, women comprised 50% of writers. On programmes with no female creators, women comprised 15% of writers.” It’s not too surprising, but this kind of statistic clearly warrants attention.
tagged in: A Nation’s Health, All3Media International, Andrew Davies, Closer to the Enemy, Directors Guild of America, Kevin Williamson, Starz, Stephen Driscoll, Stephen Poliakoff, Time After Time, War and Peace