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For him, it's all a matter of adapting

March 30, 2003|David Gritten | Special to The Times

Kenilworth, England — 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."

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