Sanditon writer Andrew Davies lands dream job finishing Jane Austen novel
- Credit: Red Planet Pictures/ITV
Andrew Davies has had a long career turning classic literature into dynamic television. Now, with his new series Sanditon, he is getting the opportunity to finish a story by Jane Austen
Television scriptwriters are usually fairly anonymous individuals, toiling away behind the scenes, and are invariably overshadowed by the stars of their creations. But, every now and then, a writer comes along who gains a name for himself by the consistent quality of their work.
Andrew Davies is one such person. He first came to prominence for his adaptation of RF Delderfield's 1972 novel To Serve Them All My Days.
This was followed by the black comedy A Very Peculiar Practice, set in the health centre of a British university, which borrowed from his own experiences as a university lecturer. His reputation as a contemporary writer was secured when he adapted Michael Dobbs' political novel House of Cards.
But, in recent years he has become best known for a series of genre defining, high-end classic literature series starting in 1995 with Pride and Prejudice, starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle and followed up with other classics such as Middlemarch, Moll Flanders, Vanity Fair, Wives and Daughters, Tipping the Velvet, Bleak House, Northanger Abbey, A Room With a View, Fanny Hill, Sense and Sensibility, Little Dorrit, Les Miserables and War and Peace.
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Having adapted many completed works, his latest series, Sanditon, finds him completing an unfinished novel by Jane Austen.
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You are best known for your adaptations of classic novels but you started off writing the contemporary comedy drama A Very Peculiar Practice which you followed with the sharp Parliamentary satire House of Cards. How do you approach these different styles of writing?
"I do more adaptations than original work these days but when I started writing it was entirely the other way about. I suppose I was more concerned about what was going on in my head and in my life and now I am an elderly writer so nothing much happens to me anymore. I do rather enjoy it when someone else makes up the story and I then find ways to tell that story in as interesting way as possible.
"I always think of myself as being like a director or a conductor of an orchestra, you have the score but it's the way you interpret the work that allows you to make your mark. The series that is currently on ITV at the moment, Sanditon, is somewhere in between. There's more of me in there than usual because its the development of a fragment of a story that Jane Austen wrote. I am taking her characters and the outline of a story and seeing where they go. What Jane Austen wrote only lasted for the first 20 minutes of the first episode, so the rest is all me but keeping that Jane Austen flavour.
Presumably Jane Austen didn't leave any notes detailing what was going to happen next, so did you feel a sense of trepidation filling some rather iconic shoes?
"I did but only in terms of would I be able to make enough story because the producers gave me a brief that they would like to become a returning series with the first series being eight episodes. But, the making of a TV series is very collaborative and I spent a lot of time talking to the producers and the script editor exploring ideas about what might happen and the story comes out of the characters and slightly to my surprise it was easier than I expected and I really enjoyed it too. It was whole lot of fun having to work out exactly what going to happen to everyone.
One of the joys of any Jane Austen story is that they are ensemble stories where, as a writer, you can shape and develop a whole range of different characters...
"Oh yes, and this one was especially rich in interesting individuals because Sanditon was going to be a different type of subject matter for her - it's about building a town, turning a little fishing village into a full-blown seaside resort, so it becomes an English version of Boardwalk Empire or something like that.
So how did it come about? Did you approach ITV or was it the other way about?
"It was an independent company called Red Planet that first approached me. They have done things like Life on Mars and Death in Paradise, so they have a good track record, and they came to me and suggested I have look at this fragment of a story and wondered if I could finish it."
In recent years you have gained a reputation for serving up prestige literary dramas for television. Both Les Miserables and War and Peace were recent big budget successes. How do you choose what novels you want to adapt? Are they the ones where you feel you can make a mark or the ones that TV producers see as ratings winners?
"To be honest it's a bit of both. Sometimes its one and sometimes it's the other. The way it usually works is that a producer or TV company will approach me with an idea and I weigh it up and decide it I can do anything with it. Occasionally I will pitch an idea. In fact the next thing but one I am doing will be something I have been knocking back and forth for years and finally it looks like its happening and that is a series based on John Updike's Rabbit novels, there are four of them, and I have always wanted to adapt them for television, so I am excited by that.
I think one of the things that defines you literary adaptations that you give them an unfussy freshness, is that something you consciously set out to achieve?
"Not really, I suppose I can't help it. When I write anything I am writing to please myself. I am writing a programme that I would want to watch and I like stories that move along pretty quickly. I have done a few stage plays early in career and I always wondered why I never did more and I suppose its circumstance. Also, you want some guarantee that someone is going to put it on after you've spent all that time writing it. I got known for writing for television and that is where the work was and I have been very happy writing for television.
Sanditon is on ITV on Sunday evenings at 8pm.