TV writer and screenplay author, Andrew Davies, says: Narrative nowadays is fashionable and so is the word. It has even spread to politics and advertising: “We need a coherent narrative”, as they say.
He says: “I briefly argue that all narrative is adaptation.”
Every time a book is read it is adapted uniquely by the reader.
Indeed, he asks: Is there a such a thing as pure experience?
Andrew Davies offers detailed examples of “inter-textuality” which he kindly translates as nicking things from other people’s work.
He starts with his successful TV series: A Very Particular Practice.
“I was trying to make something unique,” including a unique mix.
This mix included the idea of the campus novel by David Lodge, and typical archetypes from medical dramas, but subverted i.e. the young doc was “emotionally fucked-up”, and not dashing.
The characters all had a “narrative of illness”, he says. Bob Buzzard, “my favourite character to write, a Thatcherite who saw the human body as a messy, inferior version of a machine,” says Andrew Davies. “He just hated people.”
He showed a clip from the TV show, A Very Peculiar Practice.
And then to Davies’ adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.
His producer and he decided Jane Austen’s novel was to do with “sex and money”.
“It’s the ‘selfish gene’ inside Darcy’s breeches…” that is driving the plot, he says. Wanting to stress the body not the mind, he devised scenes where people had had a bath etc.
Not to mention, of course, the famous scene of Darcy unbuttoning his shirt ready for a dip. (But hey, he swum clothed as the clip reminds us.)
Davies said he never conceived it as a sexy scene but rather to emphasise Darcy’s physicality and relief being back in his country pad after the artificiality of town. He wanted Colin Firth stark naked but the actor objected.
(Actor would not have got away with this if he’d been actress. Ed).
Andrew Davies’ tip: take something that has already worked, such as Shakespeare, grabbing the bits you like and recasting it as modern drama.
Especially suited for those who find inventing from scratch does not come easily, he says.
“Don’t be ashamed because ‘they’ all did it too.” Including, of course, Shakespeare.
As Davies did with his Othello, recasting him as the UK’s first black police commissioner. Davies also wanted to give Iago clearer and different motivations. So Davies recast his Iago (Jago) as superior in rank to Othello, who never saw himself as racist until Othello was promoted above him…
The Chatterly Affair was about the obscenity trial surrounding DH Lawrence’s book. Davies laughs when he tells of the praise he got from the producer for his idea of two on the jury having an affair, echoing Lawrence’s novel.
Questions from the floor reveal: Davies says he does very little research before writing and checks his facts later – “some writers get bogged down in research.”
“Just clicking with someone powerful in the business,” says Davies is what led to success. Before that, he kept getting “discovered then dropped and forgotten about for five years”.
Davies: “Always try to have something out there before something comes thudding back.”
How do you sift through huge amount of material such Vanity Fair? someone asked from the audience. He boiled down the story to bad girl, good girl, and made sure every scene related to that theme.
Another tip: ensure the resolution is in the hand of the protagonist, he says quoting screenwriter, Robert McKee.
Davies’ new adaptation, South Riding, is set in Yorkshire in the 1930s – a time of recession and poverty, in which he is trying to make “exquisite links” with the present.
He was going to do “another huge Trollope” but BBC has changed its mind, although “they will change it again,” he reckons.
The hardest bit about writing, he says, is the first page, and the usual self-doubt: “I can’t do this.”
Someone else asks for tips for getting noticed.
Davies: “Just write wonderful things.”
As his agent would often tell him:
“Talent always wins through in the end.”