Austen, Dickens and Another Wet Shirt

As the nights draw in and a Dickensian fog descends over York, you know it’s costume drama time on the BBC. And if you’re watching a TV adaptation of a literary great, chances are you’re watching something penned by Andrew Davies. 

Davies has provided us with many engaging and memorable literary adaptations over the years, including Middlemarch, Vanity Fair, Sense and Sensibility, Wives and Daughters, House of Cards and Dr Zhivago, and has also been involved in feature films such as Brideshead Revisited, which is currently showing in UK cinemas.  The influence of these productions has been such that Davies, the bloke behind the bonnets, was listed as number 48 on the 2008 Telegraph’s list ‘the 100 most powerful people in British culture.

The heaving lecture Davies gave at York is testament to the broad and enduring appeal of his work. There can be no doubt that he has helped to introduce new audiences to the great literary giants and their novels.  After each adaptation, booksellers report a dramatic increase in sales of the novels.  

What’s more, there is often a topical punch embedded within Davies’ work.  His adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, for example, managed to evoke a striking parallel between Trollope’s garish character Augustus Melmotte and the contemporary story of Robert Maxwell, while his update of Othello shaped a modern story of race and prejudice and race relations.  

Little Dorrit, currently airing on the BBC, is a Dickensian tale of times of financial debt and social responsibility which resonates with our modern financial climate.  ‘I’m still in the throes of excitement about it,’ Davies said, ‘I think it’s an absolutely wonderful novel.  It covers the whole range of society from the very rich to the very poor… but also, there’s a lovely, very slow-burning love story…and a whole gallery of eccentric and wonderfully funny characters.’  

Davies has been criticised for an overly populist approach and for employing excessive artistic license in tidying up and sexing up the original novel. He freely admits to inventing new scenes.  ‘People say ‘why do you take all these liberties?’ I only do it because I have to, what I’d really like to do is copy the original novel… I do look at critics’ stuff – but most modern criticism is just really up its own arse and not very useful. Often I’m just trying to make sense of the story.”

Davies highlights his 2007 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility and the alterations he made, “I hate the way people have a sneaking sympathy for Willoughby, so I decided he would be exposed in my version. He’s charming and bad, a glamorous shit – so you can just copy him out of the book. But the nice honourable men are terribly underwritten – I was bit cross with Jane Austen! So one has to write some scenes and make Edward into the sort of bloke women in the audience will find attractive.”

Davies created a ‘wet-shirt’ scene for Edward, evoking his legendry and provocative vision of Mr Darcy emerging from a lake in a clinging, dripping wet shirt and breeches. In Sense and Sensibility Edward was sexed up in the masculine log splitting scene, where he was drenched by the Devonshire rain.  The sole aim was to give Edward the same image as Darcy’s smouldering manhood to the nation’s female population.

His Sense and Sensibility also infamously started with a sex scene, the seduction of a young schoolgirl by the dastardly Willoughby. The scene isn’t actually written by Austen, but is reported in the novel, and Davies points out that, “Austen is pretty straightforward about sex.” 

Davies claims that Dr Zhivago was probably the most challenging of all his adaptations, mainly because so many scenes are mere implications. ‘Boris Pasternak never writes the scenes you want him to write at all.  I realised that one has to create the whole thing almost, from implications that Pasternak gives you.  It was very good fun to do but terribly, terribly hard.’

It seems a certain straightforwardness of writing appeals to Davies; he finds Virginia Woolf “a bit opaque”, Henry James “a bit tedious” and Thomas Hardy “bloody miserable”. Dickens, by contrast, is “so much fun”. Davies explained that he overcame initial worries about Dickens novels being sensationally exaggerated and embraced the eccentric characters and rich plots of his “absolutely wonderful novels”.

Little Dorrit was offered to Davies “like a present” after the success of Bleak House, and takes the same soap opera format, of half hourly episodes shown twice a week. This had implications on his production, forcing him to ‘soapify’ the story and effecting a “radical re-gig” of the various storylines and characters to keep the audience interested. Davies admitted that originally he was pessimistic about the half-hourly format. In his opinion the style wouldn’t work successfully with many authors, but that within Dickens it was “easy enough to work climaxes into every half hour”. However, Davies declared he still preferred to watch the Sunday night double-bill, joking that he “preferred to dominate Sunday nights throughout autumn”.

For many of us, chilly autumn Sunday nights’ are all about settling down in front of the television for some high quality literary adaptation, and the odd wet shirt, of course.