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An interview with Andrew Davies

Andrew DaviesKing of the adapters Andrew Davies talks about tackling his biggest project to date -- Masterpiece Theatre's epic miniseries Bleak House -- and admits Dickens' labyrinthine plotting has almost got the better of him.

He has been dubbed the prince of period adaptations, thanks to ratings grabbing successes like Wives and Daughters, Daniel Deronda and Doctor Zhivago. But screenwriter Andrew Davies insists he is just as happy transferring more contemporary fiction to the small screen -- and he's done that often, notably with the Kingsley Amis novel Take a Girl Like You. He also contributed to the two Bridget Jones movies.

Bleak House is the latest of Davies' conveyer belt workload, which never seems to diminish, even for a man in his late sixties. Surprisingly, this is his first-ever Dickens adaptation. His next projects include adaptations of Alan Hollinghurst's 2004 Booker Prize-winning novel The Line of Beauty, set in the 1980s, and Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, published in 1811.

When it comes to period dramas, Davies is generally regarded as the master. His 1994 adaptation of George Eliot's Middlemarch seemed to bring literary costume romps back into favor and paved the way for his takes on Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Vanity Fair and Wives and Daughters, plus two lesser-known Anthony Trollope novels, The Way We Live Now and He Knew He was Right. Then of course there was his controversial adaptation of bodice-ripper Moll Flanders.

But adapting Bleak House has been a different kettle of fish for Davies. The sprawling cast includes former X-Files star Gillian Anderson as well as Alun Armstrong, Charlie Brooks, Warren Clarke, Pauline Collins, Philip Davis, Charles Dance, Matthew Kelly, Alistair McGowan, Nathaniel Parker, Hugo Speer, Liza Tarbuck, Johnny Vegas and Timothy West.

This is the first adaptation of Bleak House since the much-praised 1986 Masterpiece Theatre version, which starred Diana Rigg, and for Davies, adapting the novel about injustices of the 19th century English legal system has been a mixed blessing.

Davies is clearly an admirer of Charles Dickens' work: "On the plus side, Dickens gives you such strong lines of dialogue and there are all these wonderful, grotesque characters you can really run with," says Cardiff-born Davies.

"His novels are full of energy and are teaming with life. I love the way he makes such a rich mixture of humor, tragedy, sentiment and social indignation. You get so many different things rolled up into one great book. Dickens had such a vivid imagination and some of his characters are just extraordinary. Bleak House combines a terrific mystery with a series of love stories." "But plotwise it's a nightmare. It is so convoluted and keeps spinning off into subplots. My main concern was to keep focused on the central plot, so that the whole audience can follow along. In truth, when you get down to the finest detail, quite a bit of the plot doesn't work, so you have to straighten things out. But every problem is an opportunity in disguise and I think we've cracked it."

"The thing that was uppermost in our minds was to tell the story in a way that made people absolutely die to know what happens next. People also need to care about the characters and a lot of that comes down to the way they are played -- and we certainly have some wonderful performances."

Davies thinks the author would approve of his interpretation. "Dickens was a great performer of his own work and used to give readings. I think he would certainly appreciate the performances," he says.

"I hope he'd like the picture we've given of Dickensian London. I think he'd feel we'd hit the right notes in terms of both humor and passion."

Dickens & Davies:
An Interview with Andrew Davies | The Victorian World
Who Was Charles Dickens? | Stay Tuned for our Next Episode
Dickens and Masterpiece Theatre

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