Sandy Welch began her work in the film industry at university. She moved on to editing before attending the UK's National Film and Television School, during which time she began writing. In addition to successful literary adaptations (Our Mutual Friend, North & South, Jane Eyre and Emma), Welch has also written several original works including Tears Before Bedtime and Magnificent Seven. Welch lives in London with her two children.
Masterpiece fans have screenwriter Sandy Welch to thank for spellbinding adaptations of Jane Eyre and Our Mutual Friend. Armed with questions from Masterpiece's Facebook and Twitter communities, Richard Maurer talked to Welch in November, 2009 about her buoyant new adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma.
Select a topic from the list below to see Welch's thoughts, or choose Show All to see the entire interview.
The Back Story and Inspiration for a New Emma
It is rumored you were commissioned to write an Emma script in the mid-1990s. Is this new adaptation from the same script, an updated one, or an entirely new one?
I was going to write a five-part adaptation of Emma for the BBC. Then a different production for British television was announced and also the Gwyneth Paltrow one, although I don't think it was her film at that point. The BBC said, "How quickly can you write it, because we'll do one too?" I said, "No, I don't want to carry on, because it's not a race, and we certainly don't need three of them!" So I stopped, but I had hardly started. I had written about twenty minutes of the first episode. So this script is in no way something that's been sitting in my drawer and then dug out again.
Did you see Clueless, the Emma-inspired teen film set in Beverley Hills in the 1990s? If so, did it influence your Emma?
I saw it when it was on at the cinema here and really loved it. One of the great things about Clueless was the sweet nature of the Emma character. Emma has always been seen as a tricky character. She's not as subservient as some of the other Austen heroines. I thought that if I could do something similar and emphasize her good nature, then I could bypass what might be seen as the more unpleasant characteristics, like her meddling and her opinion that she's right about everything.
Crafting a Unique, New Adaptation
In many ways, this is a more modern adaptation of Emma, especially in terms of language and behavior. What did you want to do differently?
I wanted to emphasize what I see as a very modern quality in Jane Austen's work. The characters in it all resemble a species that we know. They think in the same way we do, and they act in the same way. There's an accessibility to the intelligence of her characters and the intelligence of her storytelling, which I think is why she's such a beloved author and so enduring. Rather than thinking how can I do this differently, I was trying to reflect what I see as her modern sensibility.
Were you also trying to emphasize the emotional aspects of the story?
That's another thing in all her novels: the emotions of the heroine and of all the major characters are very brilliantly portrayed and very accessible to the reader. It's obvious that when you dramatize a book, you need to be able to tap into that. In the novel, you're always feeling what Emma's feeling; and of all of Jane Austen's heroes, Knightley is probably the one that you know most about in emotional terms. You don't know a huge amount, but you know more about him than say Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, or any of the other heroes.
You use voiceover in an interesting way — with both Mr. Knightley and Emma serving as narrators at different points. What was your inspiration for this?
One of the difficult things to tackle in Emma is that the story in the book starts with Mrs. Weston's wedding, and then as you go along you hear the back story in all sorts of ways. It's very difficult to establish the longstanding relationship between Mr. Knightley and Emma like that. But it is essential for the romance; otherwise, you don't know who this man is who lives next door, who keeps appearing and telling her off. So the idea was to use Knightley's voiceover in the beginning of the film to tell the story of Emma's early years, establishing Knightley as someone who's very much part of Emma's life, and also in a way her guardian angel.
Then there's voiceover for Emma when she's thinking about Frank Churchill. For me, it was very important to try and get this idea of Emma not really being in love with Frank, which we are privy to in the book, but which is very difficult to dramatize. So the essential reason for those voiceovers is that given four hours, one should try to do things that you can't achieve in two — to go beyond the basic story and highlight the interesting subtleties about characters.
There is a wonderful ball sequence where a great deal happens. Could you talk about your approach to it?
The ball is a huge breakthrough in the book and so was always going to be a big set piece — in fact, the big set piece of the show. So quite a lot of thought went into that. Because Highbury is a country town, there should be a homemade quality to the ball. That was our starting point. The idea was for it to be very informal as opposed to what one might call a traditional Austen ball. Everything else came from there.
At one point Jane Austen wrote that she was a creating a heroine "whom no one but myself will much like." Is it really that hard to like Emma?
I often wonder about that statement — that no one is going to like her but me. Jane Austen clearly likes Emma, and she wants us to like her. I think she's set out to create a character who did not have any of the restrictions that her other heroines had. All of the other heroines have money problems; none of them can pursue their heart for all sorts of reasons. But Emma is unrestricted; she's got everything. So how is she going to proceed? That is the premise for the novel. Even when she meddles in people's lives, she does truly, honestly feel that they are going to benefit. You brought up Clueless, and what that film says is that there can be well-meaning snobbishness — the attitude that, "Well, doesn't everyone think like this?" as opposed to an obsession with getting one's own way with everything. I don't know whether this is a male or female thing, but I've always liked Emma very much, and she and Lizzy Bennet are easily my favorite Austen heroines.
Austenites love Knightley, even though he can be emotionally distant. What is his appeal?
Well, apart from Jonny's obvious appeal [laughs], I think Knightley is absolutely honest and absolutely looking out for Emma. He's not just polite; he takes her on. There's a feeling he is her moral compass. Also he is very funny; they are equal wits and equally intelligent.
I think another part of his appeal is that he has always been there, just up the road. He is her ideal mate in plain sight, but she hasn't realized it yet and she has to grow up. That's the story of the book of course — Emma growing up.
In many ways, Emma seems to be Mr. Knightley's equal in this production. What are your thoughts about this?
The fallacy is to think that Emma is always rushing about doing the wrong thing, and that Mr. Knightley is always right. The big argument between them about Robert Martin's proposal to Harriet shows that they both have equal prejudices. She has some very sound things to say about the world: that men do like pretty girls, for instance. Her arguments are not stupid. On the other hand, he becomes quite un-gentlemanly as far as Harriet is concerned, which is very unlike him. So he's not always right, either. Theirs is a safe relationship, where you can have an argument with somebody within the family, and you know it's not going to be the end of your relationship. That was a very important thing to establish between Emma and Knightley — to show that it's not like Elizabeth Bennet meeting Darcy across a ballroom and being snubbed. It's a relationship of equals.
You've written screenplays for 19th-century classics and also modern works. Do they pose different problems?
There's no mistake about why 19th-century classics succeed on television: they all have complicated plots, which last several episodes, and they have great characters. Modern works also do. It's just that 20th- and 21st-century works happen inside the characters' heads so much of the time that the dramatization can be more difficult.
Is there one great classic you're dying to adapt?
There are loads. War and Peace would be great; now that we've got CGI, maybe it's possible. And I've always loved A Town Like Alice. And A Tale of Two Cities — I love that. When I finish something people say, "What would you like to do next?" And then I wheel out this long list, which for some reason or another can't be done yet.