Alex Kingston and Andrew Davies
Andrew Davies once earned his living teaching English at Warwick University, quitting in 1987 to start writing full time when his campus satire A Very Peculiar Practice proved a hit. Today he is best known as Britain's most successful adaptor of classic texts, and certainly the most prolific: Moll Flanders, Vanity Fair, Pride and Prejudice, Othello, Emma, Middlemarch, The Way We Live Now, Daniel Deronda, and Doctor Zhivago (scheduled to air on Masterpiece Theatre in November 2003) have all been sumptuously adapted for the small screen by him. The success of his work is matched only the awards he has earned for it, among them four Writers' Guild Awards, four Broadcasting Press Guild Awards, two BAFTAs, and an Emmy.
Alex Kingston grew up outside of London and, after finishing school, won a place at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. She worked in repertory theaters across England before joining the acclaimed Royal Shakespeare Company; she also starred in several productions with the Birmingham Repertory. Kingston won great critical acclaim in the title role of Masterpiece Theatre's (Andrew Davies-scripted) film Moll Flanders, but she is best known for her ongoing role as Dr. Elizabeth Corday on the American medical drama ER.
Andrew Davies admits to being attracted to strong, complex women in his writing: Elizabeth Bennett (Pride and Prejudice), Moll Flanders (Moll Flanders), Dorothea Brook (Middlemarch), Gwendolen Harleth (Daniel Deronda), and Lara Antipova (Doctor Zhivago) to name a few. These women, however, were all the products of others' imaginations initially (Jane Austen, Daniel Defoe, George Eliot, and Boris Pasternak, respectively), before Davies brought them to life on the small screen.
"I've often said that I'm not very good at stories, which is why I've done so many adaptations over the years," says Davies. "I have said in the past that generally I prefer my authors to be dead so we can't argue about the way the script is developing!"
But sometimes even Britain's most successful adaptor of novels wants to create something all his own. Enter Warrior Queen executive producer Gub Neal, who came to him with the idea of Boudica. Davies's screenplay for Warrior Queen is, for all intents and purposes, an original work: The story of Britain's first-century female warrior survives in only one paragraph from the Roman historian Tacitus.
In spite of the opportunity to craft a story and screenplay essentially from scratch, though, Davies was hesitant. ""It's not the sort of area I've been in before. It's much earlier than anything I've tackled by a long way, and large-scale battles with blood and gore are not something I've done before."
Soon enough, though, Davies was persuaded. "It's the first-person narrative of a woman, and the idea of a strong female central character certainly appealed. The more I thought about it, the more I relished the challenge."
Davies's transition from the drawing room to the Dark Ages was made easier by the fact that from early on, he knew that Alex Kingston would be in the lead role. "She had been terrific as Moll, and in a way owed her role in ER to the terrific response to Moll Flanders in the States," says Davies. "We thought there was a good chance, if Alex found a window in her very busy schedule, that she would come back and do this for us after five years in America."
He'd guessed correctly. "The project enticed me back," Kingston says. "I had built up a particularly good relationship with Gub whilst he was at Granada Television. Over the intermittent years, we spoke on occasion about other possible projects. Then, out of the blue, he came to me with the idea of doing a film about Boudica. It was a good combination that had worked so well before, so basically I agreed to do it without having seen a script -- which is either very unusual or really stupid!"
Kingston relished the idea of playing Britain's Warrior Queen. "A part like this doesn't come along often," she says. "Like most little girls, I was aware of the story of Boudica when I was at school, and knew the potted history of a woman who took her passions and beliefs into her own hands. It's a particularly wonderful story for little girls; it really captured my imagination."
Whether most little girls -- or boys, for that matter -- can imagine piloting flaming horse-drawn chariots through freezing snow and mud is anyone's guess. To play Boudica, Kingston had to do just that, simultaneously wielding a sword and spouting Davies's dialogue. Although driving the chariot transported Kingston back to another period in time, she learned the skill in that most modern of places: Los Angeles, where her instructor fashioned a wooden chariot on which the actress could practice.
The physical component of the role was, for Kingston, complemented by the social and intellectual one. She was fascinated by the history of first-century Britain and the role of women in that society. "[Boudica] lived in an amazing time when there was no prejudice in having a woman leading a tribe or clan. Part of a woman's function was, of course, to have children and raise a family, but they were also required out on the battlefield alongside their kids, fighting with the men."
It was also a brutal time, one which was a challenge to transfer to the screen. "Initially, on the first draft," Kingston explains, "the script was almost one-dimensional, without a mental and emotional journey. In some ways we were trying to make Boudica conform to today's image of a strong woman. So we looked for the middle ground of a leader who wouldn't be unsympathetic to a modern audience whilst being true to the ways of behaving that would have existed in those times.
"For example," Kingston continues, "Boudica's relationship with her teenage daughters is loving and caring in many respects, but she is also like an animal with her cubs, nurturing them but then forcing them to go off and fend for themselves. She is not overly concerned with swaddling them."
In spite of the obvious differences between contemporary society and Boudica's, screenwriter Davies couldn't help but notice similarities, too -- and work them into his script. "I will be fascinated to see the American reaction to the film," says Kingston. "Andrew, in his usual naughty way, draws modern parallels, almost putting words taken from the mouth of President Bush into the mouths of the Romans."
"[There is a] parallel between the Romans in Britain and the Americans imposing their civilization [around the world]," Davies states. In addition to the screenplay's thinly veiled reference to the conflict between the United States and Iraq, Warrior Queen's script also hints at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the tragedy of child soldiers in parts of Africa.
Kingston feels that a film about Boudica is very timely, perhaps because of some of these connections, but largely because of the story itself. "There seem to have been very few screen versions of her story, but strangely, when we were developing the idea, I suddenly got a lot of people contacting me with Boudica ideas," she says. "It's a story that lends itself very well to the big screen."
Gub Neal agrees: "The recent popularity of films revolving around ancient conflicts, such as Gladiator and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, gives Warrior Queen a good chance of success.... It's epic in scale, and it's got battles. It's clear that there's an interest at the moment in historical films with clashing armies!
"The other good thing about Warrior Queen," says Neal with regard to the film's potential for success, "is that there's a romping good story there."
Essays + Interviews:
Brutality and passion | Alex Kingston and Andrew Davies
The legend of Boudica
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