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An Interview with Andrew Davies, screenwriter

Andrew Davies Andrew Davies is the screenwriting genius behind some of Masterpiece Theatre's best-loved productions: Middlemarch, the House of Cards trilogy, Moll Flanders, and A Rather English Marriage. Later this spring, Masterpiece Theatre will present Davies's dramatization of the classic Kingsley Amis novel, Take a Girl Like You. And the 2001/2002 season will feature his updated version of Othello, set in Scotland Yard.

Davies's previous credits include adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Vanity Fair. He penned the upcoming theatrical film Bridget Jones's Diary with Helen Fielding (of original novel fame) and Richard Curtis (of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill fame). And he is currently working on a screenplay of Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now.

Davies (pronounced 'Davis') recently answered questions about Wives and Daughters and its relatively unknown author, Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-65), universally known as 'Mrs. Gaskell.'

Why do you think Mrs. Gaskell is such a well-kept secret?

I think it's because she wrote a number of different kinds of novels, unlike Jane Austen who wrote six novels that are all very much like each other. When I was a kid - and I'm 64 now - Mrs. Gaskell was known for a book called Cranford, which was a very gentle book about the gossips in a little country town. And then later I learned that she is quite well known in academic circles for writing political novels about the condition of working class women and strikes in factories and that kind of thing. It's hard to put her in a pigeonhole.

How would you rank her with the great novelists of her era?

I myself think that Wives and Daughters was the one where she really hit greatness. It's right up there with Jane Austen and George Eliot. It's got terrific insight and sympathy, and beautifully, subtly drawn characters. It's not as well known as it should be because she never finished it, and so there was always that handicap to calling it a great novel.

Did she leave any notes on what she intended?

Yes, she did. She certainly intended a happy ending, and that Roger and Molly would finally get together. She finished writing it more or less where Molly is waving good-bye to Roger from the window as he's going off again to Africa. She was going to leave it another year or two before they got together again. I just couldn't bear that and neither could anybody else working on the production. Our reaction was: "Come on, Molly, run after him! Let's get this thing settled!" So that's what we did.

How did this particular production get off the ground?

I'd done Pride and Prejudice. I'd done Middlemarch. I'd done Emma. I'd done Vanity Fair. What was I going to do next? Actually, I heard from a woman called Joan Leach, who runs the Gaskell Society, asking if I didn't think it was time I did something by Mrs. Gaskell and suggesting Wives and Daughters. So I took it away with me on holiday and read it, and when I came back I suggested it to the BBC. It turned out they had already thought that it might make a good one.

Tell us about Molly.

I think she's just utterly lovable, really. It's a pretty close run between her and Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice for the most appealing heroine in English literature. I'm the father of a daughter, and Molly brought out those feelings in me. You feel very protective towards her, even though she can stick up for herself. She's not the prettiest girl in the story, and you sympathize with her when all these chaps look past her and see Cynthia and immediately stop paying her any attention.

When we meet Cynthia, we're prepared for the sparks to fly between her and Molly, but it doesn't happen that way, does it?

No, that's right. They're complete opposites, but they actually find they like each other very much. I'm sure that if Cynthia was in a George Eliot novel, she'd get no sympathy at all, because George Eliot was always down on these very attractive, flighty, selfish, pretty girls who get all the men, whereas Gaskell makes Cynthia very real and three-dimensional. We can see her problems and get to love her, just as Molly does. Gaskell does a similar thing with the land agent Preston. In a lot of people's novels, he'd be a rather two-dimensional villain, whereas in this one we can see what has made him like this and how his suffering is really genuine.

Roger's brother, Osborne, is also a complex fellow.

Yes, he is! He was the character who gave me the most problem with the script, because when I read the book, I thought: "My God! This is the first gay character in 19th-century literature!" Then I thought: "No, it couldn't be." You get the feeling when Osborne comes on that the revelation about him is going to be that he's gay, because in the book he really is quite effeminate in his manner. He seems to be a caricature of a gay character. He's always talking about the opera, he's very good with older ladies, he has a very close relationship with his mother, he can't stand his father. The secret French wife and the child seemed a bit unlikely to me, and so I tried to make him more Keatsian - not a drooping spirit, but a passionate, poetic character, who just had the bad luck to have a growing and fatal illness.

Did other characters give you problems?

No, everything else was just about perfect. One thing that's nice about this novel is that Gaskell writes beautiful dialogue that differentiates the characters to a large extent. It was interesting that in England when this film came out a couple of critics complained that the dialogue sounded too modern. They quoted phrases that in fact I'd copied straight out of the book!

One thing that puzzled me was at the beginning when Mrs. Kirkpatrick steals the food that has been left for Molly.

We had quite a little debate about that incident. When I read it in the book, I was thinking that she was eating it up herself so that Lady Harriet's kindness wouldn't be seen to have been wasted. But all the women who were working on the production said, no, that this is a big symbolic event, and that Mrs. Kirkpatrick is going to eventually consume all of Molly's happiness. It's a symbolic kind of eating.

You've adapted quite a few great authors. Are there any that you'd be reluctant to take on?

I suppose I'd be reluctant to tackle Henry James. He's a bit precious and long-winded for my taste. Somebody once asked me if I would like to adapt Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne, and I said, "No way!" There's just no story; it's all about style. From the point of view of television adaptation, the wonderful thing about these great 19th-century novelists is that they really knew how to tell a story. There's just tons more strong, deep story than there is in most modern novels.

How do you account for the very modern appeal of Wives and Daughters?

It's a situation that can appeal to audiences today because, in a way, it's about second families, isn't it? In the book, of course, you've got second families because of people dying young. Nowadays, it's because of divorce and remarriage. But the problems are the same, aren't they?

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