Down the decades, British television has thoroughly enjoyed a good literary adaptation.
But the last 20 years have seen a particularly marked resurgence in the field, spearheaded by the phenomenal success of the BBC’s 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice, starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle and scripted by Andrew Davies. In the wake of that production, Davies became the go-to guy for sharp, intelligent, accessible TV adaptations of classic literature, racking up a whole swathe of them including Moll Flanders (1996), Vanity Fair (1998), The Way We Live Now (2001), Bleak House (2005) and Sense and Sensibility (2008).
During 1999, in the midst of all this frantic activity, Davies embarked on a major TV adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s unfinished final novel Wives and Daughters for the BBC. The initial impetus for it came from an surprising source: he was approached direct by Joan Leach, founder of the official Gaskell Society, who felt strongly that it would be worth adapting.
“It was suggested to me by the Gaskell Society,” Davies says. “I think broadcasters had neglected it previously because Gaskell died before she could finish it, and so that left any adapter with work to do.” At Leach’s urging, Davies took the novel away with him to read on holiday, and when he returned he was eager to pitch the project to the BBC.
“I’d never read it, and when I did I thought it was wonderful, the best of her novels that I’d read. I found Cranford too tedious and parochial, and North and South, Mary Barton etc good but a bit earnest. Wives and Daughters felt much richer and more subtle.”
All these years later, Davies’ admiration for Gaskell’s novel still shines strong.“In Wives and Daughters in particular she seems almost Tolstoyan in her depth and breadth of sympathy. Think what George Eliot would have done with flighty Cynthia – Gaskell makes us understand her and love her. Her characters are so complex. Take Preston, for example – again an apparent baddie who we come to see as a sympathetic character. I love her grasp of different kinds of intelligence – Osborne’s flaky brilliance contracted with his brother’s slowly developing steady intellect. Also, such a wonderful father-daughter relationship. Tolstoy can do that too, but Gaskell goes so deep and puts Molly and Mr G through such stringent stress-tests.”
Davies’ resulting TV version, with a starry cast headed by Francesca Annis, Keeley Hawes and Bill Paterson, was another sizeable hit, and it’s a production of which he remains proud. “I’ve just been looking at our adaptation again. It’s a little slow in pace, but none the worse for that. The performances are wonderful, and I think still stands up very well.”
Gaskell’s other major novels Cranford and North and South were adapted for television soon after, but Davies himself wasn’t involved, and has no great regrets about that. “I might have wanted to adapt one of the others before, but having been lucky enough to adapt the best I wouldn’t want to work on one of the, in my opinion, inferior works.”
Gaskell died in 1865, exactly 150 years ago, and to mark the anniversary this year’s Manchester Literature Festival is celebrating her life and work with several events: a walking tour of key sites on October 13, a coach tour on October 18 and, on October 20, an evening at the 19th century Portico Library arranged in conjunction with the Gaskell Society, dedicated entirely to Wives and Daughters. Dramatised excerpts will be performed by the Garrick Players, and Davies will be present to sing the novel’s praises.
By his own admission, Davies doesn’t usually feel the need to gain a deeper understanding of the classic writers whose work he’s adapted. “Generally I just work from the novels themselves, I don’t think knowing them generally helps. But I did read Jenny Uglow’s biography of Elizabeth Gaskell. Incidentally, Jenny was our expert adviser on the serial and we were very lucky to have her.”
Equally, he hasn’t felt compelled to visit Elizabeth Gaskell’s former house on Plymouth Grove in Manchester, which is now re-opened to the public. “I haven’t been there and nor do I plan to. If I were to write something about her, it would be interesting go there.”
Understandably, Davies has found that the work of adapting a great novel often changes his relationship to it forever. “I find that once I have adapted a book, I don’t want to revisit it. I don’t know why, maybe out of fear that I’d find I got it all wrong. But I do feel this reluctance. The only Jane Austens I re-read are Persuasion and Mansfield Park, the ones I didn’t adapt.”
It probably speaks volumes, then, that Davies holds Wives and Daughters in such high regard that he still feels he has to plenty say about it, and his appearance at the Manchester Literature Festival event should prove fascinating.
Where: The Portico Library, Mosley Street, Manchester
When: October 20, 2015