Tuesday, December 01, 2009

David Edgar's tribute to Andrew Davies

At the Writers' Guild Awards on Sunday, Guild President, David Edgar, presented the Lifetime Achievement Award to Andrew Davies.

Here's a copy of the speech David gave in tribute.
This year's Lifetime Achievement Award goes to a writer who understands television. Although he's written novels, films and stage plays (for adults and children) he's always known that television is, essentially and uniquely, a meeting place of different forms of expression, a site in which hybridity - genre talking unto genre - is not a problem nor a compromise but the essence of the game.

As a result he took an old, perhaps rather dusty and seemingly outmoded television form and reinvented it so definitively that no one will be able to talk about it in the future without mentioning his name.

His television writing began conventionally enough, with one-off plays and comedy serials. Even then, he understood cross-fertilization. He took the prose fiction form of the campus novel and melded it with the television form of the medical soap opera to create a campus comedy set in a university health centre. A Very Peculiar Practice ran for several series in the mid 80s and it's baffling why it isn't still running now.

In the early 90s he turned to the television form he was to dominate, making the first of three adaptations of Michael Dobbs's political novels about the oily Machiavellian chief whip Francis Urquart, achieving a perfect match between an innovative writerly idea, brilliant direction and Ian Richardson's definitive performance.

In the mid-90s, there was good news and bad news. The bad news – some felt – was that the BBC decided to reinvent the classic novel adaptation, which for many of us was a blessed, Sunday afternoon childhood memory, which we hoped would stay that way.

The good news was that they decided to ask Andrew Davies to do the reinventing.

With Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice, Moll Flanders, The Way We Live Now, Sense And Sensibility and many others, Andrew turned an old, fly-blown schedule-filler into a cutting-edge television drama flagship.

He's widely known for his observation that, as the species was propagated in the nineteenth century, the Victorians clearly had sex, and that fact this might be covertly present in the novels of the period. He is thus responsible for Colin Firth's torso and a thousand heaving bosoms on both side of the screen.

What his adaptations have in common is that they transform the source material, and, by exploiting the opportunities of television, they reinvent the dramatisation form. As someone who knows the challenges of adapting Dickens novels, I'd point particularly to the justly feted and awarded serial adaptations of Bleak House and Little Dorrit, which combined the teeming, multi-plotted character of Dickens' storytelling with the energy and drive of contemporary soap opera, to create something which is, truly, how Dickens would have wanted to write today.

Andrew has continued to adapt twentieth century novels – wonderfully, The Old Devils, Tipping the Velvet and The Line of Beauty – and to write original drama. A personal favourite was his brilliant conceit to imagine a torrid love affair between two jurors in the 1960 Lady Chatterley trial, trying out in the evening what they'd heard about in the courtroom during the day. He is notably generous to his collaborators – speaking well of script editors and producers, neither of whom always get a good press from writers. He speaks to students with wit and grace, and, last year, was the entertainment at the West Midlands Writers' Guild Christmas thrash.

It's possible to argue that Andrew's principle writing form has got out of hand. Do we need another adaptation of Emma ever, ever again? But there is of course one caveat to that. If Andrew returned to Emma, or any of the novels he's adapted, or any of the few still lurking in the further reaches of the canon which he hasn't got round to yet, he would make them feel as fresh as Northanger Abbey or Vanity Fair. He would once again have re-minted them for their medium and for their moment, and made them new.

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