Sauce and sensuality: TV drama adds extra mischief to Austen

He’s the king of the period drama, the man who infamously sexed up everything from Pride and Prejudice to War and Peace, but Andrew Davies says that the key to his success lies not in nudity but in a good sense of humour.

“I think people don’t often realise that a lot of the joy of Jane Austen is that these books are funny,” he says. “People think that, to adapt her, you’ve got to use long words and fancy sentences, and that’s not the case at all. She could be very succinct and to the point and had a great sense of humour.”

That sense of humour is very much to the fore in Davies’s latest adaptation, a take on Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon, which follows the adventures of young Charlotte Heywood as she moves to the eponymous seaside town. The eight-part series begins on ITV on Sunday 25 August.

Austen died with only a fragment of Sanditon written, and Davies admits that he used all that information in the first episode before brainstorming with producers Belinda Campbell and Nick Lambon about how the story might unfold. “It was a little scary because making up stories was never the strongest part of my repertoire as a writer,” he said.

“You know, you start to think, ‘Oh well, I can’t make things up any more’, but luckily I’ve got people around me saying, ‘Yes, you can’ – and, once the ideas start coming, then it’s great.”

Screenwriter Andrew Davies.

Screenwriter Andrew Davies. Photograph: Jonathan Hordle/Rex

Davies wrote four of the eight episodes (“the first three and the last”) and describes Sanditon as a story filled with youth and exuberance “very uplifting, really … there’s a lovely light feeling to Austen’s writing in the fragment. I was particularly taken by her description of Charlotte watching the light dancing over the waves. I thought: yes, that’s the feeling I want to capture.”

There’s certainly both lightness and a sense of mischief about the series. Davies presents this nascent seaside resort as almost an escape from real life, the sort of place where anything can and does happen and where people from all walks of life rub shoulders, freed from the more rigid constraints of daily society – and says he’s convinced that’s how Austen would have seen it as well.

The Jane Austen fragment seems like a real departure to me,” he said. “I was really excited when I read it because the character of Tom Parker (played by Kris Marshall), the businessman who invites Charlotte (Rose Williams) to Sanditon, is a new kind of Austen man. He’s spent his younger life as a typical country gentleman and then thrown all that off and decided to be an entrepreneur, aided by his brother Sidney (Theo James), whose job is really to bring celebrities to Sanditon. There’s a real excitement there: Tom thinks that he can change the world through sheer force of will and optimism. and Charlotte gets caught up in that.”

That said, “we have given ourselves permission to have fun with it”, said Davies. “The Regency era was a period of extremely relaxed morals. Add that into a seaside setting, where stricter rules were relaxed and all sorts of people rolled up for fun and holiday romance. You had to have your wits about you.”

Nor are the entrepreneurial Parker brothers the only surprising characters in the fragment. There is also a brief mention of Miss Lambe, described by Austen as “a young West Indian of large fortune, delicate in health”.

“What a surprise to come across her in Jane Austen,” said Davies of Lambe, who is played by Crystal Clarke. “She’s very eligible and therefore must be a source of interest to the people of Sanditon, but what interested me was: why has she been sent here? I decided that it must have been to get her out of the way of some difficult situation or other.”

Given that Davies is now 82, does he worry about keeping his work youthful? “I just write the show I’d like to see myself. But I do respond to the young colleagues I work with – they’re so in touch with everything, and so stimulating. Trying to keep up with them, understand their jokes and make them laugh is a lot of what keeps me young and alive.”

They’ve also bequeathed Davies a love of the reality juggernaut Love Island, of which he has been an avid fan for the past two years. “People mock me for saying Love Island can teach you important things about life, but one of the most interesting things about the recent series was the kind of toxic masculinity on show. I watched all the men talking about the need to follow their hearts while some girl was sobbing and thought: you arseholes.”

Next up for Davies is an adaptation of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy for the BBC: “It was a relief that Vikram was so nice because otherwise it could have been disastrous, but he was lovely and it was a great experience.” He is also working on a possible adaptation of John Updike’s Rabbit novels and a series about the last empress of China.

Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth in Andrew Davies’ 1995 Pride and Prejuduce.

Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth in Andrew Davies’ 1995 Pride and Prejuduce. Photograph: Allstar/BBC

His ideal commission, however, would be to adapt the works of his favourite novelist, the American author Alison Lurie. “I’ve always wanted to do a big mash-up of her novels, like Robert Altman’s Short Cuts and I occasionally raise it with people but nobody has ever bitten, which is a shame because it would be a lovely thing.”

Until they do, Davies will content himself with the fact that his 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice continues to be celebrated as the finest Austen adaptation of them all. “Looking back, I was so lucky with the casting and the direction – it all came together so well. I know they make new versions all the time, and I wish them well, but I can’t help wanting the reaction to be: yeah, it’s all right but it’s not as good as the 1995 version.”

While that’s the show that will almost certainly dominate his obituaries it’s not, however, the one he’s most proud of. “I do hope they’ll find a space to mention A Very Peculiar Practice,” he said, “because I really did make all of that up myself.”


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