Andrew Davies: Viewers prefer period dramas, not gritty modern shows

Hannah Furness
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New television commissioners are too obsessed with abandoning period drama in favour of modern "gritty" works, screenwriter Andrew Davies has said, as he claims they invariably return to the classics with the tails between their legs.

Davies, the man behind shows including Pride and Prejudice and War and Peace, said new commissioners always seek to make their mark by proclaiming the end of the genre.

Instead, he said, they become obsessed with so-called risk-taking new dramas depicting life in the 21st century, before inevitably caving to public pressure and reinstating them.

Screenwriter Andrew Davies speaks on the Wales Stage at the Hay Festival 2016 - Credit: Clara Molden for The Telegraph

Speaking at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai, Davies disclosed that even his most famous adaptation, Pride and Prejudice, had initially struggled to find a home.

Turned down by ITV, it was only broadcast by the BBC after Davies agreed to write a version of Middlemarch first, with drama executives feeling it had more to offer.

"All new drama controllers always say when they take the job: 'Right, that's enough of those bonnets. We're going to do gritty real drama about life as it's lived now in the 21st century'.

"And they do some of that.  Then people start saying 'where are our classic adaptations and costume dramas?' 

"So then they reluctantly do that."

War and Peace

Davies' own adaptation of War and Peace, broadcast by the BBC last year to critical acclaim, was commissioned by Ben Stephenson, the then head of BBC drama.

In 2014, Stephenson had told the Telegraph the corporation would no longer be commissioning "traditional adaptations of traditional novels" but focusing on "contemporary shows and presenting a view of Britain that feels contemporary to all audiences".

Speaking of Pride and Prejudice, broadcast in 1995, Davies disclosed it had taken a great deal of persuading ever to get it to air.

"The big bosses at ITV felt it wasn't really ITV enough," he said. "It wasn't the kind of thing that ITV should be doing, so they turned it down.

"We took it to the BBC. And Michael Wearing, who was the head of drama at the time, said 'yeah alright, but it's a bit girly isn't it?'

"He thought middlemarch about more things than girls falling in love."

Davies finally reached a compromise, wringing six hours of Middlemarch before seeing Pride and Prejudice, starring Colin Firth as Mr Darcy, become the best-remembered period drama on British television.

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