Andrew Davies created a cult university satire and adapted Vanity Fair for the BBC. He talks to John Davies about his transition from academic to screen writer
Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice, Moll Flanders and now Vanity Fair. His television adaptations of these and other classics may have made him a household name, but a decade ago Andrew Davies was best known for something more original: A Very Peculiar Practice. Set in the health centre of a fictional 1960s-built University of Lowlands, in two series (shown on BBC TV in 1986 and 1988), it managed not only to satirise current goings-on in academia but also to predict things that have since come to pass, such as the increased corporatisation of Britain's universities.
"People still come up to me and say, 'Were you at so-and-so university? Because what happened (in A Very Peculiar Practice) happened there'," Davies says. Only this year, the Association of University Medical Centres invited him to talk at its annual conference: "They thought the series was funny and also a pretty accurate picture."
Of course, Davies had his own experiences to draw on. After a degree at University College London and five years' teaching English in London schools, he took a post in 1963 at Coventry College of Education, which "got sort of swallowed up by Warwick University around 1970". Thus he became a university lecturer "by the back door - I didn't do a PhD or anything like that".
He describes his job at Warwick as "delightful - a pleasant mixture of teaching Eng Lit to students, teaching them how to teach, and going round schools watching them teach". Meanwhile, he was also writing radio and television plays and running creative writing courses.
After he successfully adapted R. F. Delderfield's To Serve Them All My Days - a novel about a teacher - the BBC offered him the chance of writing an original prime-time series. Having "ground to a halt" with a story about three mature women students after "two-and-a-half episodes", he decided to combine two ideas: a "satirical thing" about universities and the other, equally satirical, about doctors. "On TV then, you always had a keen young dedicated doctor and a wise old one. The doctors I knew were nothing like that - they were neurotic, overworked, lazy, stupid or so old-fashioned they were dangerous. Or they drank too much. Or they were cynical and hated their patients."
He enlisted the help of a relative, the late Tom Kelly, a doctor at UCL's medical centre, to be his "deep throat" for the technical aspects of A Very Peculiar Practice. "He was desperately anxious that no one would know," Davies recalls. "We used to have drunken lunches in Greek restaurants and he'd tell me all his stories. A lot of stuff I couldn't use because it was so macabre. He was incredibly handsome and charming, too good to be true for a television series."
When the series was commissioned, the BBC's then head of series, Jonathan Powell, "understood exactly", Davies says. "He said 'It's going to be like the University of East Anglia, isn't it? I know; I was there - brutalist architecture, kids going off their heads, social satire.' I wrote it with that in mind - UEA is so beautiful in some lights, and deeply sinister in others."
It proved impossible to film there, however, or at other new universities such as Warwick and Sussex because they were "very anxious about their reputation". Eventually the exterior filming was done at Keele and Birmingham - "they felt so secure they thought they could withstand any satire."
Although Peter Davison played the central character, A Very Peculiar Practice will probably be remembered more for the other doctors: "Because it was set in a university the whole thing was so ideological. All these doctors working on different models of the universe and society - Rose Marie (Barbara Ewing) saw illness as something men did to women; Bob Buzzard (David Troughton) saw the body as a machine and thought the university and the practice should be run as a factory. People said he must be based on Mr So-and-so, a guy at Warwick, but I carefully avoided meeting him."
Perhaps the most memorable character was Jock (played by Grahame Crowden), the ageing and near-alcoholic senior member of the practice. Partly he was based on the founder of the UCL student health centre, Nicholas Mallison, whom Davies remembers as a student: "He was psychoanalytically inclined - the story was that you'd go to see him with flu or something and he'd ask: 'What's the matter with your sex life?'" The other person who contributed to the Jock character was John Broadbent, a charismatic English professor at UEA: "His mission was to transform English teaching into something more experiential. One dictum was that 'You have to put the tools in the hands of the students' - he could say that without being aware he had said anything funny - which meant we had to show the students how to read, but not lay our readings on them. It was a very liberating idea of teaching. Yet he was such a dominant personality, there was a complete mismatch between his philosophy and personality."
After writing the first series of A Very Peculiar Practice, Davies left university teaching. Perhaps this is why the second series is darker and more cynical. Director David Tucker was a great help, Davies says. "John Bird was so wonderful in the first series (as vice-chancellor Ernest Hemmingway) we thought 'He's stopping it developing. If he's still VC, it's going to be about the English bumbling through. We have to bring someone in like they brought in that American (Ian McGregor) to run the Coal Board.' It was David's idea as much as mine."
The result was "Jack B. Daniels", an American vice-chancellor who turns out to be "asset-stripping the university into a kind of weapons research centre and only keeping the departments that are economically viable. Of course, people would go crazy with the stress and come flooding into the medical centre. That was the dynamic of the second series.
"I felt much more comfortable having left Warwick - this was at a time when they were turning student halls into hotels to make money. But with the way the political climate has changed, it's hard to criticise that approach. They can say, 'Look at our arts centre, we've been able to pay for it because we're so commercially clever'."
Davies still lives in nearby Kenilworth, and although he has published several adult novels, most of his energy nowadays goes into adaptation.
There is no doubt that he is a market leader in transferring literature to the screen. As Ken Riddington says, "For all the plethora of costume drama, he seems to be the only one who's really made them work." Apart from his current Vanity Fair on BBC1, Davies has adaptations of Northanger Abbey, Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters and Ian McEwan's The Child in Time in the pipeline. A reworking of Angela Lambert's A Rather English Marriage starring Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay and Joanna Lumley is due out at Christmas, while a film version of The Count of Monte Cristo for Roman Polanski is at the second-draft stage. And he is "nervously edging towards Trollope - I'm going to do The Way We Live Now, not a very typical Trollope. It's about a guy who's so much like Robert Maxwell it'll feel contemporary."
With his infectious enthusiasm for the books he has adapted, Davies is a valuable propagandist for the literature of the past and present. A less cheerful note seems to come into his voice only when he expresses regret that while his classic adaptations are well represented on the video megastore shelves, A Very Peculiar Practice is not available. "It's rather annoying, that," he muses. "It's the sort of thing people might buy, because it's a sort of cult."