The hit American version has revived interest in Andrew Davies’ original House Of Cards series, which first aired in the Nineties. Roger Crow catches up with the prolific writer who, despite being 77, is still at the top of his game
His work might all take place behind the scenes, but writer Andrew Davies has left such an indelible mark on British culture, that it’s hard to imagine the past few decades of TV without him.
Picture a world without Mr Darcy emerging dripping wet from a lake in Pride And Prejudice, or Bridget Jones holding a pair of substantially-sized pants up to the camera, or the twisted goings-on of House Of Cards politician Francis Urquhart.
That particular political puppetmaster gave actor Ian Richardson arguably the best role of his career, when the series aired during the Nineties, and, of course, paved the way for Kevin Spacey’s recent US makeover as Francis Underwood in the mega-successful American version.
“I’m completely hooked by it, actually,” Davies says of the US remake. “I’ve watched all of both series and can’t wait for the third one.”
He has a theory as to why the charming antagonist, originally created by author Michael Dobbs, has touched a chord on both sides of the Atlantic.
“It’s a lot to do with the talking to camera and the fact that he confides in you,” he says. “You become an insider, part of the story; you become a kind of flattered courtier, so you get much more implicated in the story.
“Also, I think the writing is terrific in the American series.”
The original House Of Cards adaptation, which is being re-aired on the Drama channel, could be hailed as one of the greatest drama series ever.
“I couldn’t possibly comment,” says Davies, chuckling as he bounces back one of the most repeated lines of his career.
“It was great to work on,” he adds. “I was taking a fairly conventional political thriller and turning it into a full-on Jacobean drama, with the anti-hero talking to the audience and all that. It worked, thanks very much to the great Ian Richardson.”
Naturally, there’s been renewed interest in the original since Spacey’s Stateside saga took Netflix by storm.
“It is very gratifying that it still holds up. It’s quite unusual for a 20-year-old drama, because mostly, they look a bit creaky after that length of time,” notes Davies. “As soon as the American House Of Cards went out, people were seeking out the original and watching the box sets.”
The son of teachers, Davies was born in Cardiff, Wales, and after receiving a BA in English in 1957, went on to teach in London and Warwick before establishing himself as a writer.
He honed his craft with radio plays, and then in 1963 bought his first television set. TV plays were a natural progression, so he sent off his first attempt Who’s Going To Take Me On? (“a bit like doing the Pools”), and to his delight, the BBC decided to commission it in 1965.
Over the years, he’s turned his hand to everything, from stage plays and children’s books to cult sitcom Game On, comedy-drama A Very Peculiar Practice, and screen adaptations of literary classics Fanny Hill, Dr Zhivago and A Room With A View.
At 77, the writer and Bafta Fellow could have retired years ago, but he’s busier than ever.
“I do get offered more than I take on,” notes Davies, who has a son and daughter with Diana, his wife of 54 years. “But it is so nice to be asked, and so many of them are good things to do. I mean, it was a pleasure to be offered those Quirke novels by [John] Banville, because I didn’t even know he wrote crime novels. They’re such beautifully written books, with such rich, complex characters, it was a joy to work on them.”
He also did a fine job on the Bridget Jones movies. Naturally, fans of the popular heroine are curious to know if he’s been asked to script a big screen version of Helen Fielding’s third book, Mad About The Boy.
“I haven’t, is the answer. I did hear that they were quite near to getting one, but they couldn’t work out a satisfactory script... obviously because they hadn’t asked me to write it,” Davies says dryly. “Quite a few years have gone by and I’d certainly like to see another Bridget Jones film.”
From the outside, Davies’ work seems effortless, but he has faced challenges.
“Dr Zhivago was a very tough one because [author Boris] Pasternak just didn’t write the scenes you wanted him to write!” he says. “It’s all very vague and poetic, and lots of musings and lots of it is in people’s heads.
“But some of the hardest ones finish up as the ones you’re most pleased with,” he adds, “and that was one. Though to most people, it will never live up to the  David Lean film.”
More recently, he has helped turn ITV’s Mr Selfridge into an international success. Was he briefed to create a version of Downton Abbey - with shopping? “I have to say, yeah, we did have Downton a little bit in mind,” he admits, smiling.
He’s also tackled War And Peace, which is now in production for the BBC.
Some writers might run a mile at the thought of adapting that revered classic but, despite being daunted by the task, Davies eventually got to grips with Leo Tolstoy’s tome.
“I thought it was going to be difficult, and I was a little bit intimidated by it, in the sense that there are all these scholars and people who can read it in Russian, who know all about it. But I’ve been up against this sort of daunting challenge before with Dr Zhivago and a modern version of Othello, so I thought I’ll adapt what I like best about it and what an audience will like best about it.”
Davies probably deserved a good rest after that mammoth challenge, but he’s been busy getting stuck in with other projects, including a another movie script for a John Steinbeck novel called The Moon Is Down, and “a thing about the first four-minute mile for television”. “I keep on trying to do less,” Davies insists. “But then the phone rings and somebody has got some kind of offer I can’t resist.”
:: House Of Cards starts on Drama (Freeview 20 | Sky 166 | Virgin 190) tonight.