Sandy Devereux

Smallscreen scriptwriter

Columns

This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.


If not quite in the stratospheric class of Andrew Davies, to whom he has been known to refer as “my mentor”, Sandy Devereux has, over the past 30 years, carved out quite a career as the adaptor of “classic” novels for peak-time television. His version of H.G. Wells’s Love and Mr Lewisham won a Bafta back in the days when Stephen Fry was merely a promising young comic actor, while the Radio Times declared that his work on a brace of Iris Murdoch titles “lingered long in the memory”.

What qualities distinguish Sandy’s approach to his task? Is he the kind of adaptor who dutifully applies himself to teasing out the author’s true intentions from beneath a pile of surface clutter? Does he simply transfer the original dialogue to the small screen with a minimum of fuss? Will he blaze off along new and unexpected trails, searching out hidden agendas and unseen currents? No, the signature mark of practically every script he has ever filed is a resolute determination to bump up the sexual content.

He regularly reminds audiences at literary festivals, nineteenth-century fiction can be just the tiniest bit dull

And so, with Sandy’s tender hand on the tiller, a chaste kiss in a Victorian novel usually ends up as a five-minute snog; a wink over the dinner-table turns into a frenzied shagathon; and the scene in his take on Mansfield Park in which Fanny Price wallowed suggestively in her bath produced an angry letter to The Times from the Jane Austen Society. 

Asked to justify these exaggerations, Sandy invariably replies that, constrained as they were by the Victorian censors, Dickens, Thackeray and Co would have warmly approved of them. There is also the fact that, as he regularly reminds audiences at literary festivals, nineteenth-century fiction can be just the tiniest bit dull to the modern viewer and badly needs gingering up.

Ten years ago, all this was enough to supply a raft of commissions and admiring profiles in newspaper arts supplements. Just lately, on the other hand, Sandy — well into his seventh decade now and recently divorced — is finding the going unexpectedly tough. A well-known actress is supposed to have walked off the set of a BBC Two production of Where Angels Fear To Tread on the grounds that a protracted scene of corset removal was “gratuitous”, and a Professor of Victorian Literature recently took to the Times Literary Supplement to denounce him as a “vulgarian”. It is all very odd and Sandy, for three decades the undisputed master of bonnets, carriage rides and heaving decolletage, can’t understand it.

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