The BBC is no stranger to the sweeping period drama. It has made an art form of the beautifully crafted story with a lush background and superb acting.
Its latest offering continues the tradition. In War and Peace, it turns to the great Leo Tolstoy and screenwriter Andrew Davies to take viewers on a journey to Russia of the Napoleonic wars.
Surprisingly for a man who’s adapted Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Middlemarch and Bleak House, he’d never read what’s considered by many as the greatest novel ever written.
“I’d been putting it off and putting it off, as lots of people do. I’d read Anna Karenina two or three times, as it’s a favourite book of mine. But I always worried and thought that maybe I’d be disappointed by War and Peace. Maybe I’d find it too big, grand and dull. But it wasn’t that way at all”.
“Faith Penhale (executive producer) and I had been working on a piece about Dylan Thomas called A Poet in New York and she said ‘how about trying something really big next’ and I said ‘what’ and she said ‘War and Peace’.
So, I took it on holidays to the Caribbean and read it there and I just loved it. I thought to myself that this just feels so fresh and so modern. It’s a terrific book”.
Boasting a cast that includes Lily James (Downtown Abbey, Cinderella), Gillian Anderson (X-Files, Bleak House, Great Expectations), Jim Broadbent (Harry Potter, Iris, Moulin Rouge) and James Norton (Happy Valley, Rush) War and Peace centres on three families during the time of Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I: a period that changed Russia forever.
“It can be quite a job adapting a story like this. It took a lot of writing, that first episode, to make it clear who the main people are. First of all, I read it thinking: Who are the people I like in this? Who are the people that I’m interested in? Is there anything that really makes me sit up and take notice?
“It’s the characters that get me, so I focussed on Pierre (Paul Dano), Andrei (James Norton) and Natasha (Lily James). Those three are right at the centre of the book and so I built the whole structure around them.
There are some things you can take straight out of the book. Tolstoy was just wonderful at writing about family life. And it did feel modern and fresh. Emotions and feelings don’t change, but of course the circumstances do”.
Filmed on location in St Petersburg and Lithuania, the story of the Rostovs, the Bolkonskys and the Bezukhovs is told over the course of six episodes. It’s storytelling on a grand scale and it would be easy for that story to be overwhelmed by the visuals, if not for director Tom Harper.
“Tom did an absolutely marvellous job. It was thrilling to see the story come alive, but in some ways it was also slightly embarrassing when you realise how much effort how many people have had to put in. And I’ve been kind of sitting there going ‘tap, tap, tap’ on the computer.
“The battle scenes were hard to write, but again Tolstoy gives you a lot of help. You can make it feel ‘real’ in the writing, but then it’s a much bigger task to show all that on the screen. Tom Harper, when he was referencing it, was a mix of the Charge of the Light Brigade and Saving Private Ryan. It was big”.
War and Peace is a beautifully told story that will hopefully draw in viewers who may have been a little daunted to read the book. It’s success owes much to the cast, the direction AND the writing of Andrew Davies.
War and Peace airs on BBC First from Sunday, January 31st at 8.30pm.
BBC First is available in Australia via Foxtel and FetchTV