By Eithne Farry – 12 Jul 2011
Sarah Waters is the historical novelist that television loves to adapt. The author of Tipping the Velvet, Fingersmith and Affinity has already seen her first three novels reach the small screen; The Night Watch is the fourth. This time round, though, the drama is not set amid the seedy Dickensian alleys of the Victorian era, but the bomb-damaged streets of wartime London. “It was a disruptive time, a really porous time,” Waters says. “People were living with a few layers’ less skin than usual. The landscape had been blown up, exposed, and people were sharing space with strangers, but all sorts of people benefited from it too, found new ways of living.”
Opening in 1947, with tantalising vignettes of its four main characters – three gay, one straight – the drama spools backwards in time, through 1944, and then 1941 to unravel the clues that connect them to one another. The backward narration was inspired by Pinter’s Betrayal. Like an emotional detective story, it uncovers the hidden histories of Kay (Anna Maxwell Martin), Viv (Jodie Whittaker), Helen (Claire Foy) and ex-con Duncan (Harry Treadaway). “People’s pasts are more interesting than their futures,” Waters says. “Making a friend or a lover is precisely getting to know their past.”
It’s a darker, more melancholy tale than her debut, Tipping the Velvet, the irrepressible story of Nan Astley, the Whitstable oyster seller turned London music hall performer and Victorian rent boy, memorably adapted for TV by Andrew Davies in 2002. That was Waters’s first experience of seeing her imagined world, with its sometimes risqué elements, on screen. “My parents were pretty well prepared. I think there was a scene where a dildo comes around the door, and my mum was slightly alarmed, but then she was gaily talking about it.”
The Night Watch has been adapted by Paula Milne, whose credits include Small Island, The Virgin Queen and The Politican’s Wife. Waters, who says she never re-reads her novels, claims she has no difficulties “letting go”.
“By the time I’ve let someone adapt it, I’ll have assured myself that their vision is similar to mine. We talk it through and then I let them get on with it.
“In The Night Watch, they made a few changes,which I totally understand, because you have to make changes for TV. But inevitably once that’s happened, it feels even less like your own thing.
“The funny thing is that sometimes I don’t have a very clear idea of the physical reality of my characters, and sometimes I do. But I find with adaptations often they get it just right. Anna Chancellor, who played Diana in Tipping the Velvet, is a rather aristocratic figure – she was exactly as I imagined.
“In The Night Watch, I always imagined someone like Tilda Swinton playing Kay [who works in the ambulance corps during the Blitz], but Anna [Maxwell Martin] is great. She does some fantastic striding around. She is and she isn’t my Kay. I love her. She’s got a quiet magnetism, which is perfect. Kay is quite silent and gallant and enigmatic, and Anna brings all that to the screen.”
The Night Watch is tender and sombre, the lush sensuality of Waters’s Victorian novels replaced by a spare, lean style that perfectly reflects the newly austere Britain. “The books are getting bleaker,” says Waters. “I struggle to give my characters happy endings these days. I don’t know why, I’m actually a very happy person. The Night Watch is quite melancholy, I hadn’t anticipated how it would cast a cloud over me.”
Born in 1966, Waters grew up in Pembrokeshire, and says she was a bit of a tomboy, who loved Hammer House of Horror, science fiction and Doctor Who books (“Good for cliff-hangers and plots”). She also says she had boyfriends as a teenager: “I was very happy with them, though I have to say looking back that they were always pretty camp.”
After she went away to college, though, she fell in love with a girl. “The relationship lasted six years, I was 19. It was a long time then.”
After turning her PhD research into Tipping the Velvet, Waters inadvertently became the poster girl for “queer fiction”. “I don’t mind it,” she says, “I’d be wary of minding it, because then it would seem to me that I was slightly bothered by the lesbian label, and I’m not and I never have been. There’s often this very strong lesbian element in my novels, and I never want to play that down, but I also strongly believe that just because a story has lesbian elements there’s no reason it can’t appeal to all sorts of people.
“I’m a pretty old-fashioned writer in lots of ways, strong plot and strong characters, which works well for TV or film, I guess.” Although she appeared fleetingly in the screen versions of her first three books, there’s no Hitchcockian cameo for her in The Night Watch. “I love doing them, but it just didn’t work out with this one.”
Perhaps they will resume with her fifth novel, The Little Stranger (the film rights have also been sold). Meanwhile, Waters is now hard at work on the research for her next novel, set between the wars.
The Night Watch is on Tuesday 12 July at 9.00pm on BBC Two