'Tis Advent and the season of Andrew Davies, previously known as the season of costume drama or, before that, "Christmas". Although set in different times and time-zones, BBC1's Daniel Deronda and ITV's answering Dr Zhivago have, on the evidence of their debut episodes, more in common than even their worst schedulers could have feared. Not only has Davies adapted them both, not only (until the BBC did the gentlemanly thing) were they due to go out against each other, not only did each cost a bomb to make (the BBC's £5.5m playing against ITV's £7m), but, in both, nationalism, Russian and Jewish respectively, is the thunder in the background of a lover's tale.
The casting is remarkably samey, too. Hugh Bonneville and Celia Imrie have roles in each, but in both are subservient to younger leads you will never have heard of. The generational shift in our leading actors is not now between the stars of the Sixties and today, but between the Eighties and now. In both productions, the male viewer of a certain age receives the unpleasant shock of seeing the years catch up with his fantasies. In Deronda (Saturdays, 8.55pm), is Grandcourt's abandoned, middle-aged mistress really Greta Scacchi? Yes, it is. In Dr Z (Sundays, 9pm), can that be Bond girl Maryam d'Abo playing Lara's mother? It can, it can. At this rate, stand by for Anna Friel's brave stab at Lady Bracknell.
The final coincidence is that neither book is a sure choice for a TV dramatisation. Daniel Deronda, with its long passages of Zionist debate, is the one George Eliot novel I failed to finish. As for Dr Z, David Lean got there first, replacing Pasternak's political philosophising with Omar Sharif, Julie Christie and Maurice Jarre's amazing score. Davies, with typical adroitness, however, has examined both texts and found plenty to say about the death-tinged love stories at the centre of each story and, so far, is keeping the history lessons at bay.
Our interest is in the women. Yury Zhivago, played with clinical innocence by Hans Matheson, is passive virtue and victimhood personified; as a romantic lead, he is a dud. Much more vital is his ill-starred lover Lara. When she stares through a window into a cafe where Yury is debating with a friend if love equals anything more than "sex plus tenderness", Yury's face is a pale reflection underlying the true star's features.
The 17-year-old Keira Knightley does not have Christie's impossible beauty, but she certainly has something - a suicidally passionate wrong-headedness, perhaps - reflected in her decision to take the part. In the best scene of episode one, Lara on her wedding night tells her husband about her affair with her mother's lover Komarovsky (played against type by Sam Neill). She's as explicit as Edwina Currie - "I'd sit in school with the other girls, all sticky from him" - but rather less self-serving: "I chose it. I wouldn't let him seduce me. I told him to teach me everything, and he did. He showed me what we are really like, men and women, and he made me hate him, but never as much as I hate myself." This goes down about as well as Tess's nuptial confessions to Angel Clare.
Over on Daniel Deronda, Hugh Dancy as Deronda has an uphill battle to make us care half as much about his growing appreciation of his Jewish identity as about who's going to jump Gwendolen. Spotted first losing money in a German casino, she carries strong echoes of Davies's Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair, an adventuress with a love of the good life but no idea how to earn it. An enjoyable scene had a Jewish music teacher assess her chances of becoming a professional singer and concluding that if she practised hard for five years she might approach mediocrity. There is a bleakness in her that almost matches Lara's. "I shall never love anybody," she says. "I can't love people. I can only hate them."
Romola Garai has the disadvantage of not having looks sufficient to match Gwendolen's oft-quoted beauty, but she knows how to charge a scene sexually and her sparring with the superb Bonneville as Grandcourt is electric. They meet at an archery competition, and his attempted seduction reads like a twisted parody of Cupid's. Mostly, however, the metaphor for their affair is equine. "It's like schooling a horse. You've got to jolly them along a bit . . . It's about the pleasure of mastering a woman who thinks she can master me," says Grandcourt. His problem is that when it comes to it, she is happier kissing her horse than her fiance.
In these early stages, Dr Z is having to work harder than Deronda to hold our attention. The test for both will come when Davies lets the bigger themes in. Deronda is currently ahead on points, but it is winning because it is the better drawing-room drama. Given the help of widescreen shots of icy tundra traversed by a good-looking young doctor with icicles for hair, Dr Z may yet convince us that it is the greater epic. It also has Britain's vestigial anti-Semitism working for it. Deep down, we find Russian nationhood a sympathetic subject and Israel's a tiresome one, at best.
Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times