An Interview with Andrew Davies
William Shakespeare's original tragedy Othello is about a Moorish general in the service of Venice who is lured into murderous, self-destructive jealousy by a scheming subordinate. Andrew Davies's modern retelling is set in New Scotland Yard and has all the Bard's wit, romance, pity, and terror -- and then some.
Davies is the screenwriting sensation behind a fascinating mix of theatrical and Masterpiece Theatre productions including Bridget Jones's Diary, The Tailor of Panama, Take a Girl Like You, Wives and Daughters, A Rather English Marriage, Emma, Moll Flanders, Pride and Prejudice, Circle of Friends, Middlemarch, House of Cards, and To Serve Them All My Days.
An accomplished author as well, Davies has published a collection of short stories, Dirty Faxes, and two novels (and their companion screenplays), Getting Hurt and B Monkey. In addition to numerous children's books, he has also written for children's television, including two series of Marmalade Atkins.
Davies has won numerous awards, including an Emmy, two BAFTA awards, three Writers Guild awards, three Broadcasting Press Guild awards, and a Monte Carlo Television Festival award.
In the spring of 2002, Masterpiece Theatre will present his adaptation of Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now and the following season his version of Boris Pasternak's epic romance of the Russian revolution, Doctor Zhivago.
Davies discussed his version of Othello in a recent conversation with Masterpiece Theatre.
You have said that Othello was an easy idea for you to sell. How easy?
I actually had another idea first.
ITV [the British commercial network] wanted to do a series of modern adaptations of Shakespeare and approached me. I suggested an updated version of The Tempest, with Prospero as a New Age guru on a Caribbean island. He takes little groups of rich people and shows them how to change their lives in wonderful ways. I was really keen to write it, but the commissioners at ITV thought that the first one in the Shakespeare series should be based on one of the big tragedies. I was quite annoyed with this.
So I went over the road and sat in a bar in a very bad temper. I ordered a drink. Then I ordered another drink. And suddenly the idea flashed into my mind: Othello is the first black commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police. I got on the phone and talked to Jo Wright, who is the head of drama at LWT [London Weekend Television], and I said, "Jo, Othello is the first black commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police." She said, "Absolutely great idea! I'll ring up ITV." And they said, "Wonderful! We'll commission it." And so it was that easy.
Critics have called Othello Shakespeare's most sexually complex play. Did that influence your choice?
It did, very much. I always do like to write love stories, even if they end tragically. I love the idea of Othello being so fascinated by Desdemona that he watches her while she's sleeping and tries to work out what's going on in her dreams. Also, we've all come pretty close to Othello's paranoid jealousy -- that "Who can I trust?" feeling. Othello is the most domestic of Shakespeare's tragedies and the one that's likely to strike a personal note with a lot of people watching it. The other great tragedies, like Hamlet and Macbeth, are about kings and murder in a dynastic sense. This one is about jealousy, and I would guess that most people have experienced really powerful sexual jealousy sometime in their lives.
Are the racial politics in your adaptation especially topical in Britain?
Yes, there's a famous case here called the Stephen Lawrence case. It involves a black teenager who was murdered by racist thugs in 1993. The original investigation was bungled, and nobody was successfully prosecuted. There was an official inquiry, which concluded that the police were institutionally racist. Ever since then the police have been making huge efforts to...
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