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Othello (2001)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Othello (2001)
DirectorGeoffrey Sax
Production CompaniesLWT Productions
 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation
ProducersJulie Gardner
 Anne Pivcevic
ScriptAndrew Davies
PhotographyDafydd Hobson

Cast: Eamonn Walker (John Othello); Christopher Eccleston (Ben Jago); Keeley Hawes (Dessie); Richard Coyle (Michael Cass); Rachael Stirling (Lulu); Bill Paterson (Sinclair Carver)

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In order to demonstrate progress on race relations, John Othello is made the first black commissioner of London's Metropolitan Police force. But he is promoted over his former superior, Ben Jago, who pretends to be pleased at his old friend's success while secretly plotting his downfall.

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Andrew Davies' Othello (tx. 23/12/2001) was originally planned as a group project involving major television dramatists updating Shakespeare plays to tackle contemporary issues - Jimmy McGovern's Hamlet and Paula Milne's Romeo and Juliet were also proposed. Although LWT drama head Jo White turned down the series (ITV was traditionally wary of Shakespeare: its last broadcast was the Olivier King Lear in 1983), she commissioned Othello as a single drama.

What won her over was the concept's simplicity. Othello as the first black head of London's Metropolitan Police had obvious potential, especially given arguments over "institutional racism", a term coined by Sir William McPherson in his 1999 report into the police investigation of the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence. Davies' Othello also opens with the death of a black man in police custody, an issue so contentious that the police blocked the distribution of Injustice (co-d. Ken Fero & Tariq Mehmood, 2001), a documentary on the subject made the same year.

Director Geoffrey Sax brings Othello in at a taut 98 minutes (the original can run to double that), and the cast is uniformly superb - in particular, the onscreen chemistry between Othello (Eamonn Walker) and Jago (Christopher Eccleston) is so intense that it becomes almost homoerotic - adding a further note of ambiguity to Othello's marriage.

Though Davies' largely realistic dialogue lacks the original's poetry, in other respects he arguably improves on Shakespeare. The death of Billy Coates (Morgan Johnson) and subsequent near-riot is better integrated into the drama than Shakespeare's offstage Venice-Turkey conflict, and Davies makes Jago more emotionally convincing than his near-namesake by giving him a clear revenge motive after his old friend is promoted for what Jago sees as political correctness rather than merit.

Davies also intelligently updates the relationship between Othello and Desdemona, making it explicitly race and class-based, which clarifies why Othello believes Jago: he has no real knowledge of wealthy English girls like Dessie (Keeley Hawes). Other imaginative touches include DNA testing as a substitute for a tell-tale handkerchief and Cass (Richard Coyle) attempting a pass at Dessie, which underlines her role as the innocent party.

Above all, the tragedy is opened out by giving it a political context. Othello wrecks not only his marriage but also his chances of reforming the police according to McPherson's real-life recommendations. Jago's "safe pair of hands" triumph is doubly disastrous, as we know this means upholding the status quo.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Promotion (4:11)
2. Jealousy (3:04)
3. Confrontation (4:14)
Othello (1981)
Othello (1990)
Wolcott (1981)
Davies, Andrew (1936-)
Eccleston, Christopher (1964-)
Contemporary Shakespeare
Othello On Screen
Shakespeare on ITV
Shakespeare on Television
TV Drama in the 2000s
TV Literary Adaptation
TV Police Drama