A great tragedy

Television - Andrew Billen on ITV's finest hour over the festive season

For most of the nation, the return on Christmas Day, after about five years, of Only Fools and Horses was the television event of the holidays. Around 20 million - an aggregate that reads like something from 20 years back - watched Del Boy's reintroduction to importunate penury. This Only Fools was written against a deadline and, especially in the antiquity of some of the gags, it occasionally showed. What its author, John Sullivan, can do when time is on his side could be seen the next night in ITV1's wholly delightful Micawber, where his dialogue out-Dickensed Dickens. In the title role, David Jason (who as Trotter and Frost tends to dominate Christmas much as Dickens once did) looked as if he had received exactly the present he wanted.

The Sunday before Christmas, however, produced ITV's finest hour: Andrew Davies's transformation of Othello into a two-hour drama set within the context of a racist London police force. In interviews, Davies congratulated himself on his hard sell to ITV heads: "How about Othello as the first black commissioner of the Metropolitan Police? Is that commercial enough for you?"

Judging by the way ITV has continually boasted about the self-sacrifice it was making in the ratings by showing it, the answer was presumably "no". Even the continuity announcer who introduced it warned that this was "a challenging update" - "challenging" being the current synonym for difficult. Let us note, however, that the project was commercial enough for HSBC to sponsor it, and that Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and WSBH in Boston joined LWT as co-producers. Brownie points to ITV and all that, but I still remember a time when the channel transmitted Shakespeare plays that were actually written by Shakespeare.

But let us not inspect too thoroughly ITV's motives when we can join Davies in the game of working out Iago's. In this reworking, Iago became Ben Jago, deputy to the new commissioner, John Othello. Jago was passed over by the Home Secretary for the top job after Othello, his protege, won the right kind of headlines by pacifying an inner-city crowd baying for the blood of the coppers who had killed a black suspect. In the original play, Iago misses out on promotion not to Othello, but to the inexperienced Cassio. He is angry at Othello, but not exactly jealous of his status: it is this fury that lets loose the racial hatreds, sexual frustrations and class consciousness that make him such an interesting villain. Here, however, Jago's driving force was plainly to supplant his boss.

To fit the preoccupations of our time, Davies nevertheless dwelt as much as he could on Jago's racism. Christopher Eccleston as Jago ranted to the camera about the "stupid patronising ape" Othello, and his "darky, Sunday school" rhetoric. Davies upped the sexual element, too, and had Jago collude in the former commissioner's jibe about being unable to find black officers "whose brains are as big as their dicks". Later, he spread the rumour that Othello was impotent. In the voice-overs that topped and tailed the drama, Jago claimed the tragedy was about "love". Were his hypocritical bear hugs meant to suggest that he fancied Othello?

As in all good productions of the play, Iago's motives in the end defied analysis, and Eccleston, with his rictal grin, had no trouble embodying his generalised malice. The director, Geoffrey Sax, exploited the old soap-opera device of the open-eyed, over-the-shoulder hug, whereby the camera observes the real expression on the face of the hugger. Eccleston, pop-eyed and dry-lipped as he embraced Eamonn Walker's Othello, looked as if he wanted to vomit. Crucially, Davies and Sax understood that the plot is deliberately farcical - that a tragic hero is caught, as it were, in a sitcom - and allowed the pace and incidental music to move towards comedy when they needed to. Walker had the hardest job, convincing us that the story was really about Othello's tragic flaws, not Iago's. Although he told the Prime Minister, when accepting the job, that he "knew his worth", we could have seen more of his overweening pride. We had no such difficulty in sensing how his precipitous honour made him a gull and a dolt in the world of sexual and racial politics. In his suicidal moments, however, Walker did the essential thing and restored himself to dignity.

As police drama, Othello coughed up the mandatory scene in a morgue and the obligatory plot point courtesy of the forensic lab. As Shakespeare, it kept to the text when it could: John Othello caught Dessie's supposed lover, Michael Cass, drunk, just as Othello caught Cassio pissed; the embroidered handkerchief became a bath robe; Venice was hinted at in the exoticism of the Othellos' home. As an Andrew Davies adaptation, it came with its own self-references, so that Jago's soliloquies heavily echoed Ian Richardson's monologues in Davies's House of Cards a decade ago.

Like Francis Urquhart, but unlike the original Iago, Jago even ended up succeeding to the top job. But for a project so knowing about its sources, the speed with which it became its own thing was the most impressive feature of all. Never mind the next "commercial" update of the Bard's catalogue, I want a sequel to this one.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.