Andrew Davies was furious. Furious, he says, and disappointed. His fellow television dramatist Paula Milne had conceived a scheme whereby several top writers would each update a Shakespeare play for ITV. She was going to tackle Romeo and Juliet, Jimmy McGovern would do Hamlet, and London Weekend Television's then head of drama, Jo Wright, had invited Davies to choose a play too. He suggested The Tempest, with Prospero as a new-age guru living on a private Caribbean island. "But when I got to Jo's office she said Nick Elliott [head of drama commissioning for the ITV network] wanted to start with something more mainstream."
In a huge huff, Davies stomped up the road to a restaurant, and ordered himself a stiff drink. And another. "And then, as if someone had been whispering in my ear, came the thought, 'Othello as the first black Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. If that's not a saleable idea I don't know what is'. So I went back and told Jo and she said, 'oh my God, what a great idea, I'll just ring Nick.'"
With Elliott's enthusiastic shriek hanging in the air, the project was commissioned, and on Sunday sees the light of the nation's living-rooms. Having watched a preview tape I can recommend it as startlingly good drama, wonderfully written and acted with tremendous brio by Eamonn Walker as Commissioner John Othello and Christopher Eccleston as his duplicitous lieutenant, Ben Jago. McGovern, meanwhile, has abandoned his Hamlet. "They're not as easy as they look," says Davies, mischievously.
He is, in fact, a bundle of fun and mischief, and, although resolutely heterosexual, his naughty asides are rendered naughtier by a decidedly camp delivery. We are sitting in his office in a Victorian house in Kenilworth, Warwickshire. He lives next door but bought the adjoining house and knocked through, with the slightly curious although perhaps not inappropriate result that you enter his office through a bedroom. Davies has often been castigated for sexing up the classics. "When Darcy sees Elizabeth he gets a hard-on" was his notorious stage direction on Pride and Prejudice, and very contentiously his Moll Flanders, played by Alex Kingston, had a lesbian affair.
In the office, one entire wall is festooned with a vast publicity poster for Moll Flanders. Rarely, and surely never in Kenilworth, has Ms Kingston's cleavage loomed so large. Oddly, it was Moll Flanders which led him to one of the more unlikely collaborations of his prolific career. "I was sitting in the house one evening having had quite a few drinks," he explains, "and the phone went. A foreign guy came on, calling from Los Angeles, but I didn't catch his name.
"He said [here Davies adopts a heavy Hungarian accent] 'I've just been looking at Moll Flanders and I like it very much. I'm having lunch with my friend who knows you and he said you should give him a ring and tell him, so here I am. Do you know what? You should do The Count of Monte Cristo. And I'll tell you who should direct it. Roman Polanski. Do you know Roman?'"
Davies said that of course he knew Polanski's films and would love to work with him, but really he was just humouring the caller, who was evidently either barmy or blotto, or both. "'Yeah, you and Roman together,' this guy said. 'Anyway, I won't take up any more of your time, goodbye.' And I forgot all about it, until my agent phoned up three weeks later and said 'what's this about you writing The Count of Monte Cristo with Roman Polanski directing?' I said, 'I don't know anything about it'. He said, 'well Andras Hamori, the president of Alliance Pictures, says he had quite a long conversation with you about it.' "
And so it was that Davies found himself in Paris, the creative tension crackling as he and Polanski each tried to develop their own ideas. "Luckily we had a lovely script person who was very good at sorting out two prickly old men with that thing of saying, 'actually you're not disagreeing'.
"We had three sessions of two or three days together, and some very nice lunches. We had one lunch with Hamori and his partner in Alliance Pictures, another Hungarian called Robert Lantos. So there I was with two Hungarians and a Pole, who all grew up in Communist-dominated satellite states, and all had fluent Russian. At one stage they started talking about how much they liked Pushkin, and took turns reciting bits of it. I was like 'erm, I'll get my coat.'"
Regrettably, The Count of Monte Cristo was not made. "We were so stately in our progress that Disney finished their version first, so our script is on a shelf. I did four Hollywood screenplays that year and made an immense amount of money, but only one, The Tailor of Panama, got made. And that was rewritten by the director." Still, Davies enjoys his Hollywood trips. "In the early stages, before they have seen the first draft, you are treated like a king. You fly first class, and I love a long flight first class, it's like staying in a really expensive private clinic. They put you up in really flash hotels, and they take you out for dinner and introduce you to major celebrities. Unfortunately, there's that embarrassing thing of being the only person at dinner finishing your plateful, and the only person drinking. But I always doggedly do it. I think 'if this wine cost $150 it ought to be drunk.'"
Despite Davies's forays into cinema (he also co-wrote Bridget Jones's Diary, and is currently working on the sequel), his reputation rests on his television screenplays – some of them original such as the House of Cards trilogy and the sitcom Game On, but principally adaptations including Moll Flanders, Pride and Prejudice, Middlemarch, Wives and Daughters, Vanity Fair and the recent The Way We Live Now.
Next up is Dr Zhivago. "My agent had heard that Granada might be thinking of doing a version of Zhivago," he explains. "I said 'who's going to write it?' and he said 'they were rather hoping you might be interested'. It's a bit shameful, but I have a slightly proprietorial thing about these big adaptations. Even if I'm not sure about them, I'm stimulated by the thought that if I don't, some other bugger will."
A huge chuckle. "So I thought that if anyone was going to do Dr Zhivago it ought to be me. But, of course, it's a daunting project. With Othello, you're setting yourself up against Shakespeare, and with Zhivago you're setting yourself up against David Lean. You can't really escape the movie. But watching it again, and reading the book, cheered me up. I don't think the love story gets told awfully well in the movie."
At 65, Davies shows no signs of reducing his output. I ask whether he might yet tackle Dickensor Hardy? "I don't know. I would like to have done Our Mutual Friend, but there was a very good one quite recently. I'm not fond of Hardy. All that fate. I absolutely hate Jude the Obscure. And I hated the film of it too.
"People keep saying that the future of these classic dramas is by no means assured. But I think the BBC will have to keep doing them. It will become very hard for the BBC to say what they're for if it's all game shows and reality shows."
Whatever, I fancy that Davies will continue being commissioned for as long as he wants. Not that there is much evidence of a lavish lifestyle to support in this quiet suburban turning off the high street in Kenilworth, where he and his wife (they have two grown-up children) have lived since the 1960s, when he was a lecturer in English Literature at Warwick University.
"I'm a bit of a skinflint, really," he says. "But we do go on expensive holidays, and we have quite a few of them. We go to the Caribbean for a week when the weather's awful here, and it's great not having to worry about saving up for that sort of thing. Also, I drive a fairly posh car [a Lexus]. It's something to do with living in the Midlands, it's a very car-conscious area. Nobody accuses you of being a scruffy dresser, but they will say 'what are you doing driving an old bloody Rover?'"
'Othello', ITV, 9pm, 23 December. Filming starts on 'Dr Zhivago' in FebruaryReuse content