[img]http://hits.guardian.co.uk/b/ss/guardiangu-feeds/1/H.20.3/63867?ns=guardian&pageName=Stephen+Poliakoff+interview%3AArticle%3A1309641&ch=Culture&c3=Guardian&c4=Culture+section%2CDrama+%28Film+genre%29%2CPeriod+drama+%28TV+genre%29%2CTheatre&c6=Nicholas+Wroe&c7=09-Nov-28&c8=1309641&c9=Article&c10=Feature&c11=Culture&c13=A+life+in+...+%28series%29&c25=&c30=content&h2=GU%2FCulture%2FDrama[/img]'What really buys you freedom is being successful. So long as you deliver, they leave you alone'
For someone best known for Shooting the Past, a television drama apparently so slow and un-televisual that BBC executives begged him to speed it up, Stephen Poliakoff is a very fast talker. Sentences tumble into one another, thoughts jerkily digress, regroup and change their angle of attack. Ideas flit in and out of focus as all the while a plastic drinking straw is furiously twiddled between his fingers. Outlining details of his latest venture, Glorious 39, his first feature film for 12 years, Poliakoff makes glancing references to George W Bush, Bulldog Drummond, the history of the wire tap and Norfolk's evergreen oaks in expressing his fascination and horror at the aristocratic and establishment appeasers who, in the run-up to the second world war, mounted a desperate last effort to do a deal with Hitler in the hope of retaining their power and privilege.
Poliakoff's 1999 play Talk of the City had addressed the BBC's reluctance to broadcast news of Jewish persecution in Nazi Germany before the outbreak of the war. "But for some reason I didn't then ask the obvious question as to what was going on in the political and aristocratic elite. I sort of accepted that Chamberlain was this rather boring figure with a silly umbrella and it all worked out in the end. But then I read up on the period and found out what an incredibly close run thing it was. There was just a tiny band of people around Churchill who were up against most of the Tory party, the aristocracy, the royal family and the newspaper editors of the time. My mother's family were aristocratic Jews and leading figures in the Liberal party. If the appeasers had won and Britain had become a Vichy-style state, she would certainly have been taken away. I became very interested in how close I came to not being here."
Although Poliakoff's early plays were aggressively contemporary â "appalling hamburger bars, subterranean discos, early versions of karaoke, neon and violence" â it is for his idiosyncratic treatment of the past that he is best known today. "But I didn't really write about my Jewish background until I was into my 40s." More or less oblique references to the Holocaust and the 1930s cropped up in Shooting the Past (1999), Perfect Strangers (2001) and Joe's Palace (2007) before the more direct study in Glorious 39. "So both my parents were dead by the time I really addressed the subject," he says, before, for the first time, abruptly stopping the apparently endless flow of conversation.
"It really hadn't occurred to me until this moment that â and it's such an obviously glaring fact now I say it â those things could be linked. I didn't really write about Jewishness and what happened to the Jews until my parents died."
In Perfect Strangers, a character says: "If you dig hard enough, there are at least three great stories in any family" and Poliakoff's use of the family as the arena in which wider events reverberate has became as characteristic in his work as the large mysterious houses, the archives of sound or images, or the hidden corners of history.
Neither Churchill nor Chamberlain feature in Glorious 39, in which the drama is played out in the aristocratic Keyes family whose adopted daughter, played by Romola Garai, begins by feeling "very secure in this world, but when it begins to unstitch it happens incredibly quickly", explains Poliakoff. "That's what happened all over Europe for Jewish people who had lived happily among their neighbours for years. Then it changed. In the case of Vienna, it changed within hours.
"One minute it was a café society and everything going along nicely. Then Hitler entered and people were watching through the windows as their Jewish neighbours were cleaning pavements and being spat at. It shows how an apparently civilised surface can crack open to reveal the darkness incredibly quickly, as most recently happened in the former Yugoslavia. We never had to face up to our antisemitism after the war because of our brave and proud history â and it was brave and proud. But it was a damn close run thing, and the forces trying to do a deal were incredibly powerful. It really could have happened here."
Poliakoff was born in London in 1952 into a home that was both "quite formal and quite chaotic". His father's family had come to the UK from Russia in 1924, having witnessed the revolution from their flat near Red Square before escaping â with a diamond smuggled in a shoe â when Stalin came to power. His inventor grandfather died when Poliakoff was a child, but his grandmother lived on into his adulthood telling "amazing stories that lasted only a few seconds, which she told with absolutely no elaboration. So she'd say, 'I once saw Tolstoy and followed him down the street to see how many people recognised him'. And that was it. She saw the first production of The Cherry Orchard but never said a word about how it was received."
Poliakoff's father and grandfather's firm produced, among other things, hearing aids â including Churchill's â and later invented the hospital bleeper. The family were great Anglophiles even when they lived in Russia, and Poliakoff says his father was obsessed with manners and became very snobbish. "There was a lot of tension in the house about using correct forks, and even into the 1990s he would kiss women's hands." Although the business was sometimes financially precarious, the firm bought a Rolls-Royce, which would pick Poliakoff up from school. "And then my father would speak to the headmaster just to mention that he had 'brought the Rolls today'."
Poliakoff had been the only Jewish boy at his prep school and fellow pupils would watch him carefully to see which bits of the Lord's Prayer he said. In those days, he says, he twiddled a stick between his fingers, not a drinking straw. His education continued at Westminster school, where he wrote a play that was reviewed in the Times. Christopher Hampton had just been appointed as the first resident dramatist at the Royal Court, and part of his job was "to go prospecting". "So I heard about this play at Westminster and went along," he says. "Stephen was much as he is now: nervous, clearly very bright with too many things on his mind to formulate complete sentences. His play was extremely promising and I got the Royal Court to commission another one from him which, in time-honoured Royal Court fashion, they ended up deciding not to do."
Hampton remembers even then a "distinctive writing personality. Like everyone's first plays, it was unsophisticated and ragged round the edges â but it had a real intensity. And then, as now, he seemed to be slightly off the rhythm in that the work is sort of jazzy, you don't get quite what you expect." Poliakoff says the cancelled play, which Richard Eyre was due to direct, was his "first lesson in how devastating showbiz can be. Shortly afterwards my mother, who was far too interested in my career having wanted to be an actress herself, said to me that, despite being only 17, my career 'was going nowhere', which I thought was a bit harsh."
The following year Poliakoff was invited to participate in a now notorious theatre project when seven radical fringe theatre writers, including Howard Brenton, Trevor Griffiths and David Hare, collaborated on an experimental work, Lay By, about a rape and its consequences. "It verged on the pornographic," Poliakoff recalls. "I had to look up some of the sexual terms in a dictionary. I was very much the baby of the pack and only actually contributed a few lines, but it did have an interesting effect. Naturalism was frowned upon at the time, and the sort of heightened realism I felt I was gravitating towards wasn't part of their world. The others weren't terribly interested in evoking time and place or psychological character development, and that helped to define me, albeit in a negative way, because at least I realised what I was not."
Poliakoff says he has always thought of himself as being on the left. "But I never wanted to be didactic or agitprop or even polemical. I was more interested in celebrating complexity. I've always thought people are more complex than the marketing men, or the political class, or the media class give them credit for. People can contain two contradictory ideas in their heads at the same time, so telling them what to think at the end of a play insults their intelligence. There are ways of showing different ways in which the world might be ordered. But not by pointing them out. Instead you try to deal with the complexity."
Poliakoff went up to Cambridge to read history but left before completing his degree. He says he was too late for 60s euphoria and optimism, and by the time he was writing on the fringe it was against a backdrop of the "brutal rebuilding of Britain. All those city centres torn up and redesigned for the car, which now seems ridiculously short sighted. This all coincided with a tottering minority Labour government held up with IMF loans, huge industrial unrest and bombs going off in Northern Ireland. My first big success, Hitting Town (1975), was about a brother and sister retreating from the violence into an incestuous night. It was private reaction to public bleakness."
That his early plays were almost exclusively urban and contemporary he says, in hindsight, must have been some sort of reaction against his background. "Both of my parents were born before the first world war and had very old-fashioned views that were quite claustrophobic. My father's love of Georgian architecture and Rolls-Royces, my mother's fascination with matinee idols and people like Rex Harrison, this was a 30s view of Britain carried through into the 60s and 70s. I wanted to write about what I saw around me."
He also wanted his work to be seen by as large an audience as possible. He remembers "stumbling across" Pinter's A Night Out on television when he was 10 or 11. "I was completely alone and had no context for it, but thought it was fascinating and also that it was the norm, which in a way it was as 11 million other people watched it." He says even though the Times didn't carry television reviews until well into the 80s, "it was both sexy and artistically credible to be on TV. Dennis Potter was already famous. John Osborne and Tom Stoppard did television work. There were plenty of role models and I had no problem moving between TV and theatre."
Poliakoff's television breakthrough came in 1977 with the nuclear thriller Stronger Than the Sun in the BBC's Play for Today slot. His 1980 television film Caught on a Train, starring Peggy Ashcroft, won a Bafta. While he acknowledges that its success encouraged the BBC to allow him more freedom, he also says "Everybody had more freedom back then. There was always a bureaucratic thing about money, but no one was ever told how to write. The tradition was to put on the writer's vision."
But by the time he returned to television in the late 90s, after a period working in the theatre and making feature films, both he and the medium had changed. Breaking the Silence, his 1984 RSC tragicomic play set on a train just after the Russian revolution, had been his first serous attempt to deal with both his, and the continent's history. "Then Michael Jackson [controller of BBC1 at the time] said he wanted something that people would remember. Which did make me a bit cross because I thought I'd done that once or twice already. But I did attempt to write something completely different to what was on television." Written and directed by Poliakoff, Shooting the Past starred Timothy Spall and Lindsay Duncan in a story about a battle for a picture library. It was written in irregular length episodes with long, slow scenes that lingered over photographs and faces.
"I wanted to fight the idea that people couldn't concentrate for long, and when it was finished all hell did break loose. By now they did try to tell you how to write, and some relatively junior executives thought it should be cut and made quicker, which would have ruined the whole point of it. I went bananas and eventually won the battle. So it wasn't a question of being invited by the BBC to do what I liked.
"People did try to interfere, but I resisted them and was ultimately proved right." He followed up with the Bafta winning Perfect Strangers (2001) the Emmy winning The Lost Prince (2003) and Golden Globes for Gideon's Daughter (2005). "What really buys you freedom is being successful. So long as you deliver, they leave you alone."
Lorraine Heggessey, a former head of BBC1 and now chief executive of Talkback Thames, Poliakoff's long-time producers, says the degree of control he exercises is indeed exceptional. "The fashion for some time, and I've been part of this myself, is to edit everybody. You give them input to 'improve' their work. And in most cases it works. But sometimes you can also dilute things and you lose some of the original artistic vision. Stephen's vision remains intact and his work, in the theatre or on television or in the cinema, is instantly recognisable. And anyway, such is his personality that it's difficult not to let him do his own thing. He cares so much and puts so much into his work that of course there can be tensions. But someone once said to me: 'Work with the best, not the easiest.' And who are we to judge? You get the brilliance because of the purity of vision."
Poliakoff still expresses strong opinions about TV drama â most recently when he identified "Kafkaesque committees" at the BBC â and enjoys talking shop about Saturday night schedules, the impact of DVDs and reminiscing about the time, not so long ago, when The Lost Prince premiered against ITV's big gun of A Touch of Frost and between them pulled in 21 million people.
His next project will be a new stage play â "contemporary and urban" â and in future he intends to work simultaneously in the theatre, film and television. "I have some ideas for more movies, but I'm not giving up television. I want to write a 20th-century story but I might not direct it, as I just won't have the time. The alternative is not to write for television at all, and I have so many more things I want to do. But not a single person I've told believes that I'll be able to let go enough to allow someone else to direct. We'll see. I'm interested myself to see how it turns out."
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