Poliakoff: 'Original work takes arrogance'

The director's latest film is set at the beginning of the Second World War, a period inextricably linked with his own family history

Take a country house, some beautiful English landscapes, a family secret, some fabulously stirring music, and a rich sense of history, and what do you get? A Stephen Poliakoff, of course. It's a combination that has worked to brilliant effect in much of his work, and one that has won him a reputation as one of our best writers and directors of film and TV drama, and carte blanche (and massive budgets) at the BBC. Pretty much no one else, these days, gets carte blanche, or massive budgets, at the BBC.

In Shooting the Past, it was used to explore our sense of the past and the eagerness of corporate culture to wipe it away. In Perfect Strangers, it was used to look at the ways in which secrets inflicted by history are repeated in a family. In Friends & Crocodiles, it was a springboard to explore the culture of work, and work relationships, at a time when the world is changing faster than ever before. And in The Lost Prince, which was one of the most expensive dramas ever made for the BBC, it was used to take a closer look at the beginnings of the First World War and the role played in it by the British Royal Family. It was also, of course, about their own whopping great secret, the "lost prince", Johnnie, epileptic and perhaps autistic, who spent most of his short life locked away. The Lost Prince won three Emmys. But then awards, for Poliakoff, are par for the course.

There's a clutch of them here, in his cosy office, just north of Soho, including an unframed certificate for an Emmy propped up against a file on a shelf. His walls are plastered with posters of his work. Behind a desk there are shelves of files with labels like "risk assessments", "crew contracts" and "post production". His office is at his production company, Talkback Thames, which also, I'm reminded by a note on the door in the loo, makes The X Factor. They have, you could say, got TV covered.

But Poliakoff's new film, Glorious 39, isn't for TV. It's his first for more than 10 years made for cinema. And yes, it's set in a variety of country houses, with glorious shots of the British countryside, a gorgeous soundtrack, a giant family secret and a gargantuan slab of history. It's set, in fact, just before the outbreak of the Second World War. This, however, is no tale of British grit and heroism in the face of foreign fascism. It's a tale of British complacency at the highest levels. Not just complacency, actually, but determination to preserve the status quo. "I wanted," says Poliakoff, "to throw light on a piece of history I felt very strongly about – on what a very close-run thing it was that we didn't do a deal with Hitler, and that Churchill only became Prime Minister by a whisker."

The characters in Glorious 39, unlike those in The Lost Prince, are largely fictional, but the mood, and the circumstances in which they find themselves, are not. In the film, a young Tory MP (played with manic intensity by David Tennant) who's trying to bring down Chamberlain is found dead. Anne, the eldest, adopted, daughter of the family of another Tory MP begins to suspect that his death is not an accident and stumbles upon evidence that confirms her suspicions. She also begins to fear that her family are involved in a conspiracy against her. The result is a film that's strangely mesmerising, in that familiar Poliakoff way, but also, unusually, exciting.

"I thought," says Poliakoff, "making it a thriller was a good idea, because you have to make the audience feel they don't know what's going to happen next. We know we won the war, but it could so clearly have gone the other way." He has touched on the Holocaust before, both in Shooting the Past and in Perfect Strangers, but he has always approached this period obliquely. Why has it taken him so long to address it head-on?

Poliakoff pauses and a Poliakoff pause, I should point out, is quite a rare thing. If his films tend towards the lingering and the so-slow-you-can-savour-every-moment, his conversation is like a steam train, hurtling on at breakneck speed, and making it really quite tricky to lob the odd question. Neanderthally hairy since his early twenties, and quite scarily controlling, according to some of the actors who have worked with him, and BBC execs who have fought him, and lost, he is surprisingly small and – well, almost dainty. Almost, in fact, feminine. His lips are full. His voice, at times, is quite high. And his laugh, which punctuates his near-monologues, verges on a giggle. The foot tapping away next to me screams "highly strung", but today, at least, he seems affable and smiley.

"That," he says, in response to my what-took-you-so-long query, "is a very good question". The answer, once again, is lengthy. It includes references to the history books he's read about the period, the fact that the power elite ranged against Churchill was the contemporary equivalent of senior government figures plus Murdoch, Paul Dacre, and the BBC, Rab Butler's description of Churchill as a "half-American mongrel", Churchill's speeches, which Poliakoff and his fellow pupils used to listen to at his boarding prep school as a treat, and the irrefutable fact that, if the appeasers had won, Poliakoff wouldn't be here.

His family were Russian Jews, descended from Hasidic rabbis. His father witnessed the Russian Revolution from a window in a flat in Red Square. The fact that he was alive to see it was due to his own father's resourcefulness – and good luck. "They were starving in their dacha in the country," says Poliakoff, "because they couldn't grow any food, and a commissar of labourers broke down outside their door. He came in and said, 'Can I use the telephone?' and my grandfather showed him all his inventions". He was soon working as a telephone inspector, with his own train. He went on to build the first telephone exchange in Moscow and continued to invent things – including the first sound recordings – after fleeing Russia with a diamond in his shoe. No wonder Poliakoff grew up with a sense of history. No wonder the characters in his films tend towards the colourful.

Poliakoff's (Jewish aristocratic) mother was an actress, or perhaps more accurately, a wannabe actress. ("She did act in a couple of productions which mingled amateurs and professionals", he says in her defence.) His father was a businessman whose fortunes vacillated from year to year. And the family home doubled, at least for a while, as a zoo. This, says Poliakoff, was his brother's idea, inspired by Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals, a book they both loved. It survived for some years, but the smells got "a bit much". Poliakoff still remembers being "poleaxed with grief" at the escape of a snake.

At 17, he was, I've read, told by his mother that his "career was going nowhere". At 17?! Is this true? Poliakoff gives a sheepish smile. "I wouldn't have made that up." He had, he explained, had a play accepted at the Hampstead Theatre, but a new artistic director had taken over and cancelled it. "I was trying to be philosophical," he says, with another giggle that's almost a cackle, "and that's when she said it, meaning 'you should get on with it'." His mother, he says, wasn't "fulfilling ambitions" through him, but did take "enormous interest" in his career. His father "put an enormous price on thinking originally". Which, presumably, is why the boy who hated his English prep school (which gave him "a huge distrust of authority" and made him into a "lifelong rebel") started writing plays while still at Westminster School and why he abandoned his degree in history at Cambridge to get on with it. His first play, written when he was 15, was reviewed by The Times. He was writer-in-residence for the National Theatre when he was 24.

Michael Rudman, who commissioned his first professional play at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, described Poliakoff as "very arrogant". Was he? That giggle again. "I'm sure Westminster boys are all charming now," he says, "but there was a slight 'we own the world' sense, I'm sure. But also trying to do original work all the time – inflicting your vision – is, I suppose, an arrogant act." Indeed. And not that many people have the self-belief to try, and certainly not when they're quite so young. Where did his self-belief come from?

"Well," he says, "I suppose I was quite driven from an early age, and also my brother was very brilliant at science. It's not the stereotypical Jewish 'we've got to succeed', it was more that there were quite powerful role models. And my father felt that he'd buggered up his life a bit. I remember him taking me on a walk when I was about 14 or 15 and he was saying 'my life has been a failure, you've got to do better'." There was even, he says, a deathbed scene when his father, frail and frequently ill due to that malnourishment during the Russian Revolution, made him promise to do something with his life. Poliakoff did, and his father lived for another 25 years.

It was long enough to see his son win a string of awards for his work, and long enough too to drown his son's memories of the violent rage that could be triggered by a too-loud "gramophone" or the scooping of peas with a fork. "Being an outsider," says Poliakoff, "he had this extraordinary obsession with English manners, and class. He would have loved a big country house."

Ah yes, the country house. Well, he didn't get the country house, but he did get a son who is lauded and courted by the British Establishment (and was awarded a CBE), a son who could have made very big bucks by rewriting films in Hollywood, but who chose to make very beautiful, very thoughtful, very memorable films that reach very big TV audiences instead. And if Poliakoff has inherited his father's temper (and, I think, his obsession with country houses), he has made sure that he has little reason to lose it. He never has to see his films, or TV dramas, bastardised or betrayed, because for the past 25 years he has insisted on directing them himself. It leads, he says, to a strange double life. In half of it, this supremely talented, exacting, but likeable man (a man, incidentally, who can't use a computer or email) works with vast casts of actors, and crews, and production staff, and money men, and sound engineers, and execs, and editors, coaxing the best performances he can, getting the best shots he can, shooting the best version he can of the present exploring the past.

But in half of it, he's on his own in a room. Just him and the blank page. "Suddenly," he says, "nobody's interested in what you're doing, nobody could care less, and you've just got to feed off your own energy. When you're editing a film, you think, 'If only I was alone in a room and able to write something new, I'd be so happy.'" And then, he adds, with another wild cackle, "you're not happy at all".

'Glorious 39' is out in London today and 27 November nationwide.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition