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
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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.