Television Review

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The Independent Culture
CONTRARY TO popular belief, truth isn't always stranger than fiction, but fiction does have to work at it to stay ahead of the game. Shooting the Past (BBC2) is an oddball drama, written and directed by Stephen Poliakoff, which works pretty hard. It has a head start in the form of Timothy Spall. In terms of sheer weirdness, it would be hard to match the opening shot of Spall, tousled and obsessive, staring at the camera with the dazed expression of an owl which has just had its first kiss.

After that, though, reality is hard on the drama's heels. It is set in a huge photographic library which has somehow staved off the worst effects of the 20th century: its catering arrangements are improbably lavish and its profusely eccentric staff are unequipped, either socially or professionally, for a life outside. Their idyll is shattered by the arrival of a US business school which has bought the premises and intends to disperse or destroy the collection.

A lot of blatant oppositions were set up in the first episode - tradition versus modernity, faceless Americans versus richly individual Britons, the bottom line versus civilisation and memory. Poliakoff is too clever to let them stand, though. Soon the chief American (Liam Cunningham) was lingering over the photos, enchanted by moments of evaporating beauty or peculiarity stolen out of time and caught in snapshots. It quickly became clear that he was at least as sensitive as Lindsay Duncan's soulful, dedicated curator, and possibly a good deal more honest.

Sympathies were defied in other ways, too. When she told him the story, teased out of thousands of photographs, of one Jewish girl in wartime Berlin, it didn't end with the Spielbergian tug at the heartstrings you expected, but with a confounding image: the same girl 40 years later as a bag lady, raving at the London traffic.

Shooting the Past looks less like genuine drama than allegory - albeit allegory turned upside down and given a good shake. But if Poliakoff the writer leans towards the mechanical, Poliakoff the director has assembled a brilliant cast that can give the viewer an enlivening jolt of embarrassment or sympathy.

Connoisseurs of the bizarre will have been better off with the second part of Inside the Lords (BBC2). We met Lady Strange, who defended the hereditary principle on the unarguable grounds that "heredity is what comes to you through your family". From this sturdy piece of logic, she leapt to the less easily defensible view that "the family unit" is the basis of the House of Lords. The family unit was also the argument used by peers we saw voting against equalising the homosexual age of consent, though quite how the two matters were related was never clear. You doubt Poliakoff could dream up an image of stuffy tradition both as mechanically precise and as dramatically extraordinary as the ones we saw here. I tell you, fiction has its work cut out.