Stephen Poliakoff: This time it's personal
Poliakoff's new TV trilogy draws on a period of social and sexual change in Britain – and on his own past. He talks to Ciar Byrne
Thursday 01 November 2007
On his first day at pre-prep school, when Stephen Poliakoff was just five years old, his teacher asked the class: "All those of you who have a titled father, please put up your hand."
"I didn't have a titled father, so that wasn't good," he recalls. The year was 1958, the debutantes came out for their last ever season and deference was still a cornerstone of British society. Within a few years, the entire edifice had been brought tumbling down by the social and sexual revolution of the 1960s. Half a century on, that paradigm shift still fascinates the writer-director, whose television dramas have earned him a unique place in British cultural life.
He has set two of a new trilogy of films – Capturing Mary and A Real Summer – in that pivotal year of 1958. Both star Ruth Wilson, the young actress who played Jane Eyre in the recent BBC1 adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's novel, as an attractive young journalist whose ideas are ahead of her time.
"It was an extraordinary year, 1958. Wild Strawberries [by Ingmar Bergman] and Vertigo [Alfred Hitchcock] were premiered that year, and the play A Taste of Honey [Shelagh Delaney]. All this new work was just beginning to burst forward and yet society was way behind, the debs still being presented, an extraordinary sense of, 'Will the world ever change?'"
After the success he enjoyed with Gideon's Daughter and its companion film Friends and Crocodiles, Poliakoff has made Capturing Mary, starring Dame Maggie Smith, David Walliams and Wilson, as a BBC2 companion piece to Joe's Palace, starring Michael Gambon and Rupert Penry Jones, which is broadcast on BBC1 this Sunday.
So entranced was Poliakoff by the character of Mary that he decided to explore her further in another film, A Real Summer, to be broadcast a week later as part of an evening devoted to Poliakoff's work.
The BBC has been good to Poliakoff but, speaking from his office at the independent television production company Talkback Thames, the scriptwriter and director is in a good position to comment on recent events at the corporation. "The BBC is a tough place at the moment. Every three or four years in the history of the BBC there's some terrible episode and a terrific loss of confidence." He's particularly aggrieved at the departure of the BBC1 controller Peter Fincham. He counts Fincham, a former chief executive of Talkback Thames, as "a great friend. It's a devastating loss for the BBC. He was an absolutely brilliant guy to work with, one of the best executives I've worked with."
He adds: "There's not enough creative energy at the BBC. There are far too many people on quite big salaries who have no power to get anything on screen. Until that is unlocked in some way, the place is going to be in perpetual crisis. It's in the very difficult area of Civil Service-meets-showbiz."
Joe's Palace is the tale of a young man, Joe (Danny Lee Wynter), who becomes the caretaker of a grand London mansion. The owner of the house, Mr Graham (Gambon) lives across the street, but keeps the mansion perfectly maintained, with fresh flowers, as he attempts to find out how his father, whose fortune bought the building, made his money.
Joe's Palace is set in the present day, but it resounds with history. Capturing Mary is split between the present and the past, when the house was alive with parties thrown by Mr Graham senior. It opens as Joe answers the door to an elderly lady (Smith) and, breaking his orders not to let anyone enter the house, invites her in for a cup of tea. In flashbacks, she recalls visiting the house when her early fame as a journalist earned her invitations to soirées alongside the likes of Alfred Hitchcock. At one of these parties, she encounters Greville (Walliams), a mysterious figure determined to gain power over her.
Wilson was the only actress Poliakoff considered to play the young Mary. His wife, Sandy Welch, who dramatised Jane Eyre, told him: "You should look at this girl, she's very talented." Wilson came to their house to watch the final episode and as soon as Poliakoff had seen it, he knew she would be perfect.
"When we started working together, we fired off each other. There was a creative meeting of minds, which was unusual for me." He went on to write A Real Summer, the only piece he has produced for a single actor. In it, Wilson plays both Mary, a carpenter's daughter from the North of England made good, and Geraldine, a seemingly silly aristocrat who latches on to her but who possesses some deeper wisdom and warns her of the dangers facing a young woman in the world of the late 1950s.
Mary was inspired by a number of real-life journalists, including the American film critic Pauline Kael. "I thought, 'What if there was someone a little bit like her, quite fearless, someone more radiant than her in a British context," Poliakoff says.
"It's extraordinary to think about movies in the late 1950s, how chaste they were. Then, within six years, there was full frontal nudity. There was an extraordinary burst in a very short space of time. If Mary had been born just a tiny bit younger and so had made it in the early to mid-1960s, it would have been the perfect time for her. That's her tragedy, really."
Wilson, 25, landed the role of Jane Eyre within a year of leaving Lamda drama school. She says: "This is an interesting piece because it's about a girl who's been successful very early and who is trying to maintain that, and in a similar way I was propelled by Jane Eyre. In those moments you can be at your most vulnerable."
Playing the young Maggie Smith was "daunting", but eased by the fact that Wilson had starred opposite her son Toby Stephens, Rochester in Jane Eyre. When they met, Smith said: "I know you intimately. I've been watching you on the BBC."
Capturing Mary gave Wilson the chance to portray a bold, sexy young woman. "This is a great piece to transform people's opinions of what I can play, what I can look like. I have a versatile face that can be plain, but can also be glamorous and beautiful."
Poliakoff, the son of a Russian-Jewish father and Anglo-Jewish mother, grew up in a cultured household and attended Westminster School and Cambridge University. His fascination with the past stems from his parents, who were relatively old when he was born. "Their stories came from the 1920s and 1930s. They were both born just before the First World War, so that made all of the 20th century available."
Poliakoff says he based the encounter between Mary and Greville, an older man who sets out to destroy her, on experience. "I had encounters like that in my youth, with dangerous, powerful people, always men, although not always gay men. When I entered the theatre, there were very few outlets for new writing and certainly on television, there were some powerful people who encouraged new writing. If they didn't like you, you were in trouble.
"I had one encounter with a very famous producer. It still gives me a chill. He wanted me to do something, an idea of his he wanted me to write, and I didn't like the idea. Saying no was going to be very stupid thing to do, but I had to say no. It was in his house and I was alone with him and it was frightening. He threatened me in subtle ways." When he got home, he rang his agent, who told him: "Oh, he's already destroyed three careers. "
Fortunately, Poliakoff's career survived that encounter. He is now planning a return to the theatre and wants to make more feature films. "It would be unambitious of me not to do that."
Encouraging young writers is also important to the writer-director. As part of BBC2's Poliakoff Night, there was a plan to launch a competition for new screenwriters, which he would judge, but the idea fell foul of the BBC's ban on competitions following the phone-in scandals.
Poliakoff insists: "The idea that there can only be me and a handful of others doing original drama is wrong." His new trilogy sets the bar high for aspiring talent.
Joe's Palace, BBC1, Sunday 9pm; Capturing Mary, BBC2, 12 November; A Real Summer is part of Stephen Poliakoff Night on BBC2, 10 November
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