Stephen Poliakoff: TV's foremost writer

Stephen Poliakoff has inherited Dennis Potter's crown. Gerard Gilbert talks to him about his new state-of-the-nation films for BBC1
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The Independent Online

A fortnight before I interview Stephen Poliakoff, I am sitting across the aisle from him at a screening of his new BBC film, Friends and Crocodiles, and can't but help notice his spasmodic body movements as his film unfolds. It is as if he is reliving each and every creative impulse that went into writing and directing the work.

Now, at his den in the London offices of the production company Talkback Thames - the wall is a collage of stills from more recent works (The Lost Prince, Shooting the Past , Perfect Strangers) and two new ones, Friends and Crocodiles and Gideon's Daughter - he's just as wired. He's reclining on a sofa, but only after nearly two hours does he relax enough for his foot to stop jiggling. There's no sign of the famous drinking-straw he carries to fiddle with, but it's probably as well that he doesn't smoke.

I have discovered that I like Poliakoff far more than I'd expected to. Grotesquely caricatured in a newspaper cutting as a "wild-eyed Rasputin" (he is undoubtedly intense, small and with unruly black hair and beard), he admits to inheriting his Russian father's explosive temper. I've heard that he doesn't suffer fools gladly. There is only one brief fusillade of exasperation, when I ask him about the crocodile motif in his new film.

"What do you mean, you didn't understand the crocodile?" he says, more incredulous than tetchy, like a teacher realising that he has a particularly dense pupil on his hands. "It's quite simple. Why didn't the dinosaurs survive the mass extinction, and crocodiles did? It's one of the most interesting questions of all."

It may well be, but these are patently more cerebral concerns than those of your average TV dramatist - and they are what give Poliakoff his unique standing in the medium. Sometimes, however, the drama and the ideas are uneasy bed-fellows. One TV critic likened watching a Poliakoff film to listening to an intelligent drunk at a party, mixing brilliant insights with clichés so crass "that you want to pour the contents of the ice bucket over his head".

But dissenters form a distinct minority. Last year, his film about George V's autistic son Prince John, The Lost Prince (shown again on BBC2 at new year), won three Emmys, television's equivalent of the Oscars. And the critical rapture that greeted Shooting the Past and Perfect Strangers has led to Poliakoff being seen as our pre-eminent TV dramatist, in much the same way as Dennis Potter was (suitably, Poliakoff won Bafta's prestigious Dennis Potter Award in 2002).

The unfashionably languorous pace of the films, and their interest in unusual subjects such as memory and family history, struck a chord with viewers starved of such unashamedly highbrow, meditative drama. And, although Poliakoff doesn't like the suggestion that he's "a beast that is allowed to do what he wants while no one else is," there is no doubting the special treatment he's given by the BBC. Why, the corporation is even shifting News at Tento accommodate him. "It was all part of the deal, because I wouldn't have written them otherwise. The director general himself had to give permission, not just a mere controller," he says with a delighted cackle.

His new films (a third is "brewing") constitute nothing less than a state-of-the-nation trilogy, or "something that illustrates how we ended up where we are now," as Poliakoff prefers to put it. He is clearly disenchanted with where Britain finds itself in 2006. "I've been thinking for a long time how to write about the recent past, because so much has changed in the past 20 years and there hasn't been much at all about that on television."

In Friends and Crocodiles, which stretches from the inner-city riots of 1981 to the dot.com bubble of the late 1990s, Damian Lewis plays Paul, a property developer made good, a dreamer and inventor now living in a country pile surrounded by painters, politicians, poets and assorted freeloaders: "A bit like a rock star, but hopefully more interesting," Poliakoff says. Paul hires a sensible local estate agent (played by Jodhi May) to bring order to his visionary ideas - personal computers and wind turbines, for example - and to help bring them to fruition. As Lewis's Gatsbyesque character throws one too many parties, May's secretary flourishes under the Thatcherite work ethic.

"I've always wanted to write about work, because we think about work most of the time and yet there is virtually nothing written about it," Poliakoff says. "Also, work relationships can be more intense than marriages, and I'm always intrigued when I hear someone say of somebody else that 'she used to be my secretary and now she's really powerful'. David Cameron is a brilliant example. He was quite a lowly person at Carlton Television not long ago, and now he could be prime minister."

Apart from Lewis and May, the cast includes Robert Lindsay as a hack journalist who links Friends and Crocodiles with the second film, Gideon's Daughter. This stars Bill Nighy as a disenchanted PR guru and Miranda Richardson as a grieving mother with whom he falls in love. Poliakoff attributes his ability to attract quality casts to the quality of his scripts, rather than any freedoms granted to the actors. Mike Leigh-style improvisations are not for him. "No, I'm very much of the Hitchcock school; he said something like, 'It's too late for a conductor of a symphony orchestra to change the music.' I take a long time to write things, and then it's sort of finished. And because the work is quite complex, I'd be lost if I started changing things."

Poliakoff was born in Holland Park, west London in 1952, where he grew up with two sisters and a brother - and a Russian grandmother living in the attic, who instilled in him a continuing fascination with the darker and more complex shades of European history. Poliakoff's paternal grandfather, whose life was the basis of his 1984 play Breaking the Silence, was a White Russian who survived the mass expulsion of Jews from Russia and the upheavals of the 1917 Revolution thanks to his technological prowess. "My grandfather helped to build the first automated telephone exchange in Moscow," Poliakoff says.

His grandfather fled Russia in 1924, when Stalin came to power, with nothing but a bag of golf clubs and a diamond concealed in his shoe (the golf clubs were to distract the guards from the diamond). He started an electronics company with Poliakoff's father Alexander, he of the volcanic temper: "We had a lot of fights," Poliakoff says, "but I realised he was an extraordinary figure." The company designed a hearing aid used by Winston Churchill and invented the hospital pager.

Poliakoff recalls that the only time the family was allowed to watch "downmarket" ITV was to witness pagers being used in Emergency Ward 10, although the invention didn't make the family terribly rich. "He wasn't a brilliant businessman," says Poliakoff, who claims he has inherited this lack of entrepreneurial acumen. "From time to time, people suggest I start an independent production company, but I'm horrified by the idea. My father's company nearly went under in my early teenage years. I remember sitting in the back of my car, my mother saying, 'I could sell my jewellery...'"

His mother, Ina, was a formidable-sounding actress manqué related to the Montagu banking family, who famously told her 17-year-old son that "your career is going nowhere" - something that might help to explain both Poliakoff's extraordinary prolificness and his precocity. At 53, he has written some 35 plays for film, stage and television (he has never adapted or directed anyone else's work). His first play, Granny, was written when he was just 15 and a pupil at Westminster School, and was put on as the school production. Granny was reviewed by The Times, whose correspondent wrote that it was better than much of the work being produced at the Royal Court.

After two frustrating years reading history at a "stuffy" Cambridge, Poliakoff left early to continue writing, having his first play put on professionally at the Traverse in Edinburgh by the director Michael Rudman, who is probably sick to death of being quoted recalling: "I don't know if he was 19 or 17 or 12, but he was very young and very arrogant."

Just five years later, and Poliakoff had become writer-in-residence at the * * National Theatre, simultaneously writing dramas for Play for Today, BBC2's successor to The Wednesday Play, the Sixties series of one-off dramas that nurtured such writing talents as Dennis Potter, Ken Loach and David Mercer.

"I've never been snobbish about television because I was brought up watching The Wednesday Play and saw extraordinary things, like Cathy Come Home and Blue Remembered Hills," says Poliakoff, whose early television career reached a zenith with Caught on a Train, an examination of British attitudes towards continental Europe, with a memorable performance from Peggy Ashcroft as a fierce aristocratic Austrian.

But then, in the 1980s, Poliakoff moved away from the BBC to the fledgling FilmFour operation. "I went because there was no contest," he says. "You made films that might get into the cinema, which was good, but, more important, they had a long life because Channel 4 showed them several times. Why spend a year making something that the BBC is only going to show once? As anyone who knows me will tell you, I'm obsessed about the life of the work."

He cites Close My Eyes, his 1991 exploration of brother-sister incest, starring Clive Owen and Saskia Reeves. "Close My Eyes was successful in the cinema and won prizes and things but, much more importantly to me, it still shows. Only the other week, admittedly after midnight... but after 14 years, it was still playing on terrestrial TV. It's probably been shown six or seven times on terrestrial TV, not counting FilmFour. That's why the purely television work died - it had no life."

But DVD has changed all that, and Poliakoff's most recent dramas are all available on disc. Shooting the Past, Perfect Strangers and Caught on a Train were released as a BBC box-set. Shooting the Past, his 1999 drama starring Timothy Spall and Lindsay Duncan in a tale of rapacious American developers trying to close down a photographic library (it was inspired by the destruction of archive material at the BBC), was the drama that won Poliakoff his elevated status. "Shooting the Past changed everything," he says. "I've been in a constant condition of writing and commissioning ever since. It led to total artistic control."

Poliakoff thinks that major writers are unnecessarily wary of television. "Maybe they think they won't get their own way. They could if they wanted to, but a lot of people don't want to - they prefer to get rich making movies that don't get made. I know a couple of playwrights who have written about 40 movies, and about two have been made. It pays a lot, but I can't personally comprehend doing it."

He feels strongly that television is a medium in which writers can get noticed. "If you try to do something different, it stands out more. Take Shameless - it's great, but if there were four or five people doing that sort of thing it wouldn't stand out as much. I love the theatre - I'm still in the theatre - but television offers the opportunity to reach a lot of people, and to create work that lasts because of DVD."

Poliakoff says his own television-watching tastes are catholic. "I keep up with most things, and I like comedy," he says. "Little Britain I don't think I can buy into, but I liked Extras because it was quite discomforting, which I thought was interesting. I'm obviously naturally interested in other authored drama, and classical stuff like Bleak House; after all, I'm married to Sandy Welch, who adapts classics for TV. She did the BBC versions of North and South and Our Mutual Friend, and the BBC's new Jane Eyre."

The couple live in Hammersmith with their 17-year-old son Alexei, and 20-year-old daughter Laura. It was Laura's leaving home for university that partly inspired Poliakoff's next film, Gideon's Daughter. Starting in 1997, at around the time of the "incredible hysteria" over the death of Diana, Princess of Wales and concluding on New Year's Eve 1999, this stars Bill Nighy as a disillusioned PR guru, a man whose every pronouncement is taken as oracular wisdom, who is given the job of "rebranding" Britain for the millennium celebrations. As he grows increasingly estranged from his student-age daughter, he becomes involved with the mother of a small boy killed in a traffic accident.

In a way, Gideon's Daughter is a summation of attacks Poliakoff has made in interviews over the past 10 years, where he frequently lambasted John Birt's management style at the BBC and the culture of focus groups and management consultants. "Management consultants have got away with murder," he says. "What I love about them is that they move off and are absolutely not responsible for their decisions. Future generations will find this extraordinary, just primitive."

In Gideon's Daughter, Poliakoff chillingly captures the horror of the millennium celebrations in the Dome in Greenwich - "how that was the precursor of the emptiness we felt, not just about New Labour but the whole level of discourse in politics and the thinness of aspiration," he says. "I was absolutely outraged that the Queen lit this ghastly beacon with 'British Gas' spelt out in enormous letters; I thought it was a great metaphor for the way the world was going to go."

The television news will again be moved for Gideon's Daughter when it is screened next month - not on BBC2, which would seem a more natural home, but on BBC1. Indeed, the corporation seems to treat Poliakoff with such consideration that I wondered about a recent diary item in this newspaper that claimed he was being wooed by Channel 4. "That is a sort of non-story," he says. "I do obviously have lunches with other broadcasters. At some stage, I will obviously work with some other broadcaster because I'm not paid a penny to stay loyal to the BBC. It's just that, with the length of time the work takes, there has been no time to work for other people.

"Obviously, winning the Emmy for The Lost Prince has opened up possibilities internationally. I do get offers from America, to go to Hollywood, but I've always resisted them. I'm much more like Mike Leigh or Ken Loach; I just want to do my own thing, and eventually you get to a sort of tipping point where the work does go international. In the end, it's not about money, it's about having complete artistic control."

'Friends and Crocodiles' is on BBC1 on 15 January at 9pm; 'Gideon's Daughter' is scheduled for 28 February

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