Stephen Poliakoff is an oddity in television. In an age when the single TV film is a rarity and when executives are suspicious of the writer’s voice, Poliakoff retains an enviable niche.
Not only does he still get his films made and shown at peak times, but he also has the nation’s finest actors queuing up to audition for roles. Plus, he gets to direct everything he makes and retains full editorial control over his output.
The work itself also bucks the trend. His pieces are slow, introspective and long. They address themes of memory, of friendship and belonging in a leisurely fashion, with reflective scores and long, lingering shots.
So how does do it? Possibly because no one but Poliakoff feels confident enough to direct his plays.
Sitting in a sparsely furnished room in his Hammersmith, West London, home, his famous high-pitched giggle echoing against the polished floorboards, Poliakoff twists a drinking straw around his finger distractedly as he thinks. “I suppose I direct my own stuff because it works in only one way. Every element has to be in place otherwise the next element won’t happen. When other people directed my films, I spent so much time on the set I might as well have been directing. Various producers of my earlier films asked why I didn’t direct them myself, and eventually I did.”
Three of his new works are currently being premiered on television. Last Sunday, Joe’s Palace went out on BBC1. It is a brooding examination of loneliness, guilt and friendship set in a large London townhouse owned by a multi-millionaire played by Michael Gambon, who employs a teenager to act as caretaker. The film explores their relationship, and also his discomfort over the fortune he inherited from his father which, we eventually learn, was earned from the sale of items stolen by the Nazis from German Jews.
The film features images of Jews being persecuted in pre-war Germany — women being ordered to climb trees and sing like birds, and men humiliated by being made to crawl naked through a public park. Poliakoff says: “The image of the women in the tree is true. Obviously I wouldn’t have made something up like that. It comes from Harold Nicolson’s diaries. He was a notorious antisemite and even he was shocked. He called it ‘cruel humour’.
“The question everybody asks about that time is: ‘How much did they know?’ I would turn the question around and ask who didn’t know. Perhaps people didn’t know about the gassing, but they certainly knew how the Jews were being badly treated. The Anschluss [Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938] in particular was famous for people holding out their children to watch the Jews being made to scrub the streets. We see a lot about the sadism of SS officers, but much less about the ordinary people who watched with approval.”
Poliakoff’s films, including Perfect Strangers, Shooting the Past and now Joe’s Palace, have touched on Jewish issues, but he has never been tempted to go further. “In the last 10 years I have written about Jewish things quite a bit, although I have never done a full-frontal Jewish work. I’m more interested in exploring the aspects which affect people outside the Jewish community. Joe’s Palace is about how history affects us now.”
He adds: “It’s funny — when I was young, the Cold War dominated everything. Since that dissolved, it’s almost as if the Holocaust has come closer again. Although my identity is quite diffuse because I am not a believer, I would say that I am very proudly Jewish.” He pauses for a moment before adding: “You know that’s the first time I’ve ever said that in an interview.”
Poliakoff addresses a different period in Capturing Mary, a film set in the same grand house, this time in its 1950s heyday. The film centres on an encounter between Mary, an opinionated young journalist, and a sinister and mysterious older man. The cast is, as you would imagine, stellar — Maggie Smith and David Walliams play alongside rising star Ruth Wilson. There is even a glimpse of Myleene Klass playing the piano at one point.
Poliakoff, fidgeting animatedly, says he was inspired by a particular period in post-war Britain — the last gasp of a select group of plutocrats who exercised hegemony over political and cultural life.
“The country was run from these houses where the political and aristocratic leaders would gather. The poignancy of Mary is that, had she been born a tiny bit later, she would have come to the fore in the 1960s when these characters had less power to ruin her career.” He rocks back on his chair: “I brushed up against some of these people very early in my career in the early ’70s. They were dangerous customers. The theatre world was very tight in those days and a few select people had the power to extinguish careers in a way they don’t now, simply because it was such a tight circle then.”
Although Poliakoff speaks about the way youngsters were expected to defer to their elders when he first came into the industry, his own precocious rise to prominence as a teenage playwright seems to indicate that young talent was able to find a way through. Like many playwrights, he was a frustrated actor.
“I started writing at school. I wanted to act but realised I was totally without any talent at all. This was dramatically brought home to me when school plays were cast and I never got any parts, whereas my friends did. By then I was already writing stories and saw that most of it was dialogue. I wasn’t a natural at the descriptive stuff and I was slightly stage-struck, so I began to write plays.”
Poliakoff, who was one of the youngest in his class at Westminster public school, took his A levels at 16. He gained a place at King’s College Cambridge, but had to wait before actually going to university. “I had nearly two years, by which time I had lost the habit of academic study. I became so involved in writing in those two years that I realised it was my vocation.”
Ultimately he decided to leave Cambridge before graduating to concentrate on his writing. “It was a mixture of determination to succeed as a playwright and the fact that there was no option because I had let my academic studies wither so much,” he explains.
Poliakoff speculates that his approach to life may have been influenced by his grandfather, a Russian émigré inventor who supplied Winston Churchill with his hearing aid and as a result came under MI5 suspicion (they thought he might be bugging the great man). Certainly his wild curly hair and eccentric bearing is reminiscent of a mad inventor.
On his mother’s side, his family, the Swaythlings, were titled and eminent, though his grandfather blew the entire fortune through his eccentricity.
“He did up a huge house in Egham, Surrey. He was a romantic and he spent millions on it until he had no money left, and the house was sold. Their descent was rapid though their poverty was relative — they could still afford a mews house in Belgravia.”
A grand house? A lost fortune? An eccentric millionaire? It sounds like the plot of a Poliakoff film.