About 20 years ago I met Stephen Poliakoff on the set of his BBC film Soft Targets. He had a mop of curly black hair, a thick beard and spent the entire day fiddling with a drinking straw. He told me that television was like a tap that was constantly running with a dull opaque liquid. It was his job as a TV dramatist, he said, to get some liquid running through that tap that was of a completely surprising colour. Green was his preferred choice.
On Thursday night BBC2 broadcasts the first instalment of Perfect Strangers, the centrepiece of its spring/summer season. It is written and directed by Poliakoff and its top-flight cast includes Michael Gambon, Lindsay Duncan, Matthew MacFadyen, Claire Skinner, Toby Stephens and Timothy Spall. The setting for this three-part drama is a large family reunion at a smart London hotel, at which an only child (MacFadyen) discovers the amazing world of his vast extended family.
Poliakoff's work may vary wildly in its success, but it is always quirky and unpredictable, taking an unhurried stare at awkward subjects. Caught on a Train, his film of British unease about mainland Europe, received a Bafta award in 1980. Close My Eyes, which explored incest and adultery, won the Evening Standard Best Film award in 1992. Shooting the Past, on the destruction of a massive archive of photographs, won the Prix Italia in 1999.
In March this year Poliakoff bit the hand that fed him when he attacked the corporation at the launch of BBC2's new programme season. His argument was that the BBC relies on focus groups, recycles ideas and only uses a list of top actors that it considers bankable. In Poliakoff's view, it is the job of a subsidised broadcaster to stick up for the voice of the writer. His credo could be summed up: (1) Never be more predictable than the audience. (2) Show people things that they haven't seen before. Both these goals require highly original writers. Speaking last year at an awards ceremony, he said: "The voice of the writer has been squashed and diminished over the years with the death - or semi-death - of the single play."
If one person has bucked the system, it is Poliakoff himself. He is remarkably prolific. At 48, he has written more than 30 plays and films for stage, cinema and TV. His subject matter is also wide. Early on, as he has written: "I became strongly associated with appalling hamburger bars, subterranean discos, early versions of karaoke, neon and violence." But he has an acute historical sense, too. He traces the impact of major developments: eugenics in Century; scientific discoveries in Blinded by the Sun; questions of nationality in Coming in to Land. A recurring theme - in Shooting the Past and Remember This - is the speed at which history disappears from our collective memory. His work is enlivened by a comic sense of Englishness as he showed in the RSC's production of Talk of the City, a depiction of life in Reith's BBC. Most distinctive of all, his scripts have an eerie sense of place and the way that affects characters who don't fit in.
Poliakoff has never adapted or translated anyone else's work or directed another writer's play. He works obsessively, in a highly disciplined way, producing one Poliakoff script after another. If you are going to be this prolific, two things help: an early start and plenty of arrogance. He wrote Granny when he was 15. At Westminster School, he had performed in school productions of The Tempest and Billy Budd: he discovered that he made audiences laugh in the wrong bits and turned to writing. Granny was put on as the school play and reviewed in The Times as better than many that were being produced at the Royal Court. The resident dramatist at that theatre, Christopher Hampton, saw it and recommended that Poliakoff go and see the legendary agent Peggy Ramsay.
At their first meeting, Ramsay said that Poliakoff's script was badly photocopied and the page numbers were muddled up. …