PROFILE: STEPHEN POLIAKOFF: A Prince of Drama Turns His Gaze on to a Royal Secret

By Hari, Johann | The Independent (London, England), January 11, 2003 | Go to article overview
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PROFILE: STEPHEN POLIAKOFF: A Prince of Drama Turns His Gaze on to a Royal Secret

Hari, Johann, The Independent (London, England)

In Britain, television is still regarded widely as a low-brow medium for low-brow people, an art-form that cannot hold its own against the novel, the stage or, say, painting. There are, however, a handful of TV dramatists who will undoubtedly be studied in 50 years, just as today we study the work of the great early Hollywood directors once similarly dismissed as providers of mindless pap.

When the project of shaping a TV canon begins, the name of Stephen Poliakoff will undoubtedly be viewed reverentially as an exponent of unashamedly highbrow TV, an auteur to take his place with Dennis Potter as the creator of some of the most powerful and meditative drama on the small screen.

Like Potter, Poliakoff is one of those artists whose personal life, political views and artistic achievements are so tightly intertwined as to be inseparable.

There is a sense in all his work - the television, theatre and films - of the long, dark European 20th century as an integral back- story, an essential (if often unspoken) tool for understanding his characters. This might be, at least in part, because his own family were at the centre of so many of its key events. His 1984 play Breaking the Silence was based on his paternal grandfather's life, a man who was one of the first people ever to record sound on film and who, living on Manezh Square, in the centre of Moscow, saw the Russian Revolution unfold from his window.

He fled Russia with his children in 1924, when Stalin came to power, with nothing but a diamond concealed in his shoe. As a Jew, Poliakoff also has family links to the catastrophe that was to unfold in Germany - a catastrophe that haunts great swaths of his writing.

Alex Poliakoff, Stephen's father, set up an electronics firm that was, an old family friend explains, "very much an old-style, paternalistic employer. Alex was an entrepreneur and an inventor but he was very much informed by a Reithian public service ethos that, in a way, so much of Stephen's work is a lament for".

"Ina, Stephen's actress mother, was," the friend says, "a tall, elegant and very posh lady with cut-glass vowels, quite fearsome really but certainly not unpleasant. She had an air of upper-middle class bohemia about her." She once told Stephen that "your career is going nowhere" - when he was 17.

The Poliakoffs' was a household with an aristocratic mien - a cultivated and wealthy Russian-Jewish family that had homes both in London and the country. Stephen was the third of five very close children, all of whom have become eminent in their fields: academia, medicine and museum curation. Stephen was "the black sheep of the family", a friend explains, "because he was the artistic one. That side of him was viewed, I think, with a combination of affection and exasperation - and, as he became successful, surprised admiration."

Intense, strange family relationships occur in all his works, the most extreme examples being, of course, his two fictional explorations of incest: the 1976 TV play Hitting Town and later - and far more controversially - in Close My Eyes, a 1992 film starring Clive Owen. "The particular closeness that develops between siblings in childhood that then either completely vanishes or remains for life is something I find haunting," Stephen explained.

Poliakoff's father initially feared deportation, and never quite felt safe or settled in Britain - a quality that Poliakoff acknowledges he might have inherited. The relationship between father and son was - as in so many of the writer's dramas - not warm. "As a child, I had some extraordinary rows with him," he has admitted, "and I was filled with moments of deep hate. I suppose that's affected how I write."

His latest work, the remarkable two-part BBC series The Lost Prince, is Poliakoff's first work to be based explicitly on a true story, and this one explores one of the oddest families of all: the Windsors.

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PROFILE: STEPHEN POLIAKOFF: A Prince of Drama Turns His Gaze on to a Royal Secret


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