The Feast of Stephen ; Stephen Poliakoff Has Inherited Dennis Potter's Crown as TV's Foremost Writer. GERARD GILBERT Talks to Him about His New State-Of- The- Nation Films for BBC1
Gilbert, Gerard, The Independent (London, England)
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 clichs 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 Ten to 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 …
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Publication information: Article title: The Feast of Stephen ; Stephen Poliakoff Has Inherited Dennis Potter's Crown as TV's Foremost Writer. GERARD GILBERT Talks to Him about His New State-Of- The- Nation Films for BBC1. Contributors: Gilbert, Gerard - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: January 6, 2006. Page number: 2,3,4. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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