'I got really gripped with the idea of what a close-run thing it was that I and my family and so many other people are here at all today as Jews, and the fact that Britain didn't do a deal with Hitler', says the renowned playwright, film-maker and director Stephen Poliakoff. He is referring to the ideas that underpin his latest work, Glorious 39, a historical thriller set in Britain in the months leading up to the outbreak of war.
The first film for cinema that Poliakoff has made in a decade is a disturbing drama about the mood of the nation following Hitler's invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. It centres on an aristocratic family who believe it is their duty to take any steps necessary to prevent another war. Alexander Keyes, the head of the household and a First World War veteran, is a Conservative MP with close links to the secret services. The prime minister himself does not appear in the film but an unlikable character called Balcombe (played by Jeremy Northam) is inspired by Sir Joseph Ball, Chamberlain's friend and, at the time, director of the Conservative Research Department, a dark master of espionage and smear campaigns directed against Churchill, the opposition parties and Jews.
'The forces were much more powerful than people realise,' says Poliakoff. 'I got terribly obsessed with this story and wanted to make it relevant for a modern audience. I find Chamberlain an extraordinarily unattractive character, one of the most sinister figures of the 20th century. I used to think of him as a man out of his depth doing the best he could but he was in fact a deeply untrustworthy and unattractive individual.'
The story is told from the perspective of Keyes's adopted daughter, Anne, a naive young actress played by Romola Garai. The girl experiences a nightmarish awakening when her more worldly and political friends, opponents of government policy, begin to fall victim to a series of macabre 'accidents'. Against a background of stunning English landscapes and elaborate social gatherings, Anne's relationship with the family she trusts and loves begins to unravel.
Poliakoff, who as a student spent two years reading history at Cambridge, makes no claims for the film as an authentic historical reconstruction--'this is a fiction in the same way that Robert Harris's novel Enigma is fiction. The murders are invented, but the story is based on fact.'
Books like David Faber's Munich (Simon and Schuster, 2008) and Lynne Olson's Troublesome Young Men (Bloomsbury, 2007) were a strong influence on Poliakoff. But his favourite sources were diaries, not just because their writers observed events at first hand but because 'the people writing them did not know what was going to happen the next day'. He cites figures such as Harold Nicolson, Duff Cooper and Chips Channon, whom he quotes as pondering, after a spectacular ball at Blenheim Palace in July 1939, 'Shall we ever see the like again?'
The establishment was extremely keen for its lifestyle to continue undisrupted. 'The rich had all the benefits of the inventions of the modern world, plus the class structure of the 19th century was still intact. Communism was a greater worry than fascism" More understandably, the First World War was a devastating and still very recent memory, 'almost as recent as the fall of Thatcher for us'.
Poliakoff has come to hold the view shared by many that Munich was one of the greatest blunders of the age: 'There was a deep vein of anti-Semitism running through British society but more importantly there was also self-denial about how dangerous Hitler was. I needed the work to have resonance and the best way for me to dramatise this was to show what was happening in terms of one family and having it echo with what was occurring to numerous other families around Europe who thought they were secure.'
In the film the luxurious world of the upper classes is brilliantly detailed. …