Interview: Stephen Poliakoff

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I knew that being interviewer number two after Michael Billington was a bad beginning.  But – in order to make the best of this unfortunate state of affairs – I felt that I should at least take advantage of Billington’s public interview to get a feel for how it is done. 

Seated amongst a large audience of high-brow literary types I awaited the arrival of Stephen Poliakoff – renowned screen-writer and director, and the man whom I had come to see.  It was amusing to think that I – of all people – was fixed up to meet him privately back in the Green room after the public show.  And, as Billington got going, I even felt a tad impatient for him to get his act over and done with and allow me onto the scene.  This wish, however, was not fulfilled. Indeed, Poliakoff and Billington talked on for over an hour, and I couldn’t help but overhear. Fascism and antisemitism, secrecy and concealment, place, memory, Maggie Smith and Michael Gambon – all Poliakoff’s prominent themes and interests were touched upon.  It was, quite honestly, a damn fine interview. What the hell was I going to ask?  The discussion rolled on and on, and then a microphone was produced and question after question put forward from the floor: I had thought that only Cherwell cultural correspondents were permitted this privilege. Clearly not.

My moment, however, came at last and I boldly introduced myself to Poliakoff and his assistant Suzi as they arrived back in the Green room (a first-floor apartment in Christ Church’s Tom Quad, decked out for the purpose and amply supplied with the most delicious looking sandwiches and cakes.)  Poliakoff, I thought, seemed friendly but distracted, though his thick beard – which concealed the lower portion of his face – made it rather difficult to tell.  I was reassured, however, by his kind suggestion that we take our interview outside and away from the noise and bustle.  This was particularly generous given that the tea table remained inside – though, being Stephen Poliakoff, he was rapidly followed out by a large slice of cherry cake and a cup of coffee. 

Perched on the steps of Tom Quad, on a perfect spring afternoon, I broached my opening question.  Well – I attempted to, at any rate.  Before I had even got to the end of my first sentence – some nonsense about my interest in narrative perspective in his work – we were interrupted by the arrival of the cake.  Stephen’s eyes looked suddenly excited and engaged – not an effect I managed to achieve with my probing journalistic interrogation.  As he munched, I struggled on with my hypothesis about perspective, realising rather painfully that this was obviously a prime concern of any director.  Thirty seconds into this second attempt, however, and the inevitable occurred.  From a distance, a Christ Church custodian had sniffed out an incident of rule-breaking and was now at my side, instructing me to get off the steps.  I stayed where I was, looking helpless, relying on the eminence of my interviewee to get us out of this rather awkward ticking off.  Stephen, on the other hand, looked more like a naughty school boy, sitting hunched up with his cake, than a famous BBC director.  Thankfully, with a few mutterings about the literary festival, the early sabotage of my interview was averted – but not for long.  I was still on my very first question, you understand, when a third interruption occurred – this time, a festival organiser with a clip-board in hand: ‘Did that go well Stephen?’, ‘Full house, I hear’; ‘So sorry to have missed it.’

 

Stephen’s non-committal, monotone responses (‘Right’, ‘yup’, ‘thanks’, ‘bye’) suggested that he was getting as fed up as I was.

 

Things had to get better – and, in fact, they did.  Ignoring Poliakoff’s slightly dubious glances at some of my questions, I got into the swing of things and Stephen began to talk with enthusiasm about the sense of history which prevails in his scripts and screen direction.  Right back in the late 1990s with the making of ‘Shooting the Past’ and ‘Perfect Strangers’, Poliakoff’s TV work was already flourishing – showing a deep engagement with human history and memory which has remained constant throughout his work since.  Both of these dramas use photographs as microscopes to delve into the past lives of their characters: in ‘Shooting the Past’, the imminent destruction of a vast and significant collection of photographs triggers one of its curators, Oswald Bates, to set about proving its worth to the businessman, Mr Anderson, who insists that it be removed to make way for new developments.  Through scrupulous searching, Oswald manages to piece together the life of Mr Anderson’s grandmother in photographs that reveal facts that he had never dreamt of. The narration of this story through photographs, in the middle of the drama, is beautiful and captivating: Poliakoff remarked during our conversation that ‘there’s something very magical about a movie camera…looking at a still image’ and he’s right.   It’s impossible not to be drawn into the fleeting pictures on the screen.

 

This enthralling sensation is exploited by Poliakoff to the full: his subtle eye and vivid perceptions produce memorable sequences in which the characters, moving in and out of the shelves of the collection, become like photographs themselves – flitting behind boxes and hanging photos, emerging briefly before disappearing once more.  The effect of these scenes is to simulate the experience of memory – gleaming, tantalising, but elusive.  This taste of nostalgia and the partial loss of the past is something which is central to Poliakoff’s aim and achievement in a number of works. 

Poliakoff describes the mood of his work to be one of heightened reality, and directly representative of the world as he sees it.  But I’m still not convinced that his conception of the world is one that many of us recognise.  Yes – one can relish the decadence and glamour of Paul Reynold’s parties in ‘Friends and Crocodiles’, or the intriguing mysteries held in the London mansion of ‘Joe’s Palace’, but it rarely triggers recognition or sympathy with the themes and ideas which are being explored.  As Poliakoff pointed out to me, Joe and Mary are accessible characters, with unremarkable lives.  But let’s face it – Joe doesn’t have a very regular job as the keeper of an empty house with an unseen and mysterious master.  Nor is the audience of ‘Capturing Mary’ encouraged to engage with the reality of her later life – empty, fruitless and troubled by alcoholism – but rather, we are drawn into a sequence of dark but beautiful flashbacks.
Furthermore, the beauty and colour of his recent TV productions have been closely linked to money.  Particularly in the work we have seen over the last couple of years, Poliakoff has specialised in grand locations, wealthy characters and often morally dubious relationships.  I have to admire the fact that Stephen has an entirely non-moralistic approach to his subject matter: it creates an interesting tension when the audience is left to make a judgement of its own. 

But I had to take Stephen up on the implications of his elite choice of settings and story-lines.  TV has become Poliakoff’s favoured medium, but I wondered whether Stephen felt his work was democratic or relevant to many viewers.  Filled with billionaires and politicians, artists and entrepreneurs, Poliakoff invites his audiences into the highest echelons of British society where few of us have ever or will ever tread.  Whilst it is clear that Poliakoff is interested in commentating on the reality of British society both of the past and of today, one queries how well his settings and narratives assist him in this task. 

 

Understandably, Poliakoff doesn’t agree with this hypothesis.  He sees it simply as his response to a fact. ‘People with money rule the world’, as he put it, and recently we have seen the rise of a ‘new elite’ in the roles played by PR and the media in controlling the country.  The bells of Tom Tower struck three, however, and I knew this was my cue to round up.  I glanced down rather frantically at my notebook in search of a closing question, and looked up once more: ‘Er Stephen, one final question, do you like people?’  Understandably my interviewee looked somewhat puzzled (what on earth had I just asked!)  I tried to explain that his characters could sometimes be perceived as being disagreeable and exploitative, and Stephen opened his mouth to reply.  But, as he did so, the tread of the Christ Church custodian could be heard behind us and it was clear that we weren’t going to be able argue for a second time.  Poliakoff commented quickly that he saw his attitude as a humanist one and that his work was generally optimistic.  But I thought that I sensed his relief, in the looming presence of the porter, that he could ‘get off the steps’ and be left to ponder his liking for people on his own.

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