Stephen Poliakoff interviewed by Michael Billington at the Oxford Literary Festival

The event was billed thus:

“… as theatre budgets are slashed and one-off television dramas are threatened with extinction – he [Poliakoff] issues a wake-up call about the dangers ahead for our culture.”

Alas, they never really got around to this issue as time ran out.  They applied no real focus and time allocation to this issue.  It became part of an aside at the end, in newly drop-geared raring rushed tones and thoughts.

We started with a selection of clips of Poliakoff’s work.  These included Close My Eyes, which I’d forgotten was Poliakoff, even though it is one of my all time favourite films.  It captured life as we entered the 80s in the UK like no other.  The London docklands had started their regeneration even though a world-wide recession was on the cards.  The City of London was still seeking the next profit through all its glossy offices.  This film was one of two times that Poliakoff has explored incest in his work, he told us.  It was also the occasion in which Poliakoff gave Clive Owen his first serious role (he likes to work with the established and the acclaimed as well as recognise and give opportunity to emerging talent, we heard).  Alan Rickman was a treat in this movie.  The cinematography was absolutely brilliant and beautiful.  Close My Eyes captured the mood of the times and was a delight to watch; and it was far too easy to forget that incest was involved, albeit in a sanitised story where the brother and sister had been brought up separately and were not pure siblings to start with.  But I digress…  T

They discussed Poliakoff’s substantial oeuvre and the “why” behind each drama.  Poliakoff is also due to make an appearance at Hay later this year on Saturday 24 May, so do make it if you can.  Meanwhile, here are some highlights from Oxford:

Themes in work: Poliakoff is sensitive to place.  Where his earlier work may have involved a desolate motorway café, his later work focuses on the “secret house” and is ready to claim that he has gone “upmarket”.  He started with the urban landscape and popular culture, but more recently has concentrated on memory, family, history and the broader landscape.  He wants to concentrate on strong, vivid characters that “don’t disappear into the dressing”.  All of us, claimed Poliakoff, are haunted by the places where we grew up, with strong memories evoked by rooms and journeys.

Also close to his heart and because of his background, making the roots of his work, is the fact that Poliakoff is the son of a Russian-Jewish father and Anglo-Jewish mother in the UK.  He knows and feels anti-semitism.  He said “the further we move away from it the closer we become”, noting that it is only now that Germany is producing films on Hitler.  He explained that, as a Jew, he is only here now because of what happened.

Billington asked if he was suggesting that anti-semitism is still here?  Poliakoff was keen to reply that he’d not suffered from anti-semitism in his career apart from jibes at university.  Such jibes would be “touchy” and politically incorrect now, but they were not recognised as such then.

Poliakoff is a man fascinated by the story of appeasement, interested in that period of history, finds it a central question for all of us in determining how we ended up as we are, but it is not his central obsession.

He remembered the days when an actor’s career could nosedive because of one small comment to the establishment, then considered disrespectful beyond reproach.  An example he gave was of the late Tom Bell whose career plummeted after a moment of being “lippy” to the Duke of Edinburgh.  He had been one of the big film stars up to that point.  Ditto Kenneth Moore, who took on the Pinewood Studios authorities and saw his career decline.  Today, said Poliakoff, the world of deference has gone, although we have different problems now.

Poliakoff likes writing about the cruelty of the past and he noted that the 50s were not pleasant but they are easily forgotten.

Billington then explored Poliakoff’s thoughts on the establishment/aristocracy at the time of appeasement.

Poliakoff also talked about the difficulties of finding a suitable setting for something he’s created in his mind.  Recognising the City of London as a “golden place where the sun comes out”, he admitted that he prefers filming out and not in the studio (to marvellous and beautiful effect in Close My Eyes).  This can lead to problems and one such case came up in respect of Close My Eyes where a balcony scene was called for and the geographical imagination of his mind presented logistical problems in reality.

Why does he now mainly work on TV rather than cinema, asked Billington.  For Poliakoff all careers have slightly accidental moves as well as the deliberate.  For him, Shooting the Past had more impact and led to more TV than planned.  The death of the TV drama might have been imminent, but suddenly there seemed a market for it and it allows more control than Hollywood-related-stuff.  On TV, Poliakoff can “do more with interesting things”.

But right now this wonderful dramatist/director/producer is about to go to cinema and theatre again, where he will do what interests him “as long as it’s something no one else can do better”.

Culturally, he noted the death of drama on TV adding that Kevin Spacey had “mouthed off on that this week”.  Where Spacey sees a lack of focus and appreciation of stage, Poliakoff sees a lack of same with respect to TV.  He cited that approx. £42m had been spent on TV drama about 1o years ago compared with approx. £6m now.

For Poliakoff, the death of the single play on TV is a major loss.  But, with a positive inkling in his brain, he drew the analogy of the life of red kites.  20 years ago, he said, they had been rare.  Today they have made a comeback and as you travel to Oxford you might see them in the skies.  “You never know, the play may be the next red kite” he said.

Then we moved on to the actors Poliakoff has worked with.  There are the frightening stalwarts in the “established”: and he’s worked with Michael Gambon and Maggie Smith more than once.  Both, like Poliakoff, want to make the production the best it can possibly be and are willing to be tested, approached and stretched by their director; they like to be pushed.  Poliakoff is also well tuned to newcomers and appreciates the voyage of discovery at his tips here.  He enthused about Emily Blunt and noted that he gave Clive Owen his first serious role.

But before the final remarks, there had to be a specific tale about Maggie Smith.  So eager was she to “make the best” and be challenged, that Poliakoff was certain in his endeavours into her dressing room to ask for her further involvement.  So, enter he did, feeling he was “still at school”, seeking her goodwill, commitment and further effort.  He’d ask and receive a few expletives from her, but she’d be fine in the end.  Poliakoff said they’d wanted to see “eye to eye” and wanted the production to be good.  Thus, after expletives, she’d agree.  Maggie Smith won’t suffer those who don’t know their lines.  But prove they can compare in her domain and she’s a willing creature (with a marvellous director).

Lastly, calling on the passages of time, Poliakoff noted that it was once a “a sin” to be unoriginal.  Now, it is not. 

As for the future, go on, get the man at Hay.  He’s more than worth it, if you didn’t get the chance to listen at Oxford as I did.  According to the draft programme, he’s there on Saturday 24/3 at 20:30.

Get there and enjoy!

One thought on “Stephen Poliakoff interviewed by Michael Billington at the Oxford Literary Festival

  1. Martin Edwards

    I’m with you on Close My Eyes. Excellent.
    One of his early-ish tv plays, Stronger than the Sun, also made a big impression on me – more years ago than I care to admit.

Comments are closed.