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January 19, 2006

Richard D. North asks, why do we still take Stephen Poliakoff seriously? - Friends and Crocodiles and the BBC4 Poliakoff Season

Posted by Richard D. North

Shooting the Past (1999 - to be shown again, 19th February 2006)
The Lost Prince (2003 and reshown on BBC4, 2006)
Caught on a Train (1980 and re-shown on BBC4, 2006)
Friends and Crocodiles (BBC1, 15th January 2006)

I could take Stephen Poliakoff, or leave him, until I watched his work profiled on BBC4 in its new season devoted to him (15th January 12th March 2006). Then the likes of Mark Lawson celebrated him as a writer who had anatomised modernity. His skill was forensic, his antennae super-alert, and so on. The man himself then delivered the bog standard jeremiads about modern life: we are trashing the past, we can't think, have no time for contemplation. There were glimpses of one of his dramas, Shooting the Past (1999 - to be shown again, 19th February 2006) which had an American corporation junking a photo archive whose curator knew his way round his material quicker than any computer could.

Ah so. Thus we celebrate the anecdotal and the authentic, the aural tradition, the physical. Never mind that computers mean that the vast pictorial story of mankind is now searchable by billions of people. Never mind that digitalisation means that billions of people can search out information about their ancestors in a way once reserved for aristocrats. Never mind that we now have the leisure and the inclination to live the examined life dreamed-of by philosophers since the beginning of recorded history. And aren't we after centuries of cheerful modernisation now slapping conservation orders on everything?

Oh look, here's hell, and we're in a handcart.

I had thought that Poliakoff was a talented, conflicted playwright and director. Here was a man who reports his grandmother as having spoken every day about the killing of the Tsar and his family, and his father as having seen the Revolution from his window. The Lost Prince (2003 - and reshown on BBC4, 2006) seemed to me to be a touching but also a rather chippy look at the British branch of Euro-royalty as it tried to come to terms with those events, just as Poliakoff's family had.

I had enjoyed the look he brought to his portrayal of royals: it was like watching an image by Walter Sickert, William Nicholson or William Orpen, but mobile, of course. His royals were caparisoned in glory but also off-guard; uniformed but informal. They were human, but heartless too. Forced to it, brought to it, condemned to it, but yes off with their heads, nicely, like. But there was enough feeling there, enough talent in the portraiture, to think of the movie in an almost positive way.

And then one watched Poliakoff's Caught on a Train (1980 - and re-shown on BBC4, 2006). It dripped conventions from the early days of Play For Today, and might in message and style have dated from 1965. It was made just as Tory rule was romping back in, and so you might think it was a howl of outrage at what Labour had done to Britain. Indeed, at first sight it was about the merits of the ancien regime. It was, one might have thought, about the merits of the tough old bird from pre-war Europe (and Peggy Ashcroft was perfectly seductive), who remembered when trains were made of wood and leather, and feeling was alive. The young people travelling with her on the train were by contrast pissed and rude when they weren't violent. And our hero, the young Michael Kitchen, was void. As she says: heartless.

One thought perhaps that this was a howl from the soul of the scion of Russian immigrants who knows the cost socialist dreams exact from civilisation. And sure enough, that sort of nostalgia often trumps Poliakoff's anti-capitalism.

The old girl might have been a bit of a Nazi (but we couldn't have borne it, so instead she declares that she was simply apolitical), and she was certainly a mini-tyrant, but she was up for life and came from a world of candle-glow and furs against soft powdered skin. She knew which way was up and how to get a snack at the opera. Our poor young hero only knew how to sneer, how to define virtue but not how to live, and must trudge concrete flyovers in the drizzle of the new Europe. If he had been speaking in 1990 or 2000, we would have accused him of the unwarmth of the courtesies demanded by political correctness.

As an essay in modern life it was as useful as a Daily Mail hand-wringing session.

And then we had the previews for Friends and Crocodiles (BBC1, 15th January 2006). We were to see the anatomy of a Britain eviscerated by Thatcher and readied for New Labour. Poliakoff was bigged up as the man who was alone in taking the medium seriously.

The key to this was the constant comparison with Dennis Potter. But this isn't altogether an accurate comparison. Potter's obsessions were tiresomely over-egged: he couldn't explore religion, sex and class without descending into hysteria. He was doubtless some sort of leftie, but one could watch Pennies From Heaven (1981), say, without feeling that it was a political piece. Besides, Potter used his medium in a genuinely new way: no-one else had threaded old songs in and out of speeches before.

But Friends and Crocodiles was stuck in Poliakoff's usual, older time-warp. It recalled If (1968), and The Ruling Class (1972), and other class warfare romps from the days of rule by toffs. In those days - in things like The Parachute, by David Mercer, (1968), or This Sporting Life, by David Storey (1963) - Alan Badel or David Warner (backed up by Alan Bates or Nigel Davenport) would play aristocrats (debauched, feckless and mean) in their dealings with a new class of hard-nosed, whisky-soaked businessmen, as they conspired to fleece angry northerners and get laid by mini-skirted trollops in shiny beehives. An essential backdrop would be rows of flunkeys whether in country houses or London clubs.

Then, all Hampstead was smarting from the yoke of Thirteen Years of Tory Misrule and the new dawn of Labour rule was (until 1964) a dream, or had become (soon afterward) a sad disappointment.

In Crocodiles, we have what we come to realise is a constant in Poliakoff: the commercial is in bed with the political to dump the authentic. And you have a flawed character from the near-past who one comes to see as at least better than the modern. So in Crocodiles, we have Paul (Damian Lewis), a shitty '70s property magnate who is at least anarchic (in the manner truer of the '60s in most fantasies) and who goes on to spot that the horrrid Dot Com revolution is a blind alley and that the future is actually lovely books and bookshops (not the reviled chain, Waterstones, surely?). In one scene, we revisit the 1984 idea of a bus-ride to dissidence, which takes the form of insomniacs reading books.

So we are supposed to learn to like Paul, rather as we learned to like the old lady on the train. These people may be frights, but they refer back to a time which Poliakoff sentimentalises. It's the now that's gone wrong and it's poor Lizzie (Jodhi May), the estate agent who used to have values, and tried to teach them to Paul, who must trade them in and become the representative of the screwed-up modern. She goes on to help wreck a good old manufacturing empire as it down-sizes, off-loads, and out-sources, and goes virtual, against the advice of her old mentor, who's now a hippy. She cracks up, of course, and sobs out her longing for Paul's forgiveness. Poliakoff seems to be telling us the conflated stories of Dyson and GEC-Marconi, and to have misplaced them in Tory rule whilst actually their transformations were under Blair, whom we won't get to until this show's sequel, Gideon's Daughter, later in the year. That doesn't matter, of course. It's The Beast he's after, and that eats political eras for breakfast.

All of this might have made an entertainment had we been given anything to hang on to: a character or two, a little personal chemistry, anything like an idea, the vestige of a plot. Instead, beginning with vapid country house scenes which would have disgraced a Beatle movie, we descended into the laziest amble. There was not the smallest chance of take-off anywhere to be had. Unusually, it all made me angry: someone, somewhere thought this stuff was serious.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world.

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What do you actually have to say on Poliakoff's research endeavours? In my opinion they are not up to standard, but you don't point out why you think so. His skill cetainly isn't forensic. (nb. There is little point in a forensic skill that is not). Lost Princes to the best of my knowledge are neither Palace based nor fact! It isn't Sickertian at all. What gave you that impression exactly?

Posted by: fjlathome at January 20, 2006 08:31 AM

* I ought perhaps to say 'established fact' rather than 'fact'. Poliakoff tends to present theory that's yet to be authenticated as conclusive.
I felt his 'Lost Prince' was sentimentalised to the point Sickert would have turned his head away. 'Lost Princes' age seven don't have innovations about dynastic secrets that become mysteriously apparent via drawings communicated during bouts of mental illness.

Posted by: fjlathome at January 20, 2006 10:05 AM

I couldn't agree more. "Friends and Crocodiles" was smug, self-satisfied and irritating beyond belief.

Posted by: G Unpremeditated at January 20, 2006 10:14 AM
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