STEPHEN Poliakoff is a prolific and highly successful scriptwriter and film director, a Londoner by birth and career and now in his mid-60s. Like so many creative and accomplished Britons he is of relatively recent immigrant background: his grandfather was an inventor specialising in electronics who left Stalin’s Russia in the 1920s, although his mother’s family has long British Jewish roots.
So it is hardly surprising that Jewish family history and the Holocaust figure in his work. But in a sense they are matters of detail, a vehicle for bigger and broader themes. Those are memory and identity, the significance of the past, and ways of making connections that enable its reconstruction. They are most obviously highlighted in one of his early BBC TV productions, Shooting the Past, in which a massive photographic archive is used to piece together hidden lives from youth to old age: a German Jewish doctor’s daughter; and an Irish woman who joined a travelling orchestra and became part of a secretive and possibly sinister world involving murder. In what is regarded as a companion production, Perfect Strangers, about a family reunion, photographs again provide a key to unlock an unexplained past. In The Lost Prince, Poliakoff highlights events before and during the Great War through the singular eye of the young Prince John, who died in 1919. And as he puts it, the past is not always a nice place.
Poliakoff is an historian who uses film instead of words to capture the spirit of previous times. Like academic and other writers he employs documents, oral testimony and photographic evidence to construct an understanding of the past. But what he can provide more effectively through pictures rather than words alone is atmosphere and a sharpened sense of context. They, of course, contain a measure of personal interpretation and subjectivity that has to be accounted for. And film is indeed a good medium to remind us that aside from the written and photographic record, for individuals history is simply the sum of what we are able to remember and how we decide to recall and interpret it. It brings to mind Hilda Bernstein’s perceptive comment: ‘Just one generation and the door on the past starts to close … your lives, too, will become that other country.’
One of the endearing features of Poliakoff’s films, which are brilliantly cast, is the extent to which he returns to a relatively limited range of props to support his stories. Most have a once-grand (or even bombed-out as in Close to the Enemy) hotel or country house as backdrop. As a counterpoint he uses transport cafes in dreary urban settings as meeting places. Jazz bands make frequent appearances, most notably in Dancing on the Edge. Poliakoff clearly has an affinity with archives, libraries and the beauty of their organisation (see Shooting the Past, Close to the Enemy and Friends and Crocodiles). Odd characters abound and mingle with the relatively ordinary while there is the occasional appearance of mysterious, random and ultimately irrelevant figures (see, for instance, Perfect Strangers and Dancing on the Edge). Most eccentric of all is the role of buses. Poliakoff does some of his creative thinking from the top of Transport for London double-deckers, something the author of this piece recently tried successfully for himself.
Stephen Poliakoff has been criticised for political incorrectness. This is myopic, lazy and misguided. In his stories set in modern Britain he confronts head on, and all the more effectively in a notably subtle and understated way, some of the greatest ills of our time fronted by rampant capitalism and right-wing ideology. In Shooting the Past Oswald Bates and Marilyn Truman defend a priceless photographic archive against ruthless developers. Raymond Symon in Perfect Strangers makes such a passionate speech against ageism that he collapses. Friends and Crocodiles (2006), set in the 1980s and 1990s, is a direct attack on venture capital and the asset strippers who destroyed so many workplaces and work relationships in unrealistic pursuit of wild profit and created the climate for the 2007–2008 crash. Poliakoff is a stern and effective critic of some of the mindless aspects of our current times.
Friends and Crocodiles is possibly his most significant, and certainly his most subversive, work. It focuses on the venue where most of us have spent a significant part of our lives: the workplace. The main point of the story is that relationships forged there can be among the most significant of our lives, but tragically their fate often lies in the hands of malevolent and incompetent people otherwise known as managers. One of the main characters, Paul, is a flawed and unpredictable person who proves the one-eyed visionaries wrong by putting his money on bookshops. Lizzie takes up a high-flying post with an asset-stripping company that blindly follows the path of information technology with tragic consequences. As Poliakoff points out, people nearly always get the future wrong by making simplistic judgements and believing that progress proceeds in straight lines. His film amplifies this by suggesting that managerialism (what Poliakoff terms centralisation and describes as worthy of nineteenth-century mill owners), management consultants and mission statements leave little room for the mavericks who are more often than not the source of significant social and economic progress. Everyone has to ‘buy into change’ dictated from on high regardless of its common sense or consequences. Much of this is determined by young, callow people who have no respect for wisdom or age; as Poliakoff puts it in an interview, yuppie callousness.
Friends and Crocodiles is a highly unusual drama: a workplace love (and hate) story about two very different people, as the film concludes, meant to work together. It is a hopeful message: that the free spirit (Paul) can work constructively with the hard worker of ability (Lizzie); as Paul points out, ironically, via electronic means without frequent personal contact.
It is a remarkable tale. Commentators have pointed out that Poliakoff’s work has a haunting, lingering effect. Above all it encourages in the viewer profound and enriching thought.
- * This article in based on the following series and films written and produced by Stephen Poliakoff: Shooting the Past (1999), Perfect Strangers (2001), The Lost Prince (2003), Gideon’s Daughter (2006), Friends and Crocodiles (2006), Glorious 39 (2009), Dancing on the Edge (2013) and Close to the Enemy (2016).