Monday, November 12, 2007

Poliakoff and Poliakon

First published on the Guardian's ArtsBlog.


There is a problem with Stephen Poliakoff, and it is the same problem that Auden identified with Housman: he found his style and never changed, and so could never be a major artist. Poliakoff is one of Britain's most accomplished television dramatists, but unfortunately it is always the same accomplishment.

A formula for a Poliakoff drama can be deduced: upper-class milieu plus innocent youngster, times by dark secret, all over quiet photography. This worked well for Joe's Palace, on last Sunday night, and it can equally be applied to Saturday's A Real Summer and - this is a prediction - tonight's Capturing Mary.

These three dramas share some of the same characters and the same elegant London townhouse and are immediately recognisable as Poliakoff's work. As the innocent - in Joe's Palace, a wordless teenager taking care of the house; in A Real Summer, a plucky journalist - delves into a beautiful world, we can be certain that under high society lie murky depths. As a philosophy of life, it's hardly earth-shaking; as drama, it's not so interesting that we need to see it played out again and again at a variety of country houses.

This doesn't mean I don't love watching Poliakoff. Unlike Kathryn Flett, Gareth McLean and AA Gill, I do. The acting is never less than top-hole (as one of his country-house occupants might say), with his regular Michael Gambon always knowing exactly which notes - dry wit, quiet grief, gruff affection, panicked enthusiasm - to hit. Ruth Wilson, who plays the journo-ingénue of Summer and Capturing Mary, looks like a talent to watch, with her expressive face and subtle emotional tones.

You can also quietly be suffused in the atmosphere he evokes. It invariably, if skilfully, involves the peace of small emotions, everyday routines, basic human kindnesses, where nothing needs to be said but is clearly read from the photography and the actors. His silences are meaningful.

He can still do drama too. The climax of Joe's Palace was tense, as the secret became known to Gambon but not to us and as we waited to see how Gambon would react. Gideon's Daughter - with Bill Nighy as a slightly more sardonic Gambon at the dawn of the New Labour era - and Perfect Strangers - with Gambon as another secret-seeking patriarch - have all of these tonal shifts.

Poliakoff makes us see the tragedy and the humanity in the everyday, the small heartbreaks, without Grand Guignol or wild twists and turns. He makes us aware of the weight of history bearing down on everyone, one of Philip Roth's preoccupations but without Roth's genius. I could quite happily sit through Poliakoff after Poliakoff - but don't ask me to tell you where one ends and the next begins.

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