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No sex, no violence - the viewers will love it

Writer Stephen Poliakoff tells Peter Lennon his recipe for great TV

Peter Lennon - The Guardian - Thursday May 3th 2001

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Stephen Poliakoff made a wager with the BBC: if they would stop being frenetic, forget market research and trust the audience, they would not regret it. "Just give me four hours of screen time and I will deliver original, quality drama," he told the director of television, Mark Thompson. The result is the three-part serial Perfect Strangers, which opens with a 90-minute episode next week. The drama, which could be summed up as ruminations on the excavation of a family's past, has no violence, and whatever discreet bonking there is has a curiously virginal quality.

"I proposed - bloody-mindedly I suppose - to compel audiences to slow down," Poliakoff says, ensconced in a deep armchair in an absurdly ornate draped bedroom at Claridges, which has been taken over by the BBC's film crew. "I wanted to go back to long scenes - not six-second takes. Long scenes can be very compulsive."

Poliakoff is the Cambridge whizz-kid who was writer in residence at the National Theatre at 24, author of Caught on a Train, Close My Eyes, and at least one thundering miss: 1998's The Tribe, a drama about a cult starring Anna Friel. He made an immediate recovery two years ago with Shooting the Past.

Poliakoff is well aware of the post-Birt climate in which he is now working: too much damage was done to creative drama by the suits with their "Producer's Choice" - which translated as a mission to downsize or tame the unreliable creatives. The BBC now has a bad conscience. "In the past few years there had been a huge shrinkage in drama output," Poliakoff says. "There was a department that used to be called television plays. It completely vanished one summer, unmourned and largely unremarked by the media. It was the destruction of the single film or play. I was surprised they got away with it, but they did. John Birt should be forever ashamed.

He continues: "It will be interesting to see what happens next in drama. There is a will at the BBC to make good drama, and at Channel 4 too. For the first time there is a senior executive [Thompson] interested in writing. The BBC was passionate to make this."

The corporation is certainly giving the new serial formidable backing: it is being heavily trailed, with a documentary on Poliakoff's life and work preceding transmission. His acclaimed 1980 TV drama Caught on a Train is also being repeated.

The favourable public and critical reaction to Shooting the Past encouraged the BBC to give him complete freedom. "The press rose to that occasion," Poliakoff says grandly. So, it must be said, did the BBC. It could not have failed to identify the target of the serial. Shooting the Past featured corporate figures - tactfully described as American - buying an old-style British photo library with the intention of dumping its 10m photographs and turning it into a business school. In 1988 the BBC decided storage space was too valuable to be cluttered up with old photographs and sold its photo archive for a derisory sum to a cable entrepreneur.

Perfect Strangers once again delves into souvenirs of the past. "That famous quote, 'The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,' is not true. We overestimate the differences," says Poliakoff. The story of a monstrous family reunion in a posh hotel is inspired by his own experience after the death of his father. "I went into the great ballroom," he says, "and I hardly knew anyone, although they were all related to me."

In Perfect Strangers the "pedigree hunter" Stephen (Anton Lesser), designer of the family tree, hangs a souvenir on each branch that the guests obsessively unravel. The ailing black sheep of the family, played by Michael Gambon, uncovers a remarkable hidden truth about his austere father: what is this amazing home movie showing him cavorting on the lawn while the little boy looks on? And who was he dancing for? His wife goes merrily in search of a distinguished ancestor, and their son discovers he is the eternal go-between when he attempts to heal old wounds. And there is the Holocaust survivor who had to create a whole new family history to survive.

Poliakoff has a passion for scrutinising the past like a forensic scientist. He discovers crimes there - mostly of concealment and wondrous insights - that transform the memory of a person. But it is the concealment and distortion that concern him most, particularly those of the war years, although he was born in 1952. "We were, of course, brainwashed all through the war," he says. "But people were kept in ignorance long after there was no longer a need to suppress the truth. We have quite recently discovered how near we came to oblivion. What damage was done in terms of understanding the place were we live?"

Poliakoff regrets that he left it too late to find out about his own father's early life. "He was obsessed with his Russian childhood. He had a flat on Red Square and the revolution must have gone on under his window. He was an inventor and helped make the first automatic telephone exchange for the Lenin regime. Even though he fled Stalin, he was regarded as one of the fathers of Soviet technology. He was also one of the first people who caught sound on film. He was a very good storyteller. You had to sit listening to every exact detail before you got to the point - but it was always worth waiting for."

There is no mistaking the message to the viewers: sit quiet now, don't fidget - it will be worth it in the end.

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