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Like nothing else

Stephen Poliakoff's Shooting The Past was a tough act to follow. But Perfect Strangers, his elaborate family saga, displays the sheer breadth of his talent

Mark Lawson - The Guardian - Monday May 7th 2001

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Although he's not yet 50, the writer Stephen Poliakoff was such a prodigy - he had a play professionally staged while still at school - that he's lived through three ages of television drama. When he first wrote for TV in the 70s, the original drama for television was a regular event. His scripts - including the brilliant Euro-rail bildungsroman Caught On A Train, repeated on BBC2 this weekend - were seen in fat strands of single plays: Play For Today, Playhouse, Screen Two, Screenplay.

In the 80s and early 90s, fashion and finance encouraged TV drama to copy its richer cousin: cinema. While television fiction concentrated on adaptations of classic novels, the original playwrights worked on hybrids intended for release on a few large screens before screening on the small one. Poliakoff wrote (and sometimes directed) impressive examples of these: notably Close My Eyes and Hidden City.

Then, at the very end of the century dominated visually first by cinema and then television, Poliakoff entered a third and remarkable phase of his screenwriting career. He now wrote serials which deliberately rejected the fast-cutting of movies and, though visually distinctive, foregrounded talk in the way that the television plays of yesterday had. (Caught On A Train was essentially a conversation piece between two people.)

After the award-winning Shooting The Past - about the mysteries hidden in a picture library about to be sold - comes Perfect Strangers (BBC2), which, once again, feels like nothing else in the schedules. Poliakoff is also given the rare accolade for a living writer of a tie-in documentary: Stephen Poliakoff: Shooting The Present (BBC2). This also marks a shift in television history. A Late Show-type project in the old Late Show slot, it stands, like the drama that inspired it, as a treat that would once have been taken for granted by the viewer.

Perfect Strangers might have been called The Family Reunion if TS Eliot hadn't got there first, although Poliakoff has thankfully chosen to use crisp vernacular dialogue rather than verse. Ernest (Peter Howell), an ageing paterfamilias, is rich enough to invite all his relatives for a weekend at a London hotel. Distanced from the family by financial failure, the patronisingly described "Hillingdon contingent" come out of curiosity and cussedness, led by the dyspeptic Raymond (Michael Gambon) and his son Daniel (Matthew Macfadyen.)

Within a simple framework of romantic drama - will Daniel succeed in his desire to leave his DNA inside his cousin, Rebecca (Claire Skinner)? - the three-part drama, neatly timed for our current cultural obsession with genetics, investigates private and public misunderstandings of the past.

Although Poliakoff has followed the vocation of playwright and director, two other professions vitally underlie his writing: architect and historian. Most dramatists leave the precise settings for the scenes to a location scout. Poliakoff, though, puts the poetic and appropriate places on the page himself. Unknown or unconsidered buildings fill his work. The film Hidden City moves through a warren of shut-down tunnels and abandoned structures around London.

Seeming to have taken some screenwriter's equivalent of the taxi-driver's Knowledge, Poliakoff builds up in his plays and films an alternative A-Z of cafes, bars, flyovers, motorways, casinos, shopping malls, houses and flats. Because the clan in Perfect Strangers is rich and snobbish, the crucial sites here are Claridge's Hotel and the mansion flats of Knightsbridge. In the unlikely event of playwrighting ever letting him down, you feel that Poliakoff could make his living as a tour guide or estate agent.

As well as being the most architectural of dramatists, he also has the mind of a historian. Growing up in a family with an odd foothold on history - as a child in his pyjamas the playwright's father witnessed the Russian Revolution in Red Square - Poliakoff has always had as a writer an eye for startling details of the past. His stage play Talk Of The City drew acutely and amusingly on the early history of broadcasting and a powerful section in Perfect Strangers dramatises another bizarre but true detail from his researches: war-time evacuees living wild in the woods as they head back to their family home from the rural safe houses where they are supposed to be.

But, although much of his inspiration comes from footnotes in books, the past, in a Poliakoff play, usually exists as a visual record. The setting of Shooting The Past in a picture library makes this theme most explicit but, in Hidden City, a film studies lecturer discovers black-and-white footage of a woman being led away by men who look like secret agents.

And, in Perfect Strangers, it's again photos which cause the plot to develop. The Gambon character is astonished by a picture of his stern father dancing ecstatically in a garden. His son is troubled by another snap, which shows him in fancy dress in a house he has no memory of ever visiting. Through encounters within the tense and fractured family, the meaning of these scenes is finally revealed.

This obsession with what pictures can tell us is entirely appropriate in a writer whose notable career as a writer for television has impressively demonstrated how visual images can capture the texture and mystery of time.

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