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Yesterday's viewing

Paul Hoggart - The Times - Friday May 11th 2001

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Stephen Poliakoff has a privileged position these days. He is probably the only television dramatist who is regularly allowed to take artistic risks. There is plenty of raw social realism around, of course, in the tradition of Ken Loach, some of it very powerful, but Poliakoff is actually licensed to use television drama as an art form.

As Perfect Strangers (BBC2) opened last night we knew we were seeing the world through different eyes. In the long opening scene, the amiable Daniel (Matthew Macfadyen) watched through the double doors of a huge public room at Claridge’s hotel as his tipsy father Raymond (Michael Gambon) embarked on a speech doomed to go horribly awry.

Poliakoff steered us artfully around the massive, plush family reunion, catching subtle glances and tantalising fragments of dialogue. He shifted our attention back and forth between Daniel, his father, the diners and the waiters, savouring each moment. Above all he took his time. He was setting up something that was visually beautiful and pregnant with dramatic possibilities. Poliakoff has always been strong on atmosphere.

The arrival of the failed businessman Raymond and family, “the Hillingdon contingent”, at a vast family conference, dripping with success and prosperity, was toe-curling. They dragged us behind them, feeling the awkwardness of strangers in a crowd of friends, of being an addendum on someone else’s agenda.

And then you started to get the intriguing hints, the glimpses of lives that are not all they seem. Timothy Spall popped up as the most unlikely looking spiv, with cream moccasins and a very loud shirt under his posh suit, a comic turn muscling up, no doubt, to play the wise buffoon. Poliakoff loves fading grandeur, a sense of half-forgotten glories, of tragedy and heroism sinking beneath the surface, but still just recoverable.

There was a short profile of the 49-year-old former Westminster School-boy on BBC2 on Tuesday night. In Stephen Poliakoff: Shooting the Present he talked about the peculiar power of the still image on film. He is right, of course. He exploited this trick of the light powerfully in Shooting the Past, and does so again here.

I suspect it is all to do with our expectations. On film we expect the image to move. When it doesn’t, we are forced to peer at it more closely. We expect it to be part of the narrative. If a still is used in a documentary, a voice-over interprets it for us, but Poliakoff doesn’t. At least not to begin with. So we gaze at it and wonder what it is supposed to mean. Add some haunting music and you begin to imagine that you are gazing at something of immense, but subtle, significance — even if you are not.

It is almost a metaphor for Poliakoff’s work: beautiful, reflective, stylish, but leaving you wondering what, in the end, it all adds up to. We will find out in the next two weeks. I just hope he doesn’t drop one of those clangers to which he is occasionally prone, like the painful caricature American executives in Shooting The Past. In the meantime we can enjoy wonderfully assured, engaging performances from Macfadyen and Gambon, from Lindsay Duncan as Alice, the family’s self-possessed but kindly grande dame, and from Claire Skinner and Toby Stephens as Daniel’s beautiful but enigmatic cousins. Enjoy the ride.

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