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Old-fashioned? No, we're quaint

By Adam Sweeting - The Guardian - Monday January 11th 1999

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In his opening monologue in the first part of Stephen Poliakoff's Shooting The Past (BBC2, Sunday), Timothy Spall wondered why posterity should be interested in "a chubby man wearing a cardy talking into an old tape machine". He might also have questioned whether a crumbling photographic library in a leafy London suburb was likely to provide much in the way of drama or human interest. Yet Poliakoff has whipped these down-at-heel ingredients into a mysterious reverie about passing time and shifting values, using the library's arresting photographic images as frozen moments in the accelerating slide into an uncertain future.

The fact that it worked so well was due more to Poliakoff's sleight of hand than to the plausibility of the situation. Marilyn Truman (Lindsay Duncan in imperious form) is in charge of a bunch of chronically unemployable misfits, who run the library like a genteel private tea-garden, oblivious to pressures of time or economics. To their horror, they learn that their library has been sold to American businessmen, who plan to sell off the photographs and turn the building into a business school.

Poliakoff had booby-trapped the echoing rooms and dusty corridors with cliches that might explode at any moment. The Americans were caricatures from the school of hard-ass, dressed in black and barking terse commands into mobile phones, and the notion that the library's secret history might begin to mesmerise a man so driven by deadlines and investor pressure as Christopher Anderson (Liam Cunningham) was exceedingly wishful thinking.

Only subtle casting prevented the British from being reduced to equally flimsy cut-outs. Spall plays Oswald Bates as a porky, dishevelled nerd with his shirt hanging out, while Billie Whitelaw's Veronica is a timid, whispering spinster. Spig (Emilia Fox) is a kohl-eyed, dope-smoking Goth. But Shooting The Past is more lateral than literal, and what works on screen can't always be summed up on paper.

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