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Family Fortunes (RadioTimes 5-11 mai 2001).
Stephen Poliakoff has mesmerised audiences with his meditations on family relations and the passing of time depicted in dramas such as Close My Eyes and Shooting the Past. Now, in his latest saga, he proves there is a rich source of material waiting to be unearthed in every home including his own, as he tells E Jane Dickson.
Perfect Strangers Thursdays BBC2
"I'd work with Stephen any day. He can be a bit intense about his work, but that's only because he's obsessed with getting it right"
Légendes des photographies
There are three great stories in every family," says Stephen Poliakoff. "If you just stay up talking long enough, it will all come out." In his new three-part made-for-television film, Perfect Strangers, the award-winning dramatist and director turns a searching gaze on the ties and ruptures that shape a large, London Jewish family.
The drama, starring Michael Gambon, Lindsay Duncan and Matthew Macfadyen, is set in Claridges hotel, where the Symon family has massed for a marathon three-day reunion. A genealogist is on hand to tease out the tangled roots of the family tree, but soon the air is thick with the smoky whiff of old secrets being detonated.
The idea came to Poliakoff when he attended a similar event with his own extended family : "Towards the end of his life, a fairly distant member of my family decided to bring everybody on the family tree together in a London hotel. And l learnt things about the past that I wasn't expecting. Both my parents were dead by the time this happened, so I had no guide to all these relations. I didn't know 90 per cent of the people in the room, yet we were all connected, and I found that a very dramatic situation."
Poliakoff was born in London in the great fog of 1952, an image that has haunted him all his life. Perfect Strangers, like much of his work, is a quiet celebration of the city's diversity. "My father was a very assimilated Russian Jew. Like many immigrants, he wanted to be more English than the English and was very interested in the class system. So I was brought up in that culture, slightly apart from it, but very much wanting to belong." Family relationships and the impact of the past on the present have been explored in previous dramas such as Close My Eyes (199 I) and Shooting the Past (1999). In Perfect Strangers, the central image of the family tree marries these themes perfectly.
"These are ideas I return to again and again, but this is a much bigger piece than I have ever written before. And it is quite personal. The scope is not historical, even though I discovered that some members of my family witnessed the Russian Revolution. This time, I wanted to play with light and dark on a domestic scale."
The darkest episode in the film depicts a kind of hellish inversion of the genealogy theme when a Jewish child, sheltered by a Christian family in Nazi Germany, is forced to adopt and memorise a whole new, impeccably Aryan lineage.
"My family are Russian Jews and cousins of mine died in the Holocaust. We were very protected in this country, because we were never invaded. Of course people died in the war, but we didn't have great numbers of people just disappearing."
The British wartime experience is reflected, however, in a strange little story of two girls who, when evacuated from Birmingham to Wales, decide to walk home and end up living wild in the woods.
"This really happened," says Poliakoff. "They evacuated the children and shut down the schools, but the bombs never fell - this was the early part of the war -. so the children came back and were running quite wild."
Mainly, however, the drama deals with the purely subjective form of family history - things said, or more frequently, not said by one family member to another.
"Such a lot of families are snarled up in not talking. It is such a common thing that we don't talk to a particular member of our family because of something that happened in the past. As an adolescent I was interested in theatre and film, and there was this person in my family who I vaguely knew about called Ivor Montague who had worked with Hitchcock, but he was the black sheep of the family, a communist who ran off with his secretary and may have been a spy and he never featured on the family sonar. My parents knew I was interested in film,but they never said: " Why don't you go and talk to Ivor? " and I missed out on a relationship with this fascinating man. It wasn't a proper family feud - just a spikiness in the air – but that is all it take to break the line."
In the Poliakoff universe, redemption is sometimes, though by no means always , possible. In Perfect Strangers sons are brought together with distant, even dead fathers, by simply widening the scope, viewing the parent in the context of a whole life. " My own father had a very long illness and took to his bed for his last year. I'd go to see him once a week and sit at the end of the bed and he would say, "Well, come on then, expose!" and I was meant to tell him something interesting and exciting, not to give him the will to live exactly, but to engage him in the world. But of course it was me who ended up learning things from him. A lot of people discover things about their parents' lives after they are dead or near the end, and that can work two ways. It can be rather depressing or it can be extremely liberating. The desire to escape our parents is a universal theme, but of course we can never really escape because they are part of what we are."
Working with a core of distinguished British actors, Poliakoff has oyer the years established his own professional "family". "There is a group of actors," he says modestly, "who seem to take to my work.'"The cast of Perfect Strangers includes Poliakoff veterans Linday Duncan and Timothy Spall. "I'd work with Stephen any day," says Spall. "He can be a bit intensive about his work but that's only because he's obsessed with getting it right. He has this maniacal laugh, which usually means the acting's spot on but can also mean you've got it hideously wrong. What I admire about his work is his ability to tap in to the human condition. He creates terrific original characters, eccentrics, but with real depth of feeling"
Duncan, who plays the elegant Alice, is also proud to be in Poliakoff's inner circle. "Stephen's able to think of different things at the same time in a totally committed way" she says admiringly. "l don't particularly like to take parts that make me look older, but I really wanted to do Perfect Strangers."
It is something of a novelty- and a mark of the respect in which Poliakoff is held by programmers- to find a four-hour television drama without a horribly mangled murder victim, or even a car chase, in sight. Poliakoff has always been interested in the drama of small things.
"Just because everybody has a family doesn't meant it isn't interesting," he argues. "You may have done that trip a hundred times. But it's still a new journey.There is always the possibility of excitement."
Stephen Poliakoff's 1980 Playhouse film Caught on a Train is repeated on Saturday on BBC2
Timothy Spall: The Poliakoff regular plays Irving, Daniel's cousin and the family wide boy, always looking for his next business opportunity
Jill Baker: Her character Esther; Daniel's mother, is inspired to explore her own roots through this family
Matthew Macfadyen: Stars as Daniel, a naïve surveyor keen to know more about his family, in particular Rebecca
Michael Gambon: Plays Daniel's father Raymond, who is ashamed about a business failure
Stephen Poliakoff: writer and director
Toby Stephens: Previously in The Camomile Lawn and The Great Gatsby and here playing Daniel's cousin Charles, a Foreign Office man
Claire Skinner: The Second Sight star plays Rebecca, Charles's sister and Daniel's cousin-beautiful, enigmatic and a high flyer in government
Lindsay Duncan: As Alice, an elegant aunt to Daniel, Charles and Rebecca who holds family secrets
Clockwise from above: Poliakoff's grandparents, pictured in I 898/9; his father Alexander, with a cousin, in 1915; Poliakoff himself, aged four; Alexander on the eve of the Russian Revolution
(Autre article joint déjà en ligne : Matthew Macfadyen - The former Warrior is Poliakoff's latest recruit)RT SHOP
The book of Perfect Strangers, by Stephen Poliakoff, is available for only £6.99 plus 99p P&P (normally £7.99). To order, send a cheque, payable to RT Shop, to RT Perfect Strangers Offer, 32-34 Park Royal Road, London, NW10 7LN, or call the hotline on 0870 1658588 (national rate).
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