Interviewed by producer Nik Powell, Stephen Poliakoff joined us for a talk about his work, career and having a strong voice while dealing with some of the uncomfortable topics he tackles in his writing.
Starting out in the theatre Stephen had some plays at The Bush that did well, particularly when Mary Whitehouse tried to have him prosecuted, which proved useful in getting his name and work known. He was invited to write something for a studio shoot at the BBC who at that time shot their big dramas on film and smaller drama with newer writers in a studio on a mixture of film and video. Thinking of something that would add interest and movement to make a studio shoot less static Stephen chose to set his story on a train where there would be constant movement affecting the characters. The BBC decided that such a story needed to be shot on location and therefore on film so immediately his contribution level had escalated in importance and the resulting success of the drama established him in TV. It was an exciting time to be a young writer.
It was a sin in the 70s and early 80s to be unoriginal with the work you put in, says Poliakoff. There was no ‘it’s a bit of Downton a bit of this’ style pitching. That tradition of writer as king that came from the theatre took a long time to die out, but the sole voice eventually became distrusted. Stephen doesn’t think it was the best turn for drama but thinks things are shifting again now for the better.
Being on set as just a writer can be exhausting. They say ‘not now’ when you are tempted to interject thoughts and people are busy there’s never enough time. As a director you have more control. Writing a big role he tends to have a list of leading actors in mind so he knows roughly the kind of actors he’s writing the character to be played by. Hopefully you get one of them. It’s very important to have a good relationship with the actors. It’s self preservation he tells us. Most actors will always welcome meeting the writer and getting to talk about their character with the creator. Stephen likes to talk about the show a lot himself before he makes it. A great relationship with a producer too is something to aspire to.
For all writers confidence ebbs and flows. For actors too, but writers need nobody just to get up in the morning and begin new work. It’s easy for writers sitting at home to feel powerless but one must never underestimate the power to be able to create something from nothing. There’s plenty to begin writing about. Looking about you, asking questions, ‘What’s going on over there?’ starting storytelling to answer those questions is valuable to the creative process.
Perhaps unsurprising from a writer/director tackling the subtleties of difficult topics Stephen is not a fan of the big idea. Elevator pitching he tells us is the road to instant banality. Nik Powell chimes in with his own take on how selling anything is always about having a dialogue about a project. All roads, thinks Stephen, lead back to television even if it’s just to the film department. For his own work he was aware that film distribution in the country can be difficult and Americans dominate the box office. He thought that to reach a lot of people he needed to write for TV. It depends what you want though, a mix is great. You have to go to bat for your ideas at times and be prepared to argue your point of view. Many TV shows fail so the person on the other side of the desk doesn’t definitively know they are certainly right about every point. You have to stick up for your beliefs. If you feel you wouldn’t want to watch something yourself then you cannot write against your belief. It’s better in that case to walk away.
Directing your own work can be a marathon we are told. There’s a lot to do but it’s great to have that time to develop things. Stephen employs a researcher to work which he finds helps a lot, not least of which because he hate’s ringing people he doesn’t know. Also the time it takes to track people down or wait for returned calls etc. means that a researcher proves more efficient. He can then look at what she uncovers and delve further into the bits that interest him for the story he’s crafting. He clearly builds relationships with the people that he works well with, working with the same composer for some 20 years. There’s too much music in things these days he tells us, way more than there was back in the 70s and 80s, you have to be careful not to flatten out the drama with too much music. He’s a fan of planning but says you don’t want to over plan because that can be prohibitive. You want to be led and to allow for turns.
Though he deals with some uncomfortable and sometimes taboo topics Poliakoff is not a fan of violence and doesn’t care for too much sex, he believes in decent cutting away from lovemaking. Some uncomfortable subjects are less easy to tackle. It took him a long while to write anything connected to his Jewish heritage. With some stories you need time and distance, the further away you get the closer you are.
Stephen Poliakoff’s new drama about military secrets, Close to the Enemy, is currently filming and expected to come to BBC screens in 2016.