Nazis! Mean posh people! Nice parties! Bad dialogue! It must be the BBC’s favourite Serious Playwright.
‘We fought a war for your freedom’, Uncle Albert would complain to his nephews in classic British sitcom Only Fools and Horses. ‘And what do you do with it? Whatever you bleeding like.’ It’s the kind of astute joke that was surprisingly common on a popular show now best remembered through the endless repetition of its more broad gags on nostalgia-fest clip shows.
It is a complaint which does come to mind, however, whenever a new Stephen Poliakoff drama hits the BBC. You spend your days as a TV critic calling for drama that is genuinely challenging and afforded the budget and freedom to produce something idiosyncratic and different from the norm. Yet ultimately, your response is always: ‘Oh Stephen, you were given your freedom. And what do you do with it? The same old self-indulgent tosh.’
There were high hopes for his new five-part series, Dancing On The Edge. Poliakoff is notorious for his slow pacing, highly stylised dialogue and repetition of themes (Nazis, the aristocracy, posh parties, a disdain for the vacuous modernisation of Britain’s great institutions). These elements occasionally see him produce stunningly unusual pieces for primetime, like 1999’s photography-themed Shooting The Past or even the surprisingly populist The Lost Prince in 2003. But increasingly he has slipped into overwrought self-parody, as illustrated by recent disasters, Joe’s Palace and Friends & Crocodiles.
To call them disasters is no mere hyperbole. When Poliakoff is bad, he is truly bad. You need to watch only a few minutes of most of his post-millennial output to understand not merely why people dislike art, but why they desecrate cathedrals and deface great paintings. To endure one of his beautifully shot, elegantly made and interminably ponderous films is to feel strapped into a chair and force-fed your medicine of High Culture.
This patrician confidence does not always have to be a bad thing, of course, but it’s always the same drowsiness-inducing dose: how nasty the rich are, yet they did throw some jolly nice parties in some very lovely houses. There will always be a nice party in a nice house in a Poliakoff, invariably with a Nazi lurking in the background. But what is the sickness being treated by all this snail-paced worthiness? The audience’s sinful addiction to pacy narratives, believable dialogue and all the other ill-nourishing treats served up in easy morsels by the low-browed sentinels of Popular Culture. Not for Poliakoff, such trifles.
The theme of absolution looms large in his work - presumably because on some level Poliakoff understands that his work is commissioned as a form of penance by TV executives too lazy to understand what good art is, but eager to salve their public-service consciences as they schedule more Snog Marry Avoid.
Dancing On The Edge, however, has been presented as a very different beast. That Poliakoff’s previous film, Glorious 39 (about Nazi appeasers, since you ask), appeared on cinema screens on an arthouse budget seemed at least a tacit acknowledgement from the BBC that even Poliakoff was subject to some kind of quality control. Dancing on the Edge, a five-and-a-half hour series dedicated to a black jazz band in Thirties London, seemed to promise an injection of energy and a suggestion that the lauded dramatist may have been tapping into the cultural current: even, perhaps, that he had been watching TV programmes such as Mad Men or Treme, which have little to do with British aristos in lovely houses having morally ambiguous relationships with fascism.
Initial signs were indeed positive. Poliakoff productions always attract a high-quality mixture of established serious thesps and rising stars, ably represented here by the likes of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Head and new Doctor Who assistant, Jenna-Louise Coleman. He is also famed for his ‘unusual’ casting, which always means a comedian being mirthless, so step forward Mel Smith and John Goodman. Involving an unfolding mystery of why Ejiofor’s band leader is on the run and hiding out in a friendly music journo’s home, and neatly soundtracked by toe-tapping era-authentic jazz music, the first episode seemed to zip by in a flurry of activity.
For half an hour, that is. Then you remind yourself that this is set in 1930s, when the Nazis came to power. Oh yes, didn’t the Nazis also have sympathisers among the British establishment, most notably the king, Edward VIII? Who else then, surely, should this black band have to play for but future king and Nazi sympathiser Edward VIII! In a big house! With five hours still to go, you wonder where Poliakoff is going to go with this - and 180 minutes later, you’re still wondering. The dialogue, usually stilted and artificial in his work, is simply appalling.
Early on, the band are taken on a private train, owned by a shady American businessman. One of his awed acolytes remarks on his freedom to travel anywhere on it. The joke, you see, is that even the freedom of the very rich is always limited and delineated by forces outside of our control. Yet you wonder whether Poliakoff is having a little joke with us in the audience about expensively assembled toys which promise to take us anywhere we wish to go, but instead can only edge forwards very slowly to an uncertain destination. Sorry, actually, he’s not joking with us. It’s a joke at our expense.
In classical tragedy, the spectator is encouraged to lament the cruelty of the gods who bestow such riches on undeserving mortals and then capriciously snatch them away. In this sense, Dancing On The Edge is not merely bad but tragic. It is difficult to escape the sense while watching it that in place of Uncle Albert we have Auntie Poliakoff, offering us a glimpse of artistic freedom only to admonish us for wanting it.
David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.
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