Stephen Poliakoff's splendid isolation is key to his craft

PUBLISHED: 11:20 19 June 2008 | UPDATED: 15:09 07 September 2010

Stephen Poliakoff with David Walliams

Stephen Poliakoff with David Walliams

Katie Masters talks to award-winning writer and director Stephen Poliakoff about the inspiration behind his screenplays There are two words that crop up repeatedly in conversation with Stephen Poliakoff, the BAFTA Award-winning, Emmy Award-winning,

Katie Masters talks to award-winning writer and director Stephen Poliakoff about the inspiration behind his screenplays

There are two words that crop up repeatedly in conversation with Stephen Poliakoff, the BAFTA Award-winning, Emmy Award-winning, Golden Globe-winning writer and director. One is worry. Poliakoff believes it's an endemic state for writers.

"Traditionally a lot of writers were drunk, neurotic - very anti-social. It comes from having all that time to think, not deep thoughts, just going over irritating little worries. Days spent agonising over why someone hasn't phoned or why something was said in a particular way."

After a career spanning over three decades (Poliakoff was just 19 when his first play was performed), he says he cannot write all day, every day.

"I would go mad if I had to write all the time, constantly feeding off the fat of my own brain. I started directing, directing my own work and that was a salvation for me. I can be among people, get new ideas. I like gossip, telling stories and being told stories. Yet when I go back to the writing, I sense my personality changing. A security comes back."

Poliakoff says writing isn't always a joy, but it fulfils a deep-seated need to regularly escape into a world of his own.

"Writing is isolating, but it's a chosen isolation," he says. "As children, most of us have a desire to create, to play in our own imagination. I've noticed that if children aren't allowed those hours of escape, they become bad tempered. I think writers retain that compulsion."

"Writers don't always want to write - don't want to put themselves through the actual physical task of getting the words on to the paper, but they have to do it. Chekhov in The Seagull captured this."

(Crib notes for anyone who hasn't memorised the Chekhovian oeuvre. This long speech, by the character Trigorin, a famous novelist, is prompted by his desire to disabuse a young girl, Nina, of the delights of authorship. "...a new idea, and already I can feel the pull of my desk, and I have to rush off to write, write, write again. And that's how it always is, always and always, and I have no peace from myself.")

When he talks of his characters he says he feels the most personal ties to Young Mary (from his BBC screenplay, Capturing Mary) the youthful vulnerable writer and Joe, the mixed race teen from Capturing Mary's sister screenplay, Joe's Palace.

"Joe is at that lonely stage that most boys, unless they're very lucky, go through, when women and adult certainty seem deeply unobtainable."

"I think about my characters a lot. When I work, I tend to start with a character and grow the plot outwards from them. I'm interested in making them complex."

Complexity is the other word Poliakoff mentions frequently. Discussing his approach to writing he says he sees it as a celebration of creativity and, yes, complexity. When he writes he hopes it takes people on a journey and, in a small way, makes them look at the world differently.

"I want to burn a pleasurable hole in their imaginations," he says.

For the first 25 years of his professional life he was writing a stage play every 18 months. In recent years he has focused more on screenplays and television dramas.

"TV has opened me up to a much larger audience. I often meet people who say "they just happened" ("I just happened" - his impression of an elderly, slightly querulous woman is eerily accurate) on my work. But then they say they start looking out for pieces I've done."

"One of the advantages of television is that you're so close to the actors you can work in really subtle character nuance. You can explore the complexity of life without necessarily fitting into a genre."

"I always assume I'm writing for intelligent, imaginative people. So I try to create complicated characters who speak to a mass audience."

He revels in the contradictory. When his screenplay Gideon's Daughter won two Golden Globes he was delighted, both because the father/daughter relationship it portrayed feels personal to him (although he hurriedly clarifies that it is in no way based on his own relationship with his daughter), but also because it was an anti-celebrity piece succeeding in America, in the heart of the celebrity culture.

"I like the contradiction of that," he says. "I enjoy that complexity. I like taking people on a journey which surprises them."

This trait may owe something to the fact that Poliakoff was a young adult in the 1970s.

"That decade certainly formed part of who I am. It was arguably the greatest period in American cinema - The Godfather, Scorsese - and a great time for British television. It was post-Watergate, post-Vietnam and the scripts are full of ambivalence and unhappy endings."

Poliakoff talks fluently about how the time we live in forms our values. Looking at contemporary society he notes the great sense of uncertainty we live with.

"It's the glib word, globalisation. But so many people's jobs now are dependent on the whims of large corporations and there's this sense of de-personalisation at work, even though we pour so much of ourselves into our jobs.

"The other mass experience today is urban loneliness. Isolation."

That again is a theme that recurs in his work, usually with London as the setting. Poliakoff was born in West London in 1952 and moved to Islington aged 28. ("It was January 1981, the day the Yorkshire Ripper was apprehended.")

"London is the landscape of my work. I've lived here all my life, except for five horrible years at a prep school in Kent. I don't think I could survive anywhere else. I love the incredible size of it, the sense that it's always changing and you can never know it all."

But at the same time, he's well aware of how impersonal the city can be.

"People are far more alone than they used to be. There's the silence of email. The silence of texting. Everyone is separate.

"I see that, but I didn't experience it because I grew up within the Jewish community. My father was Russian-Jewish and my mother English-Jewish and as a family we did have that stereotypical closeness. My mother used to ring me every other day. She'd have rung every day, but I banned her."

Now married with two children, he's very interested in the influence of family relationships on how people develop.

"I like looking at the parent/child relationships and our pasts. How we remember - and how we try to escape memories."

These are themes that may well come up in Poliakoff's next venture, an hour-long, public discussion with child psychotherapist Margaret Rustin (whom he met when he was researching his 1996 play, Sweet Panic) and sociologist Michael Rustin.

This is taking place on Friday, June 20, at the Resource Centre in N7, as part of the Connecting Conversations series, in which practitioners from the world of psychoanalysis are paired with experts in other fields. The aim is to spark interesting discussions, which lead to new connections and ideas.

"I've never undergone analysis myself, so I come at it as an observer,' Poliakoff says. 'But drama can act in a therapeutic way, if it offers something to think about. You can make someone feel connected to another voice, another experience."

And there is much common ground between psychoanalysis and the creation of characters. Poliakoff sums up the shared intrigue that promises to drive the evening's debate.

"It's the endless fascination of probing into why we are how we are.


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