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Poliakoff, Stephen (1952-)

Writer, Director

Main image of Poliakoff, Stephen (1952-)

Stephen Poliakoff was born in London on 1 December 1952, to a Russian-Jewish father and an Anglo-Jewish mother. After abandoning his undergraduate degree at Cambridge, he established a reputation in the theatre in the mid 1970s with plays such as Hitting Town and City Sugar. Success as a television playwright followed: Stronger Than the Sun (BBC, tx. 18/10/1977, 1977), Bloody Kids (ITV, tx. 23/3/1980) and Caught on a Train (BBC, tx. 31/10/1980) showed Poliakoff to be a versatile and original new voice.

In 1987 he wrote and directed his first feature film, Hidden City, financed by Channel 4 and premièred at the Venice Film Festival. In it, one can perceive structural, thematic and stylistic traits that were to be explored and developed in Poliakoff's later work. Historian James Richards (Charles Dance) is approached by Sharon Newton (Cassie Stuart), a picture researcher in a film archive who has found a short black-and-white film, which she believes, reveals an abduction. She needs James's help to find the next vital piece of evidence: a second film reel. Reluctantly at first, he agrees to help her, and their investigation leads them into a dangerous world of defence secrets and government cover-ups. Although there is narrative resolution at the end of the film, the plot is loosely structured and the genre of the film is uncertain. Foregrounded instead are Poliakoff's recurring thematic preoccupations: the thrill of discovering concealed histories and secrets; the secret aspects of places and family; and the potential power of documents (especially photographs and film images) to help us retrieve the past and its undisclosed stories.

After writing She's Been Away (d. Peter Hall, 1989), Poliakoff wrote and directed Close My Eyes, which focuses on hidden secrets within families, and tackles the taboo of incest. Despite its subject matter, the film is unsentimental and avoids the conventions of melodrama, some of the most intense scenes being quietly underplayed and restrained. Similarly Century (1993), Poliakoff's next film, refuses the generic confines of historical drama and employs a 'costume drama' setting to explore the abiding question of potential conflict between scientific progress and common humanity. The Tribe, made in 1996 but denied a cinema release, was broken into a series and slipped out on television in 1998. The Channel 4 film Food of Love, about a group of friends revisiting their student past, was shown in cinemas but attracted small audiences and hostile reviews.

Subsequently Poliakoff has concentrated on writing and directing drama serials for television. Quirkiness and eccentricity have always been present in his work; in the films it tends to result in laboured characterisations and portentous dialogue; in his later television work - Shooting the Past (BBC, 1999), Perfect Strangers (BBC, 2001), and The Lost Prince (BBC, 2003) - it is more fruitfully integrated. Poliakoff 's penchant for elaborate montage sequences, odd juxtaposition of sound and image, and discursive narratives fitting more comfortably within the extended length of a three or four hour serial. Though his maverick talent excludes him from mainstream cinema, Poliakoff remains one of the most inventive and intriguing of writer-directors in Britain today.

Benedict, David, 'The race against time', Independent, 9 Jan. 1999, p. 12
Dobson, Patricia, 'Stephen Poliakoff: Profile', Screen International Supplement, LFF, 9 Nov. 1993, p. 5
Kemp, Philip, 'English Manners', Sight and Sound, Autumn 1987, pp. 288-9

Sarah Cardwell, Directors in British and Irish Cinema

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Century (1993)Century (1993)

1900-set drama about a young medic's disturbing discovery

Thumbnail image of Close My Eyes (1991)Close My Eyes (1991)

Alan Rickman stars in this drama about an incestuous love triangle

Thumbnail image of Hidden City (1987)Hidden City (1987)

Stephen Poliakoff's directorial debut, a journey into a concealed London

Thumbnail image of Bloody Kids (1980)Bloody Kids (1980)

Stunning Stephen Frears/Poliakoff drama about a prank gone wrong

Thumbnail image of Caught on a Train (1980)Caught on a Train (1980)

A chance encounter between a young man and an elderly lady in Germany

Thumbnail image of Lost Prince, The (2003)Lost Prince, The (2003)

Lavish, complex story of Prince John, the frail, troubled son of King George V

Thumbnail image of Perfect Strangers (2001)Perfect Strangers (2001)

Complex and intelligent drama about buried family secrets

Thumbnail image of Shooting the Past (1999)Shooting the Past (1999)

US property developers threaten to destroy a priceless picture archive

Thumbnail image of Tribe, The (1998)Tribe, The (1998)

Poliakoff drama exploring cults and the consumer society

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