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Shooting the Past (1999)

Courtesy of FremantleThames

Main image of Shooting the Past (1999)
Talkback for BBC2, 10-24/1/1999
1x75, 1x55, 1x65 min, colour
DirectorStephen Poliakoff
ProducerJohn Chapman
ScriptStephen Poliakoff
PhotographyBruno De Keyser
 Ernest Vincze
EditorPaul Tothill
MusicAdrian Johnston

Cast: Lindsay Duncan (Marylin Truman); Timothy Spall (Oswald Bates); Liam Cunningham (Christopher Anderson); Billie Whitelaw (Veronica)

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An American property developer setting up a business school finds the premises still occupied by a picture library. In the face of threats to sell of the most valuable pieces and destroy the rest, the library staff mount a desperate attempt to preserve the collection and save their jobs.

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Shooting the Past is a compelling mixture of nostalgic drama and polemic. This technically flawless and beautifully acted work was the first of three long-format television plays which gained Stephen Poliakoff a much wider audience and consolidated his reputation as one of Britain's foremost writers. All three plays deal with themes of family and history, but Shooting the Past is the most contemporary and the most political.

The series is a heartfelt cry against what Poliakoff sees as the rampant philistinism of capitalism that has gradually infiltrated British attitudes towards culture and heritage. The photo archive seems to represent the 'old' Britain, with its eccentricities and core values - a portrait which could come straight out of an Ealing film - while the American company is the hard face of the market, with Anderson as the anti-hero who eventually sees the light in an audience-pleasing conclusion. But there's a sense of urgency underneath the somewhat wish-fulfilling narrative which suggests a darker reality; Oswald's despair and attempted suicide have a ring of truth which bring us up short. To Poliakoff, it seems to be a matter of life and death, even if the issue is less mortal than cultural.

As in Perfect Strangers (BBC, 2001), and his film Hidden City (1987), history is omnipresent in the form of photographs, stories and memories; photographs are often flashed before us with a hypnotic intensity. The photo archive represents the idiosyncratic, highly personal nature of history and the stories we are told from the photos are ones which impinge heavily on the characters while skirting the major events of the past. Poliakoff is fascinated with the idea of history being a series of stolen moments, captured forever on film, and the idea that the archive should be unceremoniously destroyed or divided becomes unbearable, just like the notion of the family being broken up. Marilyn's only act of real treachery is forsaking Oswald, a betrayal which becomes central to the second half of the story, and it shocks us because the staff of the archive are the family of the story, one into which Anderson is gradually assimilated. The staff and the photo archive are like an extended family with their own histories which, as Oswald's minute knowledge of the contents demonstrates, are inextricably linked. This theme of extended families being broken apart is central to both Perfect Strangers and The Lost Prince (BBC, 2003).

Mike Sutton

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Video Clips
1. Oswald's story (4:27)
2. Bad news (2:22)
3. The collection (5:06)
4. Interview (4:40)
Duncan, Lindsay (1950-)
Poliakoff, Stephen (1952-)
Serkis, Andy (1964-)
Spall, Timothy (1957-)
Whitelaw, Billie (1932-)