In its latest season of scandals, the BBC has offered us some rare treats. There was the Blue Peter cat outrage, a rich variety of phone-in scams, the allegation that a lovely newsreader, Moira Stewart, was being fired on grounds of age and, of course, a return of that old favourite, Jonathan Ross’s salary. Yet oddly, one scandal seems to have escaped the notice of commentators. It is called Stephen Poliakoff.
The BBC position is that Poliakoff is self-evidently now such a titan of contemporary writing that much of the corporation’s drastically reduced airtime devoted to serious drama should be a celebration of his talent. While swingeing cutbacks are introduced elsewhere, the three new plays to be broadcast this week are as casually lavish as any Hollywood film. So exceptional is Poliakoff that, in addition to writing and directing no less than four hours and 40 minutes of new peak-hour drama, he will be profiled in an arts programme, has had one of his earlier plays repeated and – the ultimate benediction – there will be a dedicated Stephen Poliakoff evening on BBC2.
No one since Dennis Potter has received this level of privilege and, to an outsider, it is all slightly baffling. There have been some good Poliakoff productions, notably Shooting the Past, but he has also been responsible for his share of turkeys. His 1999 play Remember This was well-named – most of those who sat through it at the National Theatre remember it all right, but with a wince of embarrassment.
The first play in the Poliakoff festival, Joe’s Palace, was broadcast on Sunday night, and slowly – very slowly – the reason for the BBC’s enthusiasm became clearer. This is heritage drama, the kind of play which contains, in palatable form, the solid and safe qualities expected of a serious-minded British play.
There was the setting of a lovely house. There was mysterious wealth. There was adultery between a good-looking cabinet minister and his beautiful mistress. There were reflections on the way the past haunts the present, a theme on which Poliakoff has become something of a bore. There were set-pieces for the leading actors to make their bids for a Bafta. There was a family secret which involved Nazi cruelty in the 1930s. It was all very beautiful, enigmatic and expensive: one brief flashback sequence towards the end of the play will have had other writers, whose BBC productions have been cut to the bone, weeping with envy. The star was one of our most revered actors, Michael Gambon (Maggie Smith gets the gig next week) and had a sweeping musical score.
Self-consciously mysterious, it dared the viewer to wonder whether there was substance beneath the glittering surface, whether the pretty pictures and moody performances were anything more than that. This was Serious Culture. Those of us who failed to understand its hidden depths were simply too unsophisticated to appreciate the complexity of the work.
But it is a scandal, the millions being spent by the BBC on one revered writer/director. There are other more brilliant and original playwrights out there, both of Poliakoff’s generation and younger. Heritage drama doubtless sells well around the world: it offers a satisfying mix of Britain past and present, some flashy acting, a visual treat with a glittering promise of serious intent. It might even get viewers, so desperate have we all become for serious TV drama. But spending so much public money on the increasingly grand and empty vision of one writer represents more than a lack of enterprise. It is creatively lazy.
Normal rules don’t apply
Last weekend, an 81-year-old woman went riding on a horse in Windsor Great Park without first putting on the protective headgear which is widely thought to be sensible. Normally, this situation would have had health and safety experts wetting themselves with concern and anger but no one has said a word. The bescarfed old lady was our beloved Queen.
When it comes to safety, normal rules do not apply. The Windsors are not there to set an example, but to remind us that they are different from the rest of us. It is sad that no one was able to explain this fact to the rare hen harriers who recently flew over Sandringham while Prince Harry was out shooting and were blasted out of the sky.
* A neat little lesson for public-spirited celebrities is unfolding in Australia, where a well-known rock star has made the difficult switch from performance to politics. Peter Garrett, lead singer with the band Midnight Oil, felt so strongly about the environment that, about five years ago, he decided that slogans were not enough. Having discussed entering politics as a candidate for the Green Party, he joined the Labour opposition and was quickly appointed shadow Environment Minister.
Even before the current election, Garrett was in trouble for supporting the development of a massive, environmentally damaging paper-mill in Tasmania. On the campaign trail, he has become a liability, sounding off about climate change, and then telling a disc jockey that Labour promises should not be taken too seriously because “once we get in we’ll just change it all”. Practical politics, the former rocker has discovered, is tougher than it looks. Bono and Geldof, please note.