Stephen Poliakoff in conversation with Melvyn Bragg
The annual Jacob Sonntag Memorial Event at RIBA, November 20th.
MB: Let’s start at the beginning, taking the strands from your early life; your family — Russian-Jewish; your education — prep school, public school, Cambridge; and your Left-ish culture and politics. So let’s take them one at a time, what you think they gave you and how they matter to you.
SP: My father and his parents came over from Russia in 1924, when he was fourteen. His fourteen years in Russia were the most vivid part of his life, he told stories about them again and again throughout my childhood. And very good stories they were; told quite slowly — maybe that’s where I get my pacing from. They had a flat near Red Square and he literally witnessed the October revolution from his bedroom window. They had rather a dramatic time: near-starvation after the revolution in their rundown Chekhovian dacha after the revolution. And many adventures: they escaped with one diamond hidden in shoe when Stalin came to power. So they were great stories. My mother came from Jewish aristocracy, Viscount Samuel was head of the family — he was head of the Liberals during the General Strike and led the Liberals in the House of Lords. A cousin had been in Asquith’s cabinet. So it was quite a flamboyant background and that was a pivotal thing in my life, I suppose.
MB: Your father’s stories about Russia, were they stories of regret that he was not still there?
SP: No. He was fascinated by Russia, loved talking about all things Russian. He was impatient with what he considered any form of banality and I think my straining for originality comes from that. Anything remotely commonplace that you came up with at the dinner table was jumped upon. He had a violent Russian temper, which was very frightening. Russia was a sort of drumbeat behind it all. My Russian grandmother lived at the top of the house until an enormous age and told very romantic stories — about meeting Tolstoy, going to see the first production of The Cherry Orchard. She was very monosyllabic: ‘That was it. I was there’! You couldn’t get anything else out of her!
MB: So your father brought Russia with him?
SP: He did, yes.
MB: Did you feel, therefore, that not only was he in a foreign country but — even though you’d been born here — you were in a foreign country?
SP: Well, no. He was a great Anglophile, he loved Rolls-Royces and Georgian architecture. My grandfather behaved like a Russian count; he dressed very formally and everything had an ornate Russian gilt to it. My father would kiss peoples’ hands. I grew up feeling that I had nineteenth-century parents.
MB: That’s the Russian-ness. What about the Jewishness?
SP: My mother was strongly religious. I mean, she wasn’t very orthodox, we went to the Liberal Synagogue with Rabbi Louis Jacobs. But we always did Friday night, the candles and all that. My father had a fascinating relationship to his Jewishness; he was definitely an atheist but he was fascinated by Jewish stories and culture. So there was an extraordinary schizophrenia, in the sense that he was both distancing himself and obsessed at the same time.
MB: You say you lit candles on Friday nights; was it in any sense an orthodox family?
SP: No. Well, we didn’t have seafood or pork. But no. It was fairly hit-and-miss; I’m sure non-kosher things got into the house. My mum would have been appalled at me saying this! But no. We were sort of shambolic.
MB: What was your father’s occupation?
SP: They ran a firm which made hearing aids. They did Churchill’s hearing aid and, apparently, MI5 thought — because they were Russians — that they were bugging Churchill’s hearing aid! They were stopped from servicing Churchill’s hearing aid, just in case. They literally had the ear of power! My father was very interested in the idea of power, in seeing it at a glance: as a boy he stayed a night at the Kremlin. He never met Stalin but he remembered an official being called to see Stalin. He loved telling that story — this official scurrying off to Stalin — and I loved hearing it.
MB: Did the chap who went to meet Stalin come back?
SP: Ha, yes. That’s why they escaped! The Commissar of Labour who my grandfather had managed to befriend — which was why they’d been allowed to come back to Moscow — was liquidated soon after. They were right in the middle of the revolution. Obviously, it was a very middle-class experience of the revolution but it was extremely vivid.
MB: You went to a prep school when you were five, and then public school, then Cambridge. You met the English middle classes, upper-middle classes, head on. Were your opinions of them formed then, and if so, what were they?
SP: My prep school was incredibly old-fashioned, even for the sixties. I was the only Jewish boy there. It was incredibly stereotyped: the headmaster had a wooden leg — straight out of Evelyn Waugh. He was in constant pain and would hit us over the head all the time. I loathed my five years there. We were horrendously badly taught. All the boys were very nice to each other because we were so frightened of the staff. It was like being in a POW camp, there was no bullying at all because we were all suffering these horrible schoolmasters!
Westminster was a more liberal school, and I had a very good time there. Cambridge, interestingly, was the only place I encountered anti-Semitism. It was quite a subtle anti-Semitism: stereotypical assumptions that if you’re Jewish, your parents must be incredibly wealthy furriers or businessmen. Extraordinary in 1972. They weren’t unpleasant to me, they just made these assumptions — their ignorance was quite startling. It may have also been to do with the anti-Semitism of the left: an anti-Semitism based on the assumption that ‘Jewish people are rich’.
MB: (As a trivial aside, this just proves that Cambridge is far behind Oxford and always has been! I was at Wadham and it was entirely run by people who’ve ever since been my best friends, all of whom were Jews!) Did you leave Cambridge early because it wasn’t giving you what you wanted?
SP: I took two years off before going up, during which I wrote plays and my academic side somewhat withered. But also the history course at Cambridge, then, was terrible. We had to do the French Revolution in one week! I spent a whole term on it. I wrote a very long essay and my supervisor ran out of the room and vomited! Partly because of excess the night before, but maybe it was also my essay. Anyway, I left.
MB: You came back to London. It’s said that it was very hard to get on in London at that time if your leanings weren’t to the left. Left politics was driving new ideas in the theatre. Did you fit in with that?
SP: Yes, I think that’s true. But I was never a didactic writer, I didn’t write agitprop. To my amazement, my leaving Cambridge early earned me a lot of ‘street cred’ on the fringe. Most of us — David Hare, Howard Brenton — were Oxbridge playwrights. And I’d left! The fringe was quite anarchic at that time; there were lots of surrealist plays. It wasn’t all hard-left plays but they were all connected to some sort of agitation about the world: if you’d written about two middle-class people breaking up, you wouldn’t have got the play on. I was writing plays about young people in restless urban settings.
MB: What inspired you? Your first play was put on when you were fifteen …
SP: It was only a school play!
MB: Well, a pretty good school and a pretty good play.
SP: I was inspired! I loved watching Armchair Theatre, work by Pinter and others. Going to school in Westminster was wonderful. You could walk across the river to the Old Vic and pay three shillings to sit in the gods and watch Olivier. It seems amazing now that the theatre wasn’t always full. Theatre was really exciting.
MB: But a lot of people have a passion for the theatre. How did that passion transfer into you wanting to write?
SP: Well, I was in love with the theatre, I wanted to be an actor but I was hopelessly untalented. I realised that I had some talent for writing dialogue. Like many kids, I wrote short stories much of which was in dialogue. Prose didn’t come so easily so I concentrated on what I could do. Then it evolved into plays; that’s really how it started.
I had watched so much television drama and was enchanted by the idea that it touches so many imaginations. Television is incredibly democratic. It reaches across all walks of life, into different geographies, different dwellings. I’ve always found that magical. Even as a child I was aware that, even though I was alone on the carpet watching Pinter and trying to understand it, there were millions of other people all over the country watching it and trying to understand it too.
MB: Can you talk a little about the distinction between live theatre and television?
SP: Theatre is like going over the rapids. It’s exciting, nerve-wracking and unique because it varies from night to night. But it can be a struggle to stop the actors coarsening it and playing for laughs. Theatre’s very combustible: there can be magical nights or nights which just don’t work because the audience is very ungiving. It’s also very ephemeral: it used to be said that the reason people — certain people, never you! — didn’t take television seriously as an art form was because it was ephemeral. It just went and how can you take something seriously that’s just gone? With video, and now DVD, it’s become a lasting form. In theatre, very few contemporary plays stay in the repertoire, perhaps one in three thousand. I found that irksome, that my successful plays were never revived. That was a fate shared by every other playwright. Also, theatre doesn’t allow you to reach many people. And often they’re the same people! I’d look at the audience and think, ‘ah, you’re back again’! Theatre is a very tiny club.
The unique thing about television drama is that it can produce worlds without genres. Most movies, to sell, have to be in genres, a thriller or a romantic comedy. In television, writers can dream different visions: some are social-realist, some are completely abstract, some naturalistic, some — like Potter — were extremely bold. That’s a unique tradition: reaching a lot of people without being governed by the American box office. It has been a hugely important tradition in British cultural life.
MB: I was criticised for my interest in television, but it was superior to anything I saw on the stage. It’s a wonderful example of the way that technology drives culture: as soon as you have access to posterity, then the idea of television being ephemeral has gone and the idea of television being ‘light’ has gone.
Let’s pick out some of your work, starting with Shooting the Past. It has themes that have pursued you, as much as you’ve pursued them, in all your work. Can you tell us what led you to do that film?
SP: This is a film about a photographic library threatened with closure. I wanted to return to long scenes in television. I’m sure we’ve all seen a still image in a documentary and wished it had stayed for longer. And I wondered how that might apply in a drama, where the photos are actually the story. I also wanted to fight the idea that people couldn’t concentrate for long. I was amazed at the audience reaction.
MB: Taking aside all modesty, why do you think that was? What nerve do you think it struck?
SP: Without being falsely modest — not something I suffer from — I think that there was a dearth of authored drama at that time and it all tended to be within genres. The BBC had abolished single plays in the late nineties, so people were grateful to see something that was a surprise. People like being taken into worlds they haven’t seen before.
MB: Something that seemed to come out of left field was The Lost Prince. It was an amazing hit … where did that come from?
SP: It related back to my previous work, Perfect Strangers, a drama about a Jewish family reunion. One of the mysteries in that piece was a photograph of this boy in a prince costume. Then The Independent ran a piece on Prince John, the hidden prince. I was haunted by this but thought someone else should do the story; the royal family’s not really for me. Years went by, and I thought I should. ‘Faction’ was new for me. I felt that someone would ask me what I had invented — in order to reflect a wider dramatic truth — and what had really happened. But nobody ever did ask that question. When the script was published, I published all my ‘homework’ with it. I don’t know if anyone’s ever read it! Anyway, The Lost Prince was the conjunction between my imagery from Perfect Strangers and a true story. The life of that boy is an extraordinary dramatic arc from the Ruritanian splendour of Edward VII’s court, to the abstemious household of George and Mary at Sandringham, and ending with the First World War. John died the day they sat down to negotiate the Treaty of Versailles. They were related to the Russian royal family as well as the Germans they were fighting! It was an irresistible dramatic arc but extremely hard to write. I just couldn’t write the words ‘Buckingham Palace’! It felt ludicrous! So I ended up writing ‘the big house in London’! It was also hard to animate the family. I didn’t want Mary as a total dragon and George V shouting the whole time. He was a very short man, the head of the Empire. Queen Mary was rather bright and actually quite good-looking before the First World War, which aged her dramatically. So I tried to be historically fresher.
MB: Did you enjoy this departure into faction?
SP: Not enormously. It worries me. I prefer to go sideways into history, with fictional characters near things that we know about.
MB: And the recent trilogy? What was the starting point for that?
SP: A house, really. I’m very nosy about property, I love locations and thinking about what goes on inside. Imagery from the past, and especially what happened in the thirties, had been filtering into my work from an oblique angle; Shooting the Past and Perfect Strangers are both stories connected with the Holocaust. One thing that I’ve always wanted to dramatise is the people that stood and watched. I had this image of a man troubled with where his father’s money came from. I wanted to get there through a contemporary story about the disjointed sense of urban loneliness. It’s a cliché, but there’s a sense that the further you get away from what happened [the Holocaust], the nearer it seems to come. Now, with distance, we can think about it — possibly — more piercingly. So all those things came together.
We’re all continually troubled and fascinated by the past. Because I had elderly parents — they were born before the First World War and had children late — they shared memories of the whole twentieth century. The first memories my father had were of 1913 and 1914. I suppose that’s why I’m so interested in the past. I spent a lot of my youth writing very contemporary works — because you react against your family — about urban, pop culture, the world of disc jockeys and shopping precincts. As I got older, I was pulled towards a European perspective because I was finally embracing my cultural heritage. I think that’s why I started peering more and more into the past.