Interview: Stephen Poliakoff

Lewis Thomas 18 March 2017

“I see myself as quite an anarchic presence.” We’re five minutes into a twenty minute interview, and Stephen Poliakoff is eloquently holding forth on what he sees as his position in the British arts scene. Looking at his work and reception, I’m inclined to agree with him. In a forty-five year career which has included theatre, film, and television, Poliakoff has carved out a reputation as one of Britain’s most capable dramatists and directors, and it is a testament to the work of the Watersprite team that they have managed to secure his services as their keynote speaker.

But as he talks, that keynote lies in the future. TCS spoke to him in a small meeting room at Catz’s McGrath Centre, with the buzz of a drinks reception burbling up from the floor below, and the hubbub of a festival about to open permeating the building. We kick off by talking about the role of diversity in Mr. Poliakoff’s work – his two most recent projects, Dancing on the Edge and Closer to the Enemy, have both dealt with minority groups in the nineteen-thirties and forties, and he has been a great champion of diversity in the television community. Does he see his work as having a political role?

“I think diversity is very important… I don’t think there should be quotas – I don’t think art works like that – but there are many many stories beginning to be told recently.” To illustrate these stories, he mentions “Dancing On The Edge, that had a basis in historical truth. These black musicians taken up by the Aristocracy and royalty, and those very royals – Edward VIII, for example – who invited these musicians into their homes would have been the puppet king of the Nazis.”

He also argues for the importance of improving the gender balance in drama: “I’m a great believer in writing large roles for women. I think it’s very important that we somehow break the cycle when women get to their thirties, there are no great parts for them.”

From diversity, we move on to the respective merits of Television and theatre. Poliakoff is a great advocate for the democratic nature of television, arguing that while “I really love the theatre”, “I found it quite frustrating that you’re playing to quite a small crowd. You’ve got a new play on at the National, and you can see the same audience going round and round! There are about 30,000 people who go to new plays in London… you have a History Boys type success. It obviously winds out, but you’ve basically got the same dedicated new plays audience.” He contrasts this with television, arguing that “there’s something wonderfully democratic about television – a wider audience – and people outside London seeing your work, and what’s changed in my lifetime is the life that television has, due to streaming, DVD, etcetera.

Poliakoff illustrates this effect by mentioning two rather memorable incidents: “a Morris dancer who came up to me – in the middle of his set – and said ‘are you Stephen Poliakoff?”, and an armed police officer at Windsor Castle who, meeting him for a research meeting, confronted him with the words, “What’s this about Tim Spall? Why do you keep casting him?”

“That’s the greatest thing to me- you’re in the middle of the most establishment place on earth, and the armed police are watching your work!” To Poliakoff, television democratises society, bringing great stories to the masses as well as the thirty-thousand.

In his keynote for Watersprite, Poliakoff has one final piece of advice: Writers need to be fresh. Publishers do not want copies or imitations, they want a fresh voice. As a result, his advice is simply this: “follow your own star.”

Stars (of stage, screen, and metaphor), culture-vulture police, and Edward VIII. Poliakoff touched on a wide variety of topics in his interview, and kicked Watersprite off in fine fashion. His keynote speech was excellent, and marked the start of a fascinating festival which has continued to go from strength to strength since its establishment. “There are many stories that are still to be told.” In his work and speech, Mr. Poliakoff demonstrates that he is one of the people to tell them.