Saturday 3 November 2007

Shooting the Past

Well, the level of blog posting this week bears witness to the amount of 'spare' time I've had these past few days. There is still masses to wade through - always a very busy time of the year - but I'm awarding myself some time off tonight to put my feet up with one one of the most extraordinary TV films ever made - Stephen Poliakoff's Shooting the Past. I have it on DVD, of course, but haven't watched it for a while, so when I noticed that it would be on BBC2 tonight, it seemed like a very good idea to plan my evening around it.

It's nearly a decade old now, but it still seems radical in its departure from the boring old norms of most made-for-TV 'drama'. I am a huge admirer of Poliakoff - though I know he divides opinions, and though I enjoyed them enormously I can understand why some have found his more recent television set-pieces (with the notable exception of the exquisite The Lost Prince) self-indulgent and over-long. Shooting the Past is long, certainly. Before it was first aired he was asked to cut it by half an hour - and he refused, saying that he simply couldn't and wouldn't, and if that meant he never worked in TV again, then so be it. He was right. One of the wonders of Shooting the Past is its pace. It's quite different from what we're used to - it's more akin to 'real time' and this draws us in and involves us even more intimately and intensely.

An American businessman arrives, apparently unannounced, at the premises of an old established photo library, which unbeknown to the library's devoted and slightly eccentric staff, he is just about to turn into a business school. In four days the collection of several million photographs must be sold, or all but its choicest items destroyed. What follows is a thought-provoking meditation on capitalism versus history, corporatism versus academia, philistinism versus the preservation of our cultural heritage. It is about photography and life and work and 'progress' . What is the point of keeping historical records? Are these fleeting images, ultimately, important? Do they have any use?

The performances which Poliakoff (as director and scriptwriter) draws out of some of our most brilliant actors - Timothy Spall, Lindsay Duncan, Liam Cunningham, Billie Whitelaw, Emilia Fox - are absolutely extraordinary. Spall's character, Oswald, is eccentric, to say the least, and his actions drive the plot round many unexpected corners. Duncan is little short of divine - and the sexual tension between her character and Cunningham's sends shivers down the spine.

Shooting the Past is strange and passionate and absolutely unforgettable. The more run-of-the-mill telly I've seen in the nine years since it was first shown, the more it stands out as something abidingly special in any number of ways. I'm not a notably lachrymose person, but this one never fails to move me to tears. Which I never expect - they always take me by surprise.

Oh, just watch it, and you'll see what I mean. BBC2 9.40 until . . . quite a long time later (and that's only parts one and two - you'll have to wait until next Saturday for the final episode).

NB there's a very good interview with Poliakoff in the Guardian, reproduced here. And if you miss it, or want to keep it for ever, the DVD's only a tenner on Amazon.

Meanwhile, Poliakoff's new Joe's Palace will be shown on Sunday, BBC1, 9 pm. I will be watching. (A double Penry-Jones week (cf Spooks on Tuesday) - which is not something I, for one, will be complaining about!)


Martin Edwards said...

I share your admiration for Poliakoff. One of his early TV plays which I remember vividly was 'Stronger than the Sun'. I don't know if it's ever been repeated, but I'd love to see it again to check whether it lives up to my recollection of it. It's quite something, in the ephemeral world of tv, to write a play that strikes such a chord in at least certain viewers.

Juliet said...

Hi Martin - did you see Joe's Palace? What did you think? I've never seen Stronger than the Sun, unfortunately, and it's not available on DVD as far as I can see - but then even the relatively recent The Lost Prince - one of his most popular works - seems not to be currently available, which seems very strange to me.