I remember once, years ago, barely being able to contain my fury on emerging from a preview screening of a Stephen Poliakoff drama. I think it might have been Friends and Crocodiles from 2005, with Damian Lewis as an enigmatic, party-throwing entrepreneur during the Thatcher years. To this day it remains one of the most irritating things I have ever seen on television, so showy and yet so pointlessly empty.
As all the other critics were murmuring about its greatness and how much they loved it, I could hear a synapse snap in my head. When it came to my turn to be asked, “And what did you think of it?” my natural politeness and perpetual eagerness to please fell away: “I HATED IT. I bloody HATED IT.” Everyone was a bit quiet after that and I went home, still seething.
I can’t think of any other writer who could ever provoke me to such anger and I know I’m not alone. I don’t mean personally, I’ve met Stephen Poliakoff and we always have a jolly time. But his dramas can push me to my limits of both tolerance and patience. Yet, curse him, he can also pull me into a damaged life and make me cry. As much as Friends and Crocodiles made me want to scratch off my own skin, The Lost Prince (Poliakoff ’s 2003 drama about the hidden epileptic Prince John, youngest child of King George V and Queen Mary) was so unbearably touching it left me a sobbing heap.
As his latest series, Dancing on the Edge (tonight BBC2) began, Poliakoff ’s first TV drama in five years, I could feel that old, angry tingling. What the hell is this? Who are these people? Why does no one ever appear to say anything of consequence? Why is the whole thing taking so long to get going? Am I doing Poliakoff’s job for him by attributing my own motives to all of these characters? Has he just drawn the outlines of his players and I’m being left to crayon them in?
But, oh hell and damnation, I’m hooked. I sit down to watch an episode of Dancing on the Edge, about a black jazz band in 1930s Britain, and I fall headlong into a cushioned well. Even though Dancing on the Edge is just not my thing, it’s so leisurely and mannered, I feel like I’m being played like a creaky violin as the traitorous thought creeps into my head – is there less to this than meets my eye? Yet I still look forward to it every week. Grrrrrrrr.
Poliakoff is a polarising figure on British television. But he is vital because he makes us think, makes us exercise our intellectual muscles and, yes, possibly make us cross in the process. He makes our minds go for a healthy run because nothing is ever presented, all buffed-up and ready for consumption, on a plate. That’s the thing about Dancing on the Edge, it’s a primrose path. Who are these feckless, wealthy men and women who latch on to the Louis Lester Band? Why do they do what they do? Am I reading too much into this? We end up having a relationship with the drama, even if it ends in a tussle and a flounce.
Best of all, can you imagine any other broadcaster in the entire world letting a writer like Poliakoff loose on a mainstream audience? It makes you proud to be British.