Close to the Enemy review: Has Stephen Poliakoff gone off the boil?

Ben Dowell is slightly disappointed by the much-garlanded writer's latest drama

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He’s lauded and feted by so many people, garlanded with awards, and yet strangely Stephen Poliakoff’s recent efforts have left me feeling cold.

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I know many people disagree, but I didn’t much take to Dancing on the Edge, his 2013 series that followed the fortunes of a black jazz band in 1930s London, which I felt was a little unexciting; and nor did I feel his other more recent efforts the twinned dramas Joe’s Palace (set in a palatial London property owned by an agoraphobic millionaire) and Capturing Mary really worked.

Telling two very different stories connected by the same Knightsbridge house, they were replete with excellent set pieces and stunning visuals but felt a little over-indulgent, and a trifle over-long.

I speak as someone who loved some of his earlier TV work, especially Shooting the Past (1999), Perfect Strangers (2001) and especially The Lost Prince (2003), his beautiful story about the abandoned Edwardian Prince John. But since then I am worried he may have gone off the boil. For me his TV plays, certainly the recent ones, have felt a little long winded, as if they are stage plays pretending to be TV dramas. He did start out working for theatre after all. 

His most recent is Close to the Enemy (episode two is on tonight); Poliakoff also directs this story about a British intelligence operative Callum Ferguson (Jim Sturgess) who is tasked with babysitting a German scientist (Dieter Koehler played by August Diehl) in London in 1946.

Kohler, a jet engine whizz, has been snatched from his bed in the dead of night by the British in a bid to pick his brains in the early days of the Cold War.

He has been brought over with his frightened young daughter Lotte and is staying a big hotel in bombed out London. As Joe’s Palace showed, Poliakoff does love a big, echoey building and here the symbolism around grandeur and the death of Empire is clearly evoked, even if it feels slightly obvious.

Callum Ferguson is a smoothie chops in a suit and Fedora with quite the most ridiculous accent I have heard in a long time. It’s… God knows what it is. Syrupy, with a strange American inflection, and utterly unplaceable. It reminded me a little of Swiss Toni from The Fast Show. The way he speaks wouldn’t sit badly in a sketch in which someone is playing a comedy James Bond. But Ferguson is no James Bond – Sturgess seems far too young looking and unmanly for that.  I’d have much preferred an actor like Matthew Macfadyen, who starred in Poliakoff’s last really good drama Perfect Strangers back in 2001 – but there you are.

He also walks with a strange swagger and seems very pleased with himself, getting admiring looks from everyone, be they the telephone operatives working from he hotel or sexy young Julia (Charity Wakefield, below) who also appears to be working at the hotel, but as a prostitute of some kind or other.

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Ferguson also has a way with children, and manages to charm Lotte (known, thanks to his weird accent, as “Lodda”) with his bullying of the kitchen staff into preparing her some Austrian cabbage to make her feel at home and win Daddy over.

As for the other characters, they feel a bit like ghosts hand-picked from Poliakoff dramas past.

Ferguson’s friend Alex Lombard (Sebastian Armesto, Poldark’s Tankard) has a pretty young American wife called Rachel and is played (rather sparklingly it has to be said) by Charlotte Riley (bottom pic). She’s another woman who takes an interest in Callum and who Callum seems to rather fancy back.

And there’s a brother, Victor (Freddie Highmore), a vulnerable young man who rails against the fascists he meets but seems to have some kind of post-traumatic neurological disorder. Oh, and let’s not forget Phoebe Fox’s passionate young Kathy from the War Crimes Office who believes some Germans need to answer for their crimes even if they are dashed whizz at science, jet engines and stuff.

Quite why Ferguson tackles the assignment when he is six weeks from being demobbed will no doubt be explained. He was an engineer during the conflict and seems to have a beef about the British not being prepared for war, for having the wrong equipment. Maybe this will play out with parallels to more modern wars.

At least it sounds great. In episode one we met a hip, black swing band, fronted by Angela Bassett’s Eva (below) who is probably the best thing in this. The singing’s great but the narrative point (that Eva and Rachel represent a breath of fresh New World air to stale bombed out London) feels a little trite to me. Plus it feels like Bassett has walked in from the wrong show, as if Close to the Enemy has simply imported the band from Dancing on the Edge because the tunes are so great.

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It looks amazing and does shed light on an interesting period in British life. But it also feels like a history lesson, and less of a drama. More, in fact, like a stage play. I was really hoping for more.

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