Stephen Poliakoff, one of Britain’s most-loved playwright and screenwriters, is interviewed by Actors&Performers about his work, including his new BBC television series Close to the Enemy. Stephen has a regularly updated blog, which can be read here.
When you begin a new project, how do you get started?
I usually start a new project when an image or an idea keeps coming back to haunt me and I know that it won’t go away and I have to investigate it further. In the case of Close to the Enemy it was when I discovered about the British seizing all these German scientists and bringing them over to the UK. And then the notion developed further when I had the idea of pitching a Nazi-hunter against my central character and the interesting moral dilemma that came out of this situation. It was at this point that I began to investigate the subject more thoroughly with a researcher.
Do you write every day?
I write or think every day. Sometimes I stare at a blank pad of A4 paper (I do not write on a computer). Every day I am either making notes, jotting down fragments of ideas, researching or writing.
If you could have written any play or film in history, what would it be?
Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov. For me it is the greatest play that has ever been written apart from the works of Shakespeare.
If you had one piece of advice for an early-career writer, what would it be?
It would be absolutely to develop your own voice and resolutely stick to your vision. Never try to write for the marketplace or second-guess what will sell. The world out there is not looking for pale imitations of other people’s work but for something fresh – even if they then go on to offer you the chance to rewrite Piranha 7. It will still be your own voice that got you noticed.
How do you feel about the state of British television drama at the moment?
I think it is in reasonably rude health. It is still difficult for people to get work made unless it fits into a genre, which is very different from when I started as a writer. In the 70s, 80s and 90s there were over fifty original single films made each year where you encountered a cornucopia of ideas in a similar way that new writing operates in the theatre. Most of that has now vanished and that is a great loss for the audience as well as for the writers. Nevertheless, long-form drama is experiencing a boom at the moment and has become the most powerful art form in the world.
What drew you to the fascinating premise for Close to the Enemy and to that time period in particular?
It was the intensity of the time and the extraordinary contrasts. British cities had been devastated by bombing and yet people still had adrenaline coursing through their veins from their experience of wartime. It was a time of great austerity and yet there was an outburst of creativity in the arts. There was the beginning of the Cold War with all the paranoia that entailed but there was also the birth of the National Health Service and the start of the Welfare State. It therefore seemed to me a tremendously fertile period for all sorts of stories and characters as people tried to rebuild their lives after the trauma of war.
From the many young actors you’ve championed, who are some of those you’re most proud of?
Well that is a rather invidious question because I have worked with so many talented young actors. I think over the last ten years I have taken great pleasure in seeing the careers of Emily Blunt, Tom Hardy, Gemma Arterton (whose first ever job was in Capturing Mary), Ruth Wilson, Eddie Redmayne, Alfie Allen (who was in Joe’s Palace when he was very young), Tom Hughes, Rebecca Hall and Jenna Louise Coleman really take off. I worked with all of these actors when they were in the early stage of their careers and it was obvious to me in each case that they were almost certainly going to achieve international success.
How much do your scripts change as you work with actors?
It doesn’t change. I do a lot of rehearsal with the actors before I start shooting and occasionally I will cut some lines that I don’t feel are necessary but I virtually never rewrite during the rehearsal period. I think the job of the writer is to get the script into as finished a state as possible before you offer it to the actors. The stories I tell are full of interconnecting ideas and you can’t change one of them without it having a ripple effect on the whole script.
How important is it to you to have close collaborators that you work with regularly?
On each project I always try to mix the personnel I am working with to include both people I have worked with regularly and people who are totally new to me. In the case of Close to the Enemy for instance, I was working with Ashley Rowe as Director of Photography who had shot Dancing on the Edge brilliantly but I was also working with Rob Harris who had never designed any of my work before (although rather wonderfully, he had been lighting designer on two of my early plays at the Bush Theatre).
There are however three relationships that I have sustained over a couple of decades; the casting director Andy Pryor, the composer Adrian Johnston and the producer Helen Flint. When you know people really well you can get straight to the point and they nearly always tell you the unvarnished truth.
The screenplays for Close to the Enemy are published in one volume by Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, and are available now at 30% off the R.R.P.