Poliakoff and the Proles: From Demonisation to Idealisation
A certain anxiety about the disruptive potential of the working class mob is evident even in Poliakoff’s earliest works. Written by Poliakoff and directed by Stephen Frears, the 1980 television film Bloody Kids (ATV) is a ‘state of the nation’ drama whose depiction of social decline and violence among working class youths in Southend-on-Sea is characterised by an ambiguous representation of the working class. Set against a decaying urban landscape that recalls the brutalist environments of Poliakoff’s earlier stage – and later television – play Hitting Town, Bloody Kids, like Caught on a Train (1980), comments on the theme of hooliganism. In a misguided bid for celebrity, a mischievous and manipulative child, Leo (Richard Thomas), encourages his friend Mike (Peter Clarke) to pretend to stab him with a knife outside a football stadium; yet the prank goes badly wrong and the hospitalised Leo tells police that Mike is guilty of attempted murder. Mike goes on the run from the police and falls in with a group of older teenaged hooligans led by Ken (Gary Holton). After involving Mike in a series of minor crimes, such as joyriding, smashing shop windows and leaving a restaurant without paying the bill, the increasingly frenzied Ken jumps from the top of a double decker bus, in a desperate and fatal attempt to impress his gang with a display of bravado.
Hooliganism was, of course, a distinct social concern throughout the 1970s and was by no means always condemned in cultural texts of the era. The novels of Richard Allen (the pseudonym of James Moffatt), for example, depicted the violent anti-authoritarianism of Britain’s white working-class youths with a good deal of psychological insight and sympathy. On stage and in film, meanwhile, the work of artists including David Hare, Barrie Keefe, and Derek Jarman reflected a widespread sense of despair and cultural collapse among British youth. So too did Franc Roddam’s film Quadrophenia (1979), which, like Bloody Kids, stars Gary Holton as an aggressive young rocker. But in contrast to Quadrophenia’s kindly take on the subject, Bloody Kids seems more ambivalent about the meaning of youth rebellion. On the one hand, the film seems to encourage sympathy for those young people, like Mike, who are caught up in hooliganism, especially since the adults in the film are presented as the detached and uncaring functionaries of a panoptical Establishment whose surveillance cameras are kept in view throughout the film. On the other hand, the violence and mayhem caused by Ken’s gang is accompanied by a threatening synth soundtrack and the crescendo of militaristic drumbeats that accompanies Ken’s fatal leap seems to cast his riotousness as the expression of a ‘totalitarian personality' and an amoral and degenerate youth culture.
In some of Poliakoff’s later television plays, the aggression of the working class mob is even more troublingly presented. Throughout The Tribe (BBC, 1998), for example, the working class denizens of the area where the goth-like tribe lives are threatening and abusive. As Jamie’s colleague Forester (Julian Rhind-Tutt) puts it, the tribe’s house is located in ‘the badlands’, ‘the most violent part of town’. Indeed, on arrival at the tribe’s house, Jamie is verbally abused by a gang of mostly white male hooligans, who hang out on street corners bullying young members of the community. The tribe is also subjected to constant harassment from the hooligans and in one scene its members are brutally beaten up by them in a seemingly unmotivated attack. The thugs later attack the tribe’s vehicle, daubing it with a symbol that resembles the circle-A used as a mark of identification by some anarchists (a detail that problematically associates the political movement of anarchism with mindless violence). Like Poliakoff’s 1990 film Close My Eyes, The Tribe is in part a drama about the changing face of London and, in particular, the gentrification of the city that hit the headlines when the incoming Prime Minister Tony Blair moved to the London borough of Islington in 1997 (Cadwalladr 2015). In Poliakoff’s telling, however, working class people are not the victims of gentrification, but a lumpen mass of anti-social proles. This is precisely the kind of stereotypical representation of London’s 'white working class' that entered popular consciousness in the New Labour era and which was angrily denounced in Michael Collins’s 2004 book The Likes of Us (and, more recently, in Owen Jones's Chavs).
Although they are not lengthy, other scenes in Poliakoff’s dramas depict the working class as a riotous mob. In Friends and Crocodiles (BBC, 2005), a dissolute yet generous millionaire, Paul (Damian Lewis), throws a party at his country manor house to which he invites all sections of society; yet his working class guests become a minatory presence at the event, running amok, driving quad cars across the lawns and drinking heavily, much to the alarm of Paul’s assistant Lizzie (Jodhi May). What makes this scene of mayhem so strange is the absence of any apparent diegetic justification for its inclusion; the working class, it seems, are simply ‘like that’. To take another example, the sensitive Joe, in Joe’s Palace (BBC, 2007), is verbally abused by a mob of working-class youths who pass outside the tower block where he lives. Later, Joe is physically threatened by a homeless man whom he tries to help; once again, there is no clear narrative rationale for inclusion of these scenes.
Because they are so decontextualised, the frequent depictions of working class delinquency and aggression in Poliakoff’s recent dramas seem to point less to a progressive anxiety about social breakdown and alienation (as could be argued of Poliakoff’s earlier, rather more sympathetic dramatic images of working-class youth in the 1970s) than to a fear of the working class masses as such. This is especially apparent in 2003’s The Lost Prince (BBC), in which collective working class agency is explicitly deplored. Set in the court of George V, here the Russian Revolution is described as an outbreak of barbarity and is condemned as such by the drama’s most sympathetic character, the king’s Private Secretary, Baron Stamfordham (Bill Nighy). In fact, the only occasions on which groups of workers are presented approvingly by Poliakoff is when – as they do in The Lost Prince – they form an orderly row of smiling servants, lining up for inspection by their masters.
These stigmatising images of the working-class mob in Poliakoff’s work are regularly juxtaposed with rather idealised images of virtuous working-class individuals. Often in Poliakoff’s dramas, working-class characters serve as narrative helpers whose role is to enlighten their powerful yet bewildered masters. In Gideon’s Daughter (BBC, 2006), the shop worker Stella helps the stuffy and privileged Gideon to ‘find himself’ and ‘do the right thing’. She also introduces Gideon to the pleasures of ‘ordinary life’, bringing him to her favourite Indian restaurant in the West London suburb of Southall, a place that is socially and economically far removed from Gideon’s glamorous yet stultifying central London bubble. In Joe’s Palace, another shop worker, Tina (Rebecca Hall), is enlisted by Elliot as a family historian and eventually uncovers Elliot’s family secret. And in several Poliakoff dramas, young, childlike innocents or savants (Oliver in Friends and Crocodiles; Joe in Joe’s Palace) serve as exemplary figures of moral purity.
This figure of the uncorrupted working-class innocent is, of course, hardly unique to Poliakoff; it has a literary pedigree that can be traced back at least as far as Dickens (Brown 1982: 49), with whose novels Poliakoff’s melodramatic narratives are sometimes compared, and it appears often in contemporary television drama. In a 2005 drama, The Girl in the Café (Channel 4), written by Richard Curtis and directed by David Yates, a young working class woman named Gina (Kelly Macdonald) softens the heart of a jaded civil servant (played by Poliakoff favourite Bill Nighy). The official invites the ‘girl’ to accompany him to a G8 summit meeting, where she urges world leaders – in particular the Americans, who are stalling the process – to ‘make poverty history’, as the campaigning slogan of the day had it. The Girl in the Café resonates with Poliakoff’s later television work in several ways. Its soft anti-Americanism, for example, is apparent throughout Poliakoff’s work: the corporate drone Christopher Anderson, in Shooting the Past, is an American, and it is American businessmen who lead Elliot Graham’s father into business with the Nazis in Joe’s Palace; indeed, as D. Keith Peacock (1984: 503) noted many years ago, the vulnerability of British society to pollution by ‘alien’ influences is a perennial Poliakoff theme. More important, from the point of view of the present chapter, is the drama’s idealisation of the working-class character as a beacon of integrity and enlightenment. While this may, on the face of things, seem an unobjectionable or even progressive positioning, here again Slavoj Žižek’s writings about ideology help to problematize such ostensibly ‘positive’ representations. Discussing James Cameron’s film Titanic, Žižek (2008: 58) detects an ‘all too obvious privileging of the lower classes and caricatured depiction of the egotism and cruel opportunism of the rich’. Underneath the apparent concern for the lower orders, Žižek identifies another, reactionary narrative in Titanic, namely that of ‘the young rich kid in crisis whose vitality is restored by a brief intimate contact with the full-blooded life of the poor’. In fact, as Žižek points out, Titanic ends with Rose, having listened to her lover’s sermon about ‘never giving up’, actually pushing Jack away from her towards his death. For Žižek, this indicates a patronising conception of the working class as mere catalysts for the moral transformation of the rich.
There are far more – and far more positive – things to say about Stephen Poliakoff’s television dramas than can possibly be discussed in this short chapter. Through his use of the techniques of ‘slow television’ (Holdsworth 2006) and ‘accented text’ (Hockenhull 2012: 638), Poliakoff has created a highly distinctive, off-kilter aesthetic that has rightly earned him the status of a respected auteur in British television. His dramas contain many sequences of intense lyrical beauty, his characters are often charmingly drawn and he can be seen as a metaphysical dramatist whose detailed evocations of place and space are unparalleled in contemporary television drama. Moreover, in an era of aggressive turbo-capitalism, Poliakoff’s criticisms of capitalism’s functionalism and inhumanity are highly pertinent.
These criticisms are, however, romantic rather than radical in nature. Poliakoff’s plays tend to echo the lament of the Georgian poet W. H. Davies for those who, ‘full of care […] have no time to stand and stare’ and in his critiques of the baleful social effects of materialism and technology he is closer to Lawrence than to Lenin. Indeed, Poliakoff can be understood as an author in the Romantic tradition, or, more specifically, drawing on Sayre and Löwy’s (1984) typology of ‘Romantic anti-capitalism’, as a ‘liberal Romantic’ who disdains the sterility of the contemporary status quo and harbours a limited critique of capitalist alienation. Poliakoff’s prescriptions for social and political change, meanwhile, are largely moralistic and idealist in character. While Poliakoff’s conflicted white, middle-class protagonists are forced to acknowledge their privileges and to contemplate the cultural, political and moral decline of the world around them, his working-class characters, especially in his post-millennial plays, take little part in the making of history and are portrayed either as degenerate yobs or idealized helpmates. This bifurcated representation of the proletariat is all too suggestive of the Victorian, yet currently recrudescent, distinction between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor (Bochel and Powell 2016).