There’s no doubt that Poliakoff has written an impressive array of distinctive television plays in recent years; but even Robin Nelson, in his recent, mostly affirmative book about Poliakoff, expresses concerns about the sentimentality and lack of dramatic plausibility he detects in some of the writer’s work. Certainly, since his return to television in the late 1990s with such elegant and off-centre offerings as The Tribe (1998) and Shooting the Past (1999), the doyen of BBC quality drama has divided the critics like no other auteur around.
The lingering camera shots and glacial narrative progression of Dancing on the Edge confirm Poliakoff as the master of ‘slow television’ (to borrow Amy Holdsworth’s phrase). In fact, notwithstanding Louis’s getaway scenes in the fourth episode, Dancing on the Edge has crawled along, at times making The Jewel in the Crown look like The Bourne Identity. For some critics, this is frustrating. Mark Lawson, for example, complains that Poliakoff’s leisureliness seems to have become an auteurist indulgence which is not motivated by any diegetic requirement. That may be so; but in an age of turbo-capitalism when what Nelson identifies as ‘flexiad’ aesthetics are so dominant in film and television, I welcome Poliakoff’s change of pace, his attempt to stop the flow of what Adorno called film’s ‘relentless rush of facts’.
But perhaps there is more to it than that. It is tempting to read into the clichéd, frigid superficiality of Poliakoff’s stilted dialogue a Gatsby-esque critique of bourgeois alienation and emotional repression, although this analysis doesn’t quite work, since almost all of Poliakoff’s characters – good and bad – tend to talk the same way. In a more general sense, however, the reticence about expressions of interiority does, I think, serve a potentially valuable critical function, disrupting television drama’s conventional recourse to psychological realism and character ‘depth’. For me, there is something refreshing about characters who refrain from laying bare every aspect of their own, or others’, inner lives. Television fictions – particularly soap operas, legal and police dramas – are so full of characters feverishly explicating their reasons, histories and motives that to escape from such torrents of ratiocination can come as a welcome relief and even introduce an element of mystery. After four episodes of Dancing on the Edge, we have learned next to nothing about the backgrounds or motives of the main characters; but for me this adds to the enigma of it all.
My concerns about Poliakoff relate not so much to plausibility or writing style as to social and political representation – especially in connection to class. The problem is not so much that Poliakoff often writes about toffs rather than workers (after all, there are plenty of television dramas featuring working-class characters). It has more to do with the ways in which ordinary people are portrayed. Too often in Poliakoff plays, working-class people either serve as angelic helpers for powerful men (like Stella in 2006’s Gideon’s Daughter) or appear as hooligans intent on wreaking havoc – see, for example, Caught on a Train (1980), Bloody Kids (1980), The Tribe (1998), Friends and Crocodiles (2005) and Joe’s Palace (2007).
While there are some sympathetic working-class characters in Dancing on the Edge – notably Stanley and his assistant Rosie (Jenna-Louise Coleman) – Stanley’s mother is a bovine comic butt and when he is on the run from the police, Louis is crashed into by an aggressive working-class boy on a bicycle who shouts ‘watch out you bastard’ at him (although the accident is clearly the boy’s fault). The hoi polloi on the streets, it seems, are almost as unpleasant as those beastly Germans.
That said, there’s currently nothing quite so beautiful as Dancing on the Edge anywhere else on British television. The decision to broadcast it on BBC2 rather than BBC1 may be an indication that Poliakoff no longer has the industrial clout that he did a few years ago; nevertheless, I hope that the present drama is not – as is being rumoured in some corners of the Internet – Poliakoff’s television swan song. Poliakoff’s work may have its faults and it is marked, as suggested above, by a certain social and political conservatism; but it is considerably more visually arresting than most of the drama on British television at the moment.