Although primarily a writer for the theatre, Stephen Poliakoff has also contributed to television drama, initially for Play for Today with Caught on a Train in 1980 and Soft Targets (1983). The latter is a perfect example of Poliakoff's uncanny knack for presenting intricacies of British social customs and locations - especially in London - through the eyes of an outsider (in this case Ian Holm's home-sick Russian journalist), giving viewers a glimpse of the hidden and often dangerous side of life we only occasionally connect with. This was taken to extremes in the nuclear thriller Stronger Than the Sun (1977), while a different subject altogether was 1989's She's Been Away, about senile dementia. Other notable productions have been adaptations of Poliakoff's stage plays Hitting Town and Strawberry Fields, along with his scripts for Film on Four, including Runners (1982 with James Fox, Jane Asher and Kate Hardie), Hidden City (1990, starring Charles Dance and Cassie Stuart), Close My Eyes (1991, with Clive Owen, Saskia Reeves and Alan Rickman), and Century (1993, with Clive Owen, Miranda Richardson and Charles Dance). As with all his subsequent productions, Hidden City was also directed by Poliakoff.
A recurring theme in Poliakoff's work is to place characters in a situation which causes them to radically reassess their own preconceptions and view of the world. In Runners is a father searching London for his runaway under-age daughter, prepared to find her having fallen into prostitution, drug-abuse, or the hands of a religious cult, only to discover that she is surviving quite happily and legally in a city he finds confusing and bewildering. Hidden City has a statistician bored with London is plunged into the world of paranoia and out-dated yet still-enforced official secrets by a young woman following clues left in decades-old public information films. In the BBC Films production The Tribe (1998, starring Joely Richardson, Jeremy Northam and Trevor Eve), the young property developer is drawn to the alternative lifestyle of the urban cult occupying part of a building recently-acquired by his employer.
In television terms, Poliakoff's undoubted masterpiece is 1999's three-part Shooting the Past for BBC2. Christopher Anderson, the representative of an American corporation (Liam Cunningham), finds that the building he has acquired in London to house a new business school is still occupied by a photographic library and its eccentric staff . The latter are appalled at his plan to sell off the most valuable pictures and simply junk the rest if a buyer cannot be found for them. The head of the library, Marilyn Truman (Lindsay Duncan), and her deputy, Oswald Bates (Timothy Spall), demonstrate the uniqueness of the collection as a whole by using the pictures to reconstruct the shocking true life story of Anderson's own grandmother. For the first run of the series, the episodes were interspersed with two monologues by supporting cast members Billie Whitelaw and Emilia Fox. The 2001 follow-up to Shooting the Past was Perfect Strangers, about the huge reunion of all his relative organised by an elderly millionaire, starring Duncan, Spall, and Michael Gambon.
One of Poliakoff's stageplay's which has surprisingly not been transferred to the small screen (although there has been a radio version) is Talk of the City, which presents an intriguing "alternative history" of the early days of television itself. In the late-1930s, as Europe spirals towards the Second World War, the main BBC output is bland and inoffensive and only on the wireless. While the bulk of the poulation is reassured by the BBC's radio stations, the underfunded and understaffed embryonic Television Service delivers to its tiny London-only audience a new show, Talk of the City, which attempts to address what is really happening on the other side of the Channel in a radically new and subservise manner. What - Poliakoff essentially speculates - would have happened had the 1960s boom in television satire arrived a quarter of a century earlier...?
[Biography as submitted for inclusion in The Guinness Book of Classic British TV (1996, 2nd edition), with additional updated material]