On reading Poliakoff

28th February 2013

I have just finished reading Stephen Poliakoff’s Dancing on the Edge. Or at least that’s what it feels like. In fact I have been viewing on my iPad downloads of the five-part six-hour BBC Two film. I have watched parts of it on tube and trains. I saw some in bed and some one morning with my breakfast toast. I even took the serial to the loo. And I realised I was consuming it in just the way that I would read a novel. At times I could devote ten minutes to it, or even just two minutes. On one occasion, I followed more than ninety minutes in a single session, jumping across the episode ends of of parts two and three. This has felt like a quite new experience – and a pleasing one too. My sporadic but concentrated attention seems to have suited Poliakoff’s visually sumptuous, achingly elegant, too often clunky, slow-paced but undeniably involving drama. On the tube this morning as I closed the iPad, I found myself wondering which of the author’s books I should read next. 

I have been watching theatre plays, films and television dramas by Stephen Poliakoff for more than thirty-five years. I have been frequently intrigued and and stimulated by his dramas, and I have always enjoyed his off-kilter sense of a predominantly realist world. But I have rarely been captivated or enthralled by them – although Stephen Frears’ 1980 ATV film of Poliakoff’s script Bloody Kids stays in my memory as an overwhelming experience.

There is much to enjoy about Dancing on the Edge, including the sense of the early 1930s conjured up in splendour as well as performances by an exceptional cast led by Chiwetel Ejiofor and graced – be still my heart – by Jacqueline Bisset. I was pleased to see Polikoff weave new variations around his fascination with the cloistered worlds of the aristocracy and his perennial tropes of trains, photography and memory. But it is the new mode of watching that has particularly struck me as I have made my way along the drama’s many corridors, passageways and staircases. I have enjoyed spending this kind of time with these characters.

In the past few years we have become accustomed to viewing television in new ways, whether thanks to DVD box sets, BBC iPlayer, or iTunes and other downloads. I now watch almost nothing apart from football and cricket in broadcast real time. Then in the past month there has been much talk about the innovation of the thirteen one-hour episodes of Netflix’s House of Cards being released on the same day, and about the the changes in production and exhibition that such a shift portends. But carrying a serial around on your iPad is a comparatively new experience, not least because downloads to Apple tablets only became feasible in the second half of last year.

It is being able to hold a serial in the palm of your hand that feels so new and so different, to be able to slip it into a (large) pocket and to have the briefest or the longest of intimate exchanges with it in all manner of places. This has been a private, individual experience, much like the ones that I have with paperbacks, and quite different from, say, watching in one session three or more episodes of Homeland with my wife Clare and daughter Kate.

Apart from it being a quite distinct communal experience, for Homeland we tended to fast forward through the recaps at the start of each episode. But watching Dancing on the Edge as I would read a novel, I came to welcome these gentle reminders of who was who and what was going on. They became a welcome part of the rhythm of the piece.

There are, of course, one or two differences from the social rules of reading. I was engrossed on the Northern Line in episode four of Dancing on the Edge when I realised that the fairly explicit fornication on screen was all-too-visible to the young woman sitting next to me. I hurriedly put away the iPad and scrambled to get my headphones back into my bag. A Penguin paperback of Lady Chatterley’s Lover risks no such embarassments.

The key question inevitably is whether such new forms of consumption will change what gets made and how drama serials of the future are paced and produced. Let’s file that question under “too early to tell” and look forward to the next serial that it will be a quiet pleasure to read on an iPad.


  1. Anna says:

    I’ve got the whole series saved on Sky+, not necessarily for a single viewing, but for that day when I can find 90 mins to kick it off. I’d heard lots of mediocre reviews, though, so I’d come close to deleting it once or twice.

    My favourite Poliakoff is Shooting The Past, partly because I love photographs, partly because I love archives and those who can navigate them (not that I’ve ever been in a photo archive), and partly because I love those little vignettes where some of the characters say “this is my favourite photo because”.

    I hadn’t seriously thought about watching TV on the train. I do like to watch whole episodes rather than dipping in and out but if I considered changing trains as a “commercial break” I could manage it. I normally either snooze or do college work, though of course I often call up a few sonnets on your wonderful app (or read a few scenes of a Shakespeare play) when I need to refresh and bathe my brain.

    Do you think eventually it will affect the way programmes are written (or edited), just as the demise of the vinyl album has changed the flow of CD or download albums which are no-longer structured into 2 “acts”?

    I shall do some downloading this weekend and try it on Monday.

  2. Paul Tickell says:

    John, you’ve opened up a fascinating area even if you have chosen a dull old piece of work to do so (I have never been a Poliakoff fan and didn’t last much beyond the second episode). There’s a very interesting book on the whole topic of, to adapt a Trollope title, The Way We Watch Now – Gabriele Pedulla’s IN BROAD DAYLIGHT: Movies and Spectators after the Cinema. So far I have only skimmed it but your piece now entails a proper read.

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