How have Stephen Poliakoff and Ken Loach helped to create a new aesthetic of television?

Stephen Poliakoff and Ken Loach are two strikingly different auteurs. The former uses opulent visuals and a ‘slow’ narrative to defy conventional contemporary television, which is often characterised by its “upbeat, high temperature mode” (Nelson, 2006, p. 126). Loach’s early television work also sort to reject the stylistic television norms of the 1960s, adopting a documentary realism style instead of the naturalism that many television viewers had grown used to.

Poliakoff is a writer who has achieved critical success and is “acclaimed as an author of ‘good’ TV drama” (Nelson, 2006, p. 122). Nelson notes that by acting as both writer and director, many of Poliakoff’s projects come “as close to ‘authored drama’ as it is possible to be in a necessarily collaborative, creative endeavour” (2006, p. 124).

Holdsworth describes Poliakoff’s drama as ‘slow television’ (2006), which frequently pays more attention to the mood of the piece than the narrative. This technique “operates as an alternative way of absorbing the viewer” (Holdsworth, 2006, p. 131), which Poliakoff wanted to experiment with because he had observed “how short scenes had become on television” (Poliakoff, 2001, cited by Holdsworth, 2006, p. 129). Poliakoff is “adamant that audiences can be gripped and held by good stories well told, even in today’s culture disposed to a frenetic pace” (Nelson, 2006, p. 126). As Lyttle points out, he “was in no rush. He took his time and assumed we would too” (2001, p. 43).

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Adding to the ‘slow’ feeling is the “plushy Hollywood” score (Billen, 2007, p. 32) along with the language of the characters, which is decidedly formal and stilted, marking them “as belonging more to Poliakoff’s universe” (Lyttle, 2001, p. 43). Moreover, by use of “exceptionally long takes” (Harper, 2017, p. 47) Poliakoff creates a “sense of grandeur” (Harper, 2017, p. 48) which can “continue to haunt the viewer” long after their viewing (Holdsworth, 2006, p. 132). Holdsworth contends that the slowness aids an “appreciation of and concentration on the image and the practices of storytelling” (2006, p. 129), contrasting the commonplace “ephemeral nature of television” (Holdsworth, 2006, p. 132). Defined by their “otherworldly beauty” (Chater, 2007, p. 41), Harper suggests that his drama is largely “romantic rather than radical in nature” (2017, p. 56).

Poliakoff’s technique of ‘slowing’ television is somewhat divisive, with some labelling it “mannered, artificial, pretentious and dull” (Chater, 2007, p. 41), but Chater proposes that those “who are willing to surrender themselves to Poliakoff’s distinctive style will be mesmerised” (Chater, 2007, p. 41).

Although very different in style, Loach’s television dramas are similarly “distinctive in their own right” (Rolinson, n.d.b) despite the auteur often being “characterised as having begun in television before ‘graduating’ to feature films” (Rolinson, n.d.b). The director has made a significant contribution to the BBC anthology programmes from the “‘golden age’ of the 1960s and 70s” (Cooke, 2015, p. 4) and Eastaugh, in 1966, identified Loach and Garnett (a producer who Loach worked with on most of his memorable projects) as “trendsetters of television drama” (1966, p. 11). The director started producing television in a time when there was a call for the rejection of “the boring naturalism which is derived from theatre and develop a form which is specific to television” (Caughie, 2000, pp. 123-124) and The Wednesday Play “was a product of the reshaping of BBC drama” (Laing, 1986, p. 158).

Up The Junction (Loach, 1965), a single play from early in Loach’s career, is one of the first instances where documentary elements were interwoven with drama in such a “technically stimulating” way (“Pattern of life”, 1965, p. 17). Day-Lewis suggests that the 1965 drama marked “the first instance of television director as auteur” (1998, p. 5) and indeed, along with Cathy Come Home (Loach, 1966), gave “a new status to the director in television drama” (Caughie, 2000, p. 124).

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Thornham and Purvis points out that in order to avoid “the ‘trivialising’ tendencies of television as a medium”, television dramatists adopted documentary techniques and conventions (2005, p. 69). This is effective because the documentary form has long been established “within television as a guarantor of seriousness, ‘truth’ and ‘authenticity’” (Thornham & Purvis, 2005, p. 69) and the result in the case of Up The Junction was a play with “immediacy of a documentary, but with the selectivity appropriate to drama” (“Foreign TV Reviews”, 1965, p. 52). In a scene from Up The Junction, for example, when Ruby is considering an illegal abortion, the issue is “addressed authoritatively by a male doctor’s voice-over who supports his professional experience with statistical, documentary evidence” (Caughie, 2000, p. 117). Loach continued to use documentary elements in his television dramas in order to enhance their “progressive realism” (Caughie, 2000), for instance, the “unseen questioner” (Moat, n.d.) in In Two Minds (Loach, 1967) and the focus on the timely issues faced by miners in the two part drama The Price of Coal (Loach, 1977), which was made all the more real by Loach’s use of non-professional actors such as club comedians who were familiar with mining communities (Rolinson, n.d.a).

Up The Junction seemed particularly documentary-esque for viewers at the time as it was one of the first British dramas not be recorded in a studio, but out on the streets. Loach, speaking at the time, said, “to put actors in a studio all adds to a feeling of unnaturalness” (Eastaugh, 1966, p. 11). He also “influenced the growth of all-filmed television plays” (Rolinson, n.d.b) by using 16mm filming, which was previously only used for news and actuality documentaries (Laing, 1986, p. 158). Filming in this way enhanced the realism of the drama greatly, helping to get across Nell Dunn (the writer of Up The Junction) and Loach’s social and political message more vividly.

In stark contrast to Loach’s realism, Poliakoff’s regular commissions from the BBC and access to “budgets to make other film-makers weep” (Billen, 2007, p. 32) have allowed him to create the visually cinematic and opulent dramas that are typical of his work. Nelson points out that “extreme care taken in his authorial practice – scripting, casting, directing and overseeing the editing” (2006, p. 124) and consequently, what is shown on screen is a ‘look’ and structure which are precisely and distinctly in line with Poliakoff’s vision (Nelson, 2006, pp. 124,126).

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He has an idiosyncratic, “off-kilter aesthetic” (Harper, 2017, p. 56) and his dramas often contain “surreal flourishes” (Teeman, 2007, p. 19), which add to their “intense lyrical beauty” (Harper, 2017, p. 56). The reveal scene in Joe’s Palace (Poliakoff, 2007, November 4) is a perfect example of this, which Teeman called “one of the most arresting sequences in a TV drama” of 2007 (2007, p. 19). In the striking sequence we are taken into Mr Graham’s imagination as we see his father in the 1930s. The vivid colours and beauty of the park juxtapose the bizarre and cruel tormenting of the Jewish people by the Stormtroopers. The visualisation is “mesmerising and “dreamlike” yet “tinged with pathos” (Holdsworld, 2006, p. 131) and, arguably, it “manages to out-Poliakoff, Poliakoff” (Chater, 2007, p. 41). But Billen suggests that much of Poliakoff’s work is not as good as it looks, “his imagination is vivid but it is narrow” (2007, p. 33) meaning it often seems “self-indulgent” (Baylis, 2007, p. 43).

Whatsmore, his stories are “often set in prosperous milieux” (Harper, 2017, p. 47), for instance, Joe’s Palace focuses on a lonely billionaire, who is “tortured by his wealth” (Baylis, 2007, p. 43) and the settings include a grand London townhouse and a castle. Poliakoff’s custom of tending to privileged “bourgeois heroes” (Harper, 2017, p. 46) helps his dramas “reflect an upper-middle-class sensibility” (Harper, 2017, p. 47) and in turn appear somewhat “snobbish” (Billen, 2007, p. 34). So, though his dramas have been labelled as a general critique of capitalism, his love of the opulence that he pretends to distrust (Billen, 2007, p. 34) and the individualistic nature of his dramas (Nelson, 2006, p. 125) to some degree undermines this.

Conversely, Loach’s fresh use of montage and non-diegetic sound, particularly in Up The Junction, are used to place “characters’ stories in wider social contexts” (Rolinson, n.d.b) and give viewers a greater understanding of the environment in which they live. He overlays images of Clapham and the actions of the characters with banal and ‘typical’ fragments of conversation (Caughie, 2000, p. 115) that capture “exactly the tone and the idiom that one overhears in London buses and cinema queues” (“We must not”, 1966, p. 10). These “‘little stories’ of everyday life” (Caughie, 2000, p. 115) do not develop the plot but they expand “it with a kind of ethnographic narrative” (Caughie, 2000, p. 117).

Likewise, the dominant mode of montage (Caughie, 2000, p. 115) means that the drama is not always easy to follow (Richardson, 1965, p. 25), but has the same contextualising outcome. For example, the sequence with the ‘tally-man’ determines “a moral environment” (Caughie, 2000, p. 117). The BBC at the time described the drama as having “no plot. No story-line. Just three recurring characters” (“When a play”, 1965, p. 9), but Caughie suggests that it is the inclusion of voice-overs and montages that gives the main narrative its social meaning (Caughie, 2000, p. 118).

Overall, both auteurs have distanced themselves from mainstream television, often labelled as ‘trivial’ and populist, though have taken opposite approaches. Where Poliakoff has chosen to make his drama cinematic and meaningful, Loach weaves meaning into his drama by taking an approach reminiscent of a documentary and individually they have helped expand the aesthetics of television drama. Poliakoff’s completed work seems meticulously planned with every word spoken precisely how he envisioned, whereas Loach’s work feels as though he’s opportunely caught organic conversations (“Foreign TV Reviews”, 1965, p. 52) in a spontaneous project.

 

 

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