by Allan Fish
(UK 1999 182m) DVD1/2
The Gadarene Club
p John Chapman d/w Stephen Poliakoff ph Bruno de Keyser, Ernie Vincze ed Paul Tothill m Adrian Johnston art John-Paul Kelly cos Susannah Buxton
Lindsay Duncan (Marilyn Truman), Timothy Spall (Oswald Bates), Liam Cunningham (Christopher Anderson), Emilia Fox (Spig), Billie Whitelaw (Veronica), Arj Barker (Garnett), Blake Ritson (Nick), Andy Serkis (Styeman), Sheila Dunn, Jean Channon,
It’s time for a personal favourite here, one of the great achievements of either screen in the last decade, but also typical of the way television is overlooked for its bigger brother. And yet look at films such as Dekalog, Berlin Alexanderplatz, Heimat, Das Boot and Fanny and Alexander. All are works that are listed in film guides and yet were originally made for the small screen. Of writers at their peak around the time of the millennium, surely the best would have to be Stephen Poliakoff, whose delights have ranged from the enigmatic Friends and Crododiles to the affecting Gideon’s Daughter, from the intricate Perfect Strangers and the less successful but still memorable The Lost Prince. All of which leads one to beg the question, why go for this?
In truth there are many reasons, the most obvious of which is that Shooting the Past is the best and most emotionally resonant, at times almost epiphanal. Poliakoff, unlike the other writers of small screen legend, writes in a cinematic way for the small screen. He’s a writer who needs time to weave his magic, spellbinding us with series whose very greatness creeps up on one slowly and leaves one emotionally revitalised. But what marks Past out as so amazing is that firstly it is really about something that is important; that certain ways of thought and methodologies – exemplified in Spall’s oddball Oswald Bates – are becoming obsolete, making it a direct descendant of Chaplin’s Modern Times, but on a wholly more cerebral level. Secondly Poliakoff succeeds in completely slowing down the rhythm of his piece almost to the point of inertia, yet leaves his audience hooked. And in using a subject such as the spellbinding magic of photographs, that is all the more extraordinary. Here at last was a drama that knew to which medium the cinema owed its debt, and knew that, unlike the cinematic moving image, a single photograph is a unique snapshot in time, forever preserved for posterity. And as this selection is supposed to be a selection for posterity, that couldn’t be more appropriate.
An American businessman arrives at a large house in the outskirts of London to oversee the establishment of a business school, only to see the staff of a photographic collection in situ and seemingly unaware of their impending closure. After the situation is explained, their boss rings round desperately trying to find a home for the collection, while her assistant, a shambling eccentric librarian, takes the antagonistic approach.
Though Poliakoff’s mastery is evident in every frame, and the dark internal photography and editing are pitch-perfect, it’s the actors you recall, each an eccentric master-class in characterisation. Fox’s leather-panted, pot smoking Spig is a delicious mix of Gothic and dark sensuality and Whitelaw is a beavering joy as Veronica. As for Duncan, she has rarely been better, and Spall is simply unforgettable in probably his greatest performance on either large or small screen. Just to recall him sitting in his chair in his chaotic flat, munching on crackers and delivering his talking heads monologue to the camera while taking photos of himself is one of TV’s iconic images. Yet in some ways most credit goes to the understated Cunningham’s businessman, whose bemusement with his aggravators turns to liberation in the magical final revelation. “Why the hell should they be interested in a chubby man in a cardy talking into a tape machine?” Spall asks his audience. Why, because Poliakoff and Spall knew what John Ford once knew; that the most amazing thing you can capture on camera, still or moving, is the human face. And these faces will not merely haunt you, not merely stimulate you, but enthral you and make you wish that you were one iota as interesting as them.