Press the Poliak-off button

spiked-TV: Stephen Poliakoff's Gideon's Daughter was trite and ham-fisted. So why did columnists love it?

Rob Lyons

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‘In no time and in no country has the most homespun commonplace ever strutted about in so self-satisfied a way.’

Karl Marx died long before television was invented but his barbed comments on Jeremy Bentham could equally apply to the BBC’s dramatist du jour, Stephen Poliakoff – at least, judging by the evidence of his latest piece, Gideon’s Daughter (Sunday, BBC1).

Gideon (Bill Nighy) is a hugely successful PR man who is disenchanted with the world he occupies. Worse, he is emotionally estranged from his daughter who hasn’t forgiven him for his infidelities and his disappearance from her mother’s bedside just as she drew her final breath. On the edge of a nervous breakdown, he finds solace with Stella (Miranda Richardson) who works nights so as to avoid nightmares about her dead son. Eventually, Gideon makes his peace with his daughter, decides to quit the rat race, and disappears off into the sunset with Stella.

I’ve no problem with the BBC deciding to patronise one or two particularly high-profile artists on the basis that they will be able to run with innovative ideas, free from the pressures of having to go cap-in-hand for money every time. The trouble is that no theme in Poliakoff’s latest work is innovative:

  1. The rat race, eh? It’s all so pointless;
  2. Money and success aren’t the same thing as happiness;
  3. We’re all emotional basket cases, and all we can do is find some crumb of comfort in sharing each other’s pain;
  4. The Millennium Dome, eh? That was crap, wasn’t it?
  5. Politicians, eh? They’re crap, too.

As Poliakoff says himself, ‘The story is about Gideon’s voyage, but underneath that it is also about more universal themes. Everyone is either a son or a daughter or a parent, and the film reflects every parent’s fears for their children. The world is becoming a more and more dangerous place’. No it isn’t, Stephen, but paranoid middle-class opinon makers think it is. Unfortunately, their view of the world is meeting little opposition right now.

I could have put up with such trite observations, which absolutely echo the therapeutic spirit of the age, if Gideon’s Daughter had been well-written. It wasn’t. The attempts at a plot are clumsy eg, you know it’s going to be true love between Gideon and Stella because they meet in such quirky circumstances. The successful-man-finds-happiness-through-insights-of-less-successful-woman theme has been done so many times before – and a good deal more entertainingly in Pretty Woman or The Accidental Tourist than here.

As for the script: the device of using a voiceover that wasn’t a voiceover was just downright irritating. In Gideon’s Daughter, William Sneath (Robert Lindsay) just says it at another character, not as conversation but in the exact tone of a voiceover. If someone talked at me like that, I’d hit them.

This is not the worst example of the BBC’s policy on giving leading writers a free hand. That particular honour is still propping up the mantlepiece at the home of Richard Curtis. He took the successful-man-finds-happiness-through-insights-of-less-successful-woman theme to its utterly execrable conclusion in last year’s The Girl in the Café, his Live 8 tie-in play about how politicians could change the world if only they would listen to the homespun philosophy of Scottish waitresses. Bill Nighy played the lead in that one, too. He needs to play a psychopathic assassin as soon as possible to avoid getting typecast.

Maybe Poliakoff and Curtis are not to blame. If the BBC didn’t spend so much time trumpeting how Big and Important their work was, I might not be so disappointed when I actually watch it.

Read on:

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