High-flyers, hooligans and helpmates: Images of social class in the dramas of Stephen Poliakoff

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Abstract

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, Stephen Poliakoff – already an established, prolific and distinctive writer for stage and screen – authored a series of BBC television dramas, emerging as Britain’s foremost small screen auteur. While previous academic studies have engaged with Poliakoff as an auteur (Holdsworth 2006; Nelson 2006 and 2011), relatively little attention has been paid to Poliakoff’s ideological worldview. Moreover, while Poliakoff’s narratives are populated by characters drawn from an unusually wide range of class backgrounds – from royalty, aristocrats and upper bourgeoisie to working class and lumpen elements – little critical consideration has been given to the complex interactions of class identity that characterise his oeuvre.

In contrast to the work of British television auteurs from working class backgrounds, such as Jimmy McGovern or Paul Abbott, Poliakoff’s storyworlds are relatively genteel. Many Poliakoff protagonists are alienated, bourgeois anti-heroes who come to feel out of step with capitalist modernity and who must recover a sense of value and integrity through humanistic acts of subversion. By rejecting dehumanising technology and the trappings of ‘fast capitalism’ and by embracing ‘dream time’ or the simple pleasures of food and urban flâneurism, Poliakoff’s central characters often arrive at a new and fuller understanding of life. In these senses, it is argued, Poliakoff can be understood as a Romantic author and more specifically – drawing on Sayre and Löwy’s (1984) typology of ‘Romantic anti-capitalism’ – as a ‘liberal Romantic’, who disdains the contemporary status quo and harbours a (limited) critique of capitalist alienation.

One problematic aspect of Poliakoff’s narratives, however, is that the central characters’ moral transformations are often facilitated by contact with members of the ‘lower orders’, who introduce the protagonist to seemingly more ‘authentic’ ways of living. This use of working class characters as mediators of bourgeois consciousness can result in a somewhat patronising mode of representation: too often in Poliakoff plays, it is argued, working class characters – such as Stella in Gideon’s Daughter (2006) and Joe in Joe’s Palace (2007) – serve as saintly redeemers of powerful men. On the other hand, very many of Poliakoff’s productions – from early works such as Caught on a Train (1980) and Bloody Kids (1980) to The Tribe (1998), Friends and Crocodiles (2005) and Joe’s Palace (2007) – contain scenes in which working class characters appear as faceless, violent hooligans intent on wreaking social havoc. These Manichean representations of the working class are troubling and class-specific: indeed, the tendency to view working class people as either paragons of virtue or boorish and threatening reproduces a classically bourgeois ‘way of seeing’ the working class that tends to divide workers into the categories of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSocial Class and Television Drama in Contemporary Britain
EditorsDavid Forrest, Beth Johnson
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan Ltd.
ISBN (Electronic)978-1137555069
ISBN (Print)978-1137555052
Publication statusPublished - 12 Jul 2017

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