Family business

Television - Andrew Billen on a politely lavish drama a little lacking in grit

I am always slightly surprised at just how much work the writer and direc- tor Stephen Poliakoff gets from our national institutions. The BBC, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre lavishly produce his stuff as if he were a Dennis Potter or a Tom Stoppard - and although Poliakoff is a fine craftsman, he is not in their class. (But then again, who is?) Perfect Strangers (Thursdays, 9pm, BBC2) may be the BBC's greatest act of patronage yet. It has given Poliakoff free rein over four hours of expensive prime time to tell lovingly, and at extraordinary length, a touching but slight fable whose moral is simply that, genetically and culturally, we are much more our families than we like to think.

The chief resister to this notion is Raymond Symon. He is played by Michael Gambon, whose long exile from television is mercifully now truly at an end. Back in the 1970s, Raymond, through well-meaning but quixotic management, bankrupted the office furniture business that he had inherited from his father. Exiled in Hillingdon - a London suburb he assumes everyone considers a joke - he is married to Esther (Jill Baker), who personifies long suffering. It is, however, through the eyes of their son Daniel (Matthew MacFadyen) that we see most of the drama. Appropriately enough, he is by trade a surveyor. One Saturday in the summer, the Hillingdon Symons motor up to London for a gigantic two-day family reunion at Claridge's, organised by the family's super-rich paterfamilias, the ageing Ernest.

Raymond feels shame and anger towards his family. He'd prefer to believe he is a self-made - or, more accurately, self-unmade - man. It will confound no expectations if I say that, by the end, his mind has been changed by events. There are, after all, other mysteries to keep us going. Why, in a series of old pictures, is Raymond's glum old dad dancing skittishly in a garden? When and why was Daniel as a boy photographed in an Elizabethan ruff? How is it that Daniel's cousins, Charles and Rebecca, have fallen out with his new benefactress, Alice (Lindsay Duncan)?

The similarities to Poliakoff's Shooting the Past (1999) - a hit that started brilliantly but dwindled - border on the embarrassing. Duncan and Timothy Spall again star, although the latter's role, as the faintly dodgy businessman Irving, is more minor this time. Again, the story receives prompts from old photographs. Last time, the pictures were on hand because the story was set in an old photo library. This time, the pictures have been collected by the film's deus ex machina, Stephen, a self-appointed family archivist and genealogist, who stands in front of archive blow-ups and projections of the family tree like Peter Snow on election night. Anton Lesser's character is not named Poliakoff, but he might as well be. They certainly share the same weakness for plotting things out a little too neatly.

Poliakoff also loves voice-over narratives - there hasn't been so much Ancient Mariner-style storytelling since Jackanory - as well as symbolism. At the big banquet where everyone is invited to take to the microphone in a game of "family karaoke", Raymond, drunk, tells a story about going to school with a hedgehog under his jumper. The reference (yes?) is to the prickly secrets we all carry. Daniel starts wearing an old leather coat he finds in a family cellar - will the mantle fit? Cousin Charles works for the Foreign Office - remember: the past is a foreign country. Poliakoff even cannot bear to leave alone the metaphor of the family tree: in the last episode, the reason for Raymond's dad's dancing is discovered hiding among branches.

Yet Poliakoff has writ-ten some of the scenes of familial reacquaintance beautifully, easily justifying their length (a length unheard of these days), and he is capable of real grace notes in his dialogue. Raymond, drunk, about to suffer a stroke, cannot think of the word for "tie" and asks Daniel to pass him "the dead thing, squashed thing". Poliakoff gets highly watchable performances out of stalwarts such as Spall, Gambon and Duncan - although one sometimes wonders if these actors are capable of bad performances. He rather lets the younger actors coast on their looks. MacFadyen, with the difficult task of playing dull, starts off looking particularly under-directed, and Toby Stephens as Charles and Claire Skinner as Rebecca are jeunesse doree you don't believe in at all.

Visually, Poliakoff tends towards over-burnishing; his sex scenes are so well scrubbed they squeak. A little grittiness would have helped, especially when we escape the hotel or the present day. Watching something as politely lavish as this is too much like being taken round a stately home: you admire what there is to see, but never get invited to sink into a chair and enter the world yourself.

I nevertheless commend the BBC for its guts in showing a drama so slow that, at times, when the photos are produced, its action literally freezes. There is, too, a restful satisfaction in watching Poliakoff's ideas work themselves out. But with all this time to contemplate them, I just wish they were a little more challenging.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, We Tories must change, or face eternal oblivion