Andrew Billen - Fantasy island

Television - A parable of modern Britain lapses into self-indulgence, writes Andrew Billen

Frie

These days, the BBC usually sends reviewers DVDs, but it posted me Stephen Poliakoff's latest epic (15 January, 9pm) on videotape. At first I thought its fuzziness, its garish colours and the fact that my telly encased it in black margins like a Victorian death notice left this review at a disadvantage. I now think that having its sumptuousness scaled down gave me a clearer picture.

Poliakoff is one of television's few remaining auteurs, licensed by the BBC to write, cast and direct his own work and to do so within very generous budgets. In the late 1990s he succeeded Dennis Potter as the BBC's most favoured playwright. He frequently rewards its trust. Shooting the Past (1999) slowed television down so much that at times the camera simply gazed at a single photograph, and its meditative pace allowed luminous performances from Timothy Spall and Lindsay Duncan. Three years ago I thought The Lost Prince, about the disabled son of George V, a quite brilliant allegory of Britain losing itself as it lost its empire.

But between the two came the sprawling and unsatisfactory Perfect Strangers. And now comes Friends and Crocodiles, the first of two related dramas, the second of which, Gideon's Daughter, will be shown later this year. Given the alternating current of Poliakoff's talent, it has got to be the better one.

Like Potter, Poliakoff has only so much truck with naturalism. Unlike Potter, Poliakoff, when freed from its surly bonds, chooses to mount scenes of fantastical beauty. Even through the dark glass of my VHS, Friends and Crocodiles looked wonderful: designer offices, white-linen picnics, all-night parties filmed in the grounds of Castle Ashby in Northamptonshire. Swan-shaped boats sailed across still lakes. Giant butterflies flew into the sky. Perfect shafts of sunlight fell through oak-lined interiors. Even the high-nipple-count sex was filmed like a Merchant Ivory attempt at a Playboy video.

The owner of this paradise is Paul (played by Damian Lewis), a working-class boy who has made so much out of property development that he can afford to entertain both his fantasies and his friends in extraordinary style. He has children by a brace of mistresses and indulges himself inventing things he need not see through to realisation. But a little part of this Pegasus realises that he needs to be harnessed. One sunny day in 1981 he employs as his secretary an attractive estate agent's clerk called Lizzie, played by Jodhi May.

In her high, upholstered bra, Lizzie is as structured and organised as Paul, in his white Gatsby suits, is heady and spontaneous. Over the next 18 years their business careers intertwine. She walks out of his employ after one rumbustious party too many. He meets hard times. She - early 1990s - becomes a venture capitalist and employs him for his ideas. She fires him. Her firm goes pop in the dotcom bubble. They decide to work as partners, but communicate by e-mail so as not to drive each other mad. Entrepreneurs need friends, but they also need crocodiles snapping at their weaknesses.

This, you may think, is a pretty small pay-off for a pretty long, 110-minute drama, but that was not what was irritating. What was irritating was the literalness with which the parable was told. It was not enough that Lizzie and Paul were friends: he had to keep a pet crocodile, too. It was not enough that they were friends not lovers; they had to inform each other of this several times, and in stilted dialogue that Poliakoff probably considers lapidary but is actually just repetitive.

The photography, locations and high-end actors sought to elevate the story towards myth but, on my television at least, its protagonists were horribly prosaic. Paul, who orchestrates spectacular riots and races at his dos, behaves like Maurice Conchis, the puppet-master in John Fowles's The Magus. But who are Paul's puppets? A hack newspaper commentator called Sneath (played by Robert Lindsay, and who reappears in Gideon's Daughter), a simplistic Tory think-tanker, a lazy Oxbridge don, Paul's bimbos and a semi-autistic man-child, reminiscent of the Lost Prince, who calls himself a memory man but in reality wouldn't get past the 200-quid barrier on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?.

There must be a reason why Poliakoff designed so many mediocrities, but it is not so clear that he intended to make Paul one himself. Lewis is one of my favourite actors, but here he rarely got beyond smug, not helped by Poliakoff giving him long hair when he wanted to signify Paul's finances had faltered and putting him in a hippy commune when he "rejected" Thatcherism. My sympathies were with Lizzie throughout, and well done to May for keeping this dowdy businesswoman's inner life so vivid.

Midway through, she got a little monologue - 1982 was "a different age", she explained: "It was like the end of something really reprehensible. It was the last dregs of that Seventies-style anarchy." Poliakoff presumably thinks we'll shout out that 1970s-style anarchy is exactly what we need more of.

I won't be voting for it myself, but better it than the stately, staged pseudo-anarchy of the moneyed classes we got in this distinctly minor Poliakoff.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

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 23 January 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Why British men are rapists