Past mistakes

Television

Stephen Poliakoff's Shooting the Past (BBC2, Sundays, 10.10pm) is about the accommodation of old-style eccentricity. The eccentrics under threat are an institution, an employee and a genre. The institution is an uncomputerised picture library its American buyers want to close. The employee is our narrator, Oswald, the deputy librarian, played by Timothy Spall, who, when faced with authority, is purposefully rude, irritating and elliptical. The genre is what older viewers will recognise as an orthodox teleplay (or plays, since Shooting the Past is a trilogy) but which is now almost extinct, squeezed out by adaptations of the classic and cops'n'docs dramas shot to look like feature films. Shooting the Past confounds current orthodoxies by indulging in lengthy scenes bulging with dialogue.

In brief, it is an odd, wordy piece about an odd, wordy bloke. Why then a picture library? The serial's reliance on old photographs and their narratives is a formal paradox but not a contradiction, for using stills is another dramatic heresy. They also speak to Poliakoff's other theme, the destruction of the past. The camera's freezing of a moment is an act of resistance against time and progress. Oswald, recording his suicide note on audio tape this week, gloated: "I clearly do not have a video camera."

In his preamble, Oswald asked why we should be interested in the story of "a chubby man in a cardie talking into a tape machine". In his self-absorption he gave the wrong answer. He thinks anyone who has ever been sacked will identify with him, whereas, of course, no one in their right mind would wish to. But Poliakoff is also wrong if he thinks it is the theme of Shooting the Past that captivates.

BBC2 audiences do not need to be persuaded of the value of heritage or individuals, still less to be told they are under threat. Viewers are more likely to pick holes in the allegory. The hundred or so pictures lovingly shown to us mainly come from the Hulton Picture Library which, far from closing, was bought by the Getty Foundation. Given the Thatcher decade, it is anachronistic still to be making Americans the personifications of greed. (Although to respond briefly to harsher critics who have called the work cliched, Poliakoff confounds expectations as often as he meets them. The predictable sex scene never comes, for example, and he anticipates other objections: when the developer Anderson arrives, he muses aloud that he is walking into an Ealing comedy.)

No, what works so well is the acting and the space Poliakoff's script and direction give it. Spall is, as usual, beyond praise, but Lindsay Duncan as his boss Marilyn is surely turning in the best performance of her career. Sunday's scene in which she "pitched" to a cool London ad agency was a master class in communicating comedy, pathos and submerged aggression. Liam Cunningham, too, as Anderson, performs with grace and subtlety so that you never know when, or if, he will succumb to English sentiment. Only Billie Whitelaw as the spinster librarian Veronica inexplicably disappoints, she and the leather-clad punk Spig, who through no fault of actress Emilia Fox seems to have been returned overdue from some earlier Poliakoff project.

Like Shooting the Past, Century Road (Saturdays, 8.05pm) is also part of BBC2's "Time Season". Its conceit is to visit four "Century Roads", each built at the turn of the century. The venerable talking heads found living in them prove Poliakoff's point that all that glitters is not young, and the interviewees are granted more respect than most observational documentaries allow their victims these days.

In the first of the series, director Penny Woolcock briefly let herself down by cutting up an interview with an OAP so that we saw him put in his teeth (she'll grow out of it). Otherwise, her film was distinguished. Her subject was a Century Road near Great Yarmouth, a street still bearing the scars of the world wars. We heard from the daughter of a first world war conscientious objector, from an eyewitness to a Nazi bomb that blew up a beat bobby so comprehensively that they only found an earlobe to bury, and from a soldier still seething that tramps who came into the army for warmth during the winter were promoted to positions of authority by D-Day. A man wept again as he reluctantly relived walking into Belsen. "No," said his wife, "it's best not forgotten."

The dwellers of this Century Road weathered their century by an innate sense of society. Century Road, Rainham, which we visited with director Mark Harrison last weekend, was a lonelier place, cursed by the conventions that doomed its men to work in the docks and its women to marry young and mourn at their leisure. A newsreel of the 1950s explained that 75 per cent of Britons met their partners in a dance hall. The final image was of old-time dancing, too, the couples holding on to each other for dear life. As the camera explored the hall, we noticed that some were not couples at all, but widows in each other's arms.

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 22 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Goodbye to all that boiled cabbage