Sign up to the newsletter

Interview with Stephen Poliakoff

*This is an article from 2009*

After a ten-year absence, Britain’s leading dramatist Stephen Poliakoff has returned to the cinema with Glorious 39, a tense wartime thriller starring Romola Garai and Bill Nighy. Mark Dudgeon asks the award-winning writer/director about the craft of screenwriting and enthralling an audience.

It’s over ten years since your last cinema release, what prompted the return to the cinema?

I think what moved me away from cinema was the distribution situation for British films in this country, which got particularly bad in the 1990s. Close my Eyes, the most successful film I’ve made to date – despite winning a Best British Film Award and doing better business in its first few weeks than a lot of big Hollywood movies in London – still could not get on the major circuit in Britain.

I’d been thinking of returning to the cinema for at least five or six years but I wanted to return with a subject that I felt had a realistic chance of getting good distribution and reaching a number of people around the world. [...] At the back of my mind I’d always wanted to make a suspenseful thriller but I wanted it to have heart and to feel fresh.

And then the right conditions came about: I had an idea, BBC Films was very enthusiastic about developing it, the UK Film Council and then Momentum came in to distribute it, we got a really great cast together and suddenly there was a perfect storm for making a film. And Glorious 39 is the result.

Going back to your original idea for the film – when did that come to you?

About three or four years ago when I was thinking what a close-run thing it was that I am here. Because my parents were both born before the First World War and didn’t have children until they were nearly in their forties, I felt in touch with the 1930s. So it has always been part of my upbringing really, what a close-run thing it was that the British government didn’t do a deal with Hitler.

After writing Capturing Mary, which was quite a dark story with a spooky, visceral centre, I felt that was quite an interesting area for me to build on. I’ve always liked thrillers and films that satisfy in a suspenseful way but that also have things carefully worked out and make psychological and emotional sense. And that’s quite a difficult thing to achieve.

How did you research the period?

A lot of the research had been building up over the years as I got more and more interested in this period and began reading diaries: Channon’s diary; the diary of Duff Cooper (who was a cabinet minister against appeasement); the diary of John Colville (Private Secretary to both Chamberlain and Churchill).

So diaries were great because people don’t know what’s going to happen the next day. They’re not writing in retrospect, however much they might have touched them up to make them read better. There is an authenticity of sorts about them, and so if you can get your hands on a diary there’s always something that suddenly opens a door and you feel you’re there.

There are also some fantastic books about the build-up to war. One of the best is Troublesome Young Men by Lynne Olson. It’s a compulsive read about the young men clustering around Churchill and trying to bring down Chamberlain.

Glorious 39 is released around the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the war…

I didn’t write the film because of the anniversary, but it is a powerful reminder that it isn’t that long ago that these things happened. Christopher Lee [as Walter], who begins and finishes the film, was very much there and remembers it vividly, as does Muriel Pavlow, who plays the older Anne [the film’s protagonist]. And if we hadn’t confronted Hitler, I wouldn’t be here and my family wouldn’t be here, and that was one of the most powerful motivations for making the film.

Did you feel a burden of responsibility to tell the story accurately?

I think that cinema is not the right place to teach history. I think that television history is very good and is a powerful way of doing popular history. But for Glorious 39, it has to be first and foremost an entertainment; this is what Hitchcock always said and it is true that you try to engage people on the most visceral level. Within that you are trying to give it a reality as well, so I didn’t invent any historical facts or detail other than obviously the murders that take place.

What is definitely true is the main thrust of the story, that the secret service were monitoring the phone calls and spying on the people who were particularly against appeasement and certainly the group of young Tory MPs who were trying to bring Chamberlain down.

What about the big set-pieces?

There’s a lot of truth in the fabric of the story and definitely in the big set-pieces like people putting their pets down. Because people feared that they were going to be bombed really heavily, they either left town or were evacuated and didn’t want to take their pets with them, or they thought that it was humane to put their pets down.

So one went from these golden weeks of parties – the aristocracy had been holding some of the greatest parties of the 20th century – to then, three or four weeks later, travelling through the same city and seeing piles of dead animals everywhere.

What is the significance behind the film’s name?

I wanted very much to indicate the great parties of 1939, so Glorious 39 has a triple meaning: it’s not just the weather, which people remember as being particularly beautiful just before war was declared, but Anne’s nickname is Glorious, and for the aristocracy it was a particularly glorious summer, not just with the wonderful parties in London, which I’ve alluded to, but with the ball in Blenheim Palace in the summer of 1939.

It was one of the greatest balls of the 20th century and was, within a few weeks of war, immensely extravagant even though people knew they were on the edge of a precipice. But we’d been on the edge of a precipice the year before and war had been averted, so people thought it would not happen.

One of the extraordinary facts about the eve of war was that there was a move by the anti-appeasers to stop Parliament rising for their usual long holiday and Chamberlain made this scornful speech deriding the idea that they should give up their holiday.

What is your writing fuelled by?

Well, surprise is a good creative urge and you want the rest of the world to be as surprised as you are. And because I’m making a suspenseful story I’ve bottled the essence of this background and let it seep into the film so you get the family with the trappings of this aristocratic life, the country house, the aftermath of a great ball and the shock of them having to come back from the country house.

I’m fuelled by wonder at what a close run it was, that we stood up to Hitler in the end, and I just wanted to explore how to dramatise that for a modern audience in an enjoyable way. I hope to enthral them as I’m enthralled by that period and I thought this was a good way of doing it.

This is an edited version of the interview that appears in the introduction of Glorious 39: Screen and Cinema.

Glorious 39: Screen and Cinema is the screenplay of the new blockbuster film by Stephen Poliakoff. In this tense psychological thriller set on the eve of WWII, a young woman stumbles across evidence of a sinister Nazi appeasement plot that will stop at nothing to achieve its aims. As close friends die in suspicious circumstances, she finds herself in extreme danger from an increasingly menacing and powerful enemy.

You can buy a copy of Glorious 39: Screen and Cinema online.