Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Pride, Pomp, And Circumstance Of Glorious War!

As darkness fell late Monday afternoon I found myself threading a path through the back streets of Soho. As scruffy and down at heel it may seem with the change of the seasons, helped on by the construction work that has taken a huge bite out of the north–east corner of the district, at least it provided a means to escape the crowded pavements of Regent Street and Oxford Street with their traditional headache–inducing, and frankly nasty, Christmas lights.

Still, the journey was worth it once I pitched up at the Soho Theatre for the BBC writersroom event featuring Stephen Poliakoff and BBC Films’ Jane Wright in conversation with Kate Rowland, BBC Creative Director of New Writing. Ostensibly to talk about how BBC Films works with writers, most of the discussion was taken up talking about Glorious 39, Poliakoff’s return to the cinema after a decade of writing and directing a string of award–winning television dramas including Perfect Strangers, The Lost Prince and the more recent triptych of Joe’s Palace, A Real Summer and Capturing Mary.

The idea for Glorious 39 came to Poliakoff after he chanced upon accounts of how, when Chamberlain was still in power, the secret service had been employed to suppress any opposition to the government’s policy of appeasement with Nazi Germany by any means necessary. What would have happened, he wondered, if Lord Halifax, who also favoured such a strategy, had succeeded Chamberlain as Prime Minister rather than Churchill? Would he, as a Jew born in the early 1950s, ever have existed?

Set in the latter half of 1939, the film focuses on Romola Garai’s Anne Keyes, the eldest, sibling of minor aristocracy, as she unwittingly stumbles across a conspiracy amongst politicians and the upper classes at the heart of the establishment to support Chamberlain’s plan to advocate peace with Hitler at any cost. An adopted daughter rather than a true blood relation, when it becomes apparent that her MP father is linked to the conspiracy Anne discovers there is no one she can truly rely on or trust.

For Poliakoff the change from television to film meant the once the script was written filming was still a long way off as the finance had to be drummed up. Initially promoting the film at Cannes last year, the money started to come together but not as quickly as they would have liked (although Jane Wright noted that it arrived faster than usual). The UK Film Council wouldn’t pony up their share of the pot until a distributor was in place. As wise as their decision was it only added a further delay. Though the money came through, it didn’t come fast enough for the change in the seasons.

Filming didn’t start until around November of last year when the weather was particularly brutal. So the balmy summer exteriors that appear on screen had to be grabbed on the few days when the sky was clear in locations that had evergreen oak trees. When it came to shoot the dinner party held on the grounds of the estate Poliakoff mentioned that the actors seated around the table all had duvets wrapped around their legs to try and keep warm.

The budget, if you’re interested, ended up at just north of £4 million, which is probably what most Hollywood blockbusters spunk on their craft services bill. But I suppose in a time when audiences are eager to stare, boggled–eyed and slack–jawed at narratively–bankrupt, CGI–filled spectacle, a Hitchcockian thriller based on historical fact could be a hard sell. Luckily he has David Tennant in the cast along with Bill Nighy, Julie Christie and Christopher Lee, which means people more used to the typical nonsense that bowls up at the local multiplex might do themselves a favour and opt for Glorious 39.

Public speaking obviously wasn’t something Poliakoff seemed particularly comfortable with – downstairs in the bar afterwards he was twisting the customary white plastic straws behind his back as he chatted with people – but when Kate Rowland opened the floor to the audience he gave considerate and humorous answers to each question, even when the person who raised their hand wasn’t particularly clued up on his body of work. I had a brief word with him before I stepped out into the night. “See the film!”, he reminded me. Oh, I intend to.

Glorious 39 opens at the Odeon West End in Leicester Square this Friday. If you’re interested, the 7:30pm performance is followed by a Q&A with Stephen Poliakoff, Bill Nighy and Romola Garai. The film goes on general release the following week.


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