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Friends & Crocodiles (Review)

The wonderful folks at the BBC have given me access to their BBC Global iPlayer for a month to give the service a go and trawl through the archives. I’ll have some thoughts on the service at the end of the month, but I thought I’d also take the opportunity to enjoy some of the fantastic content.

Stephen Poliakoff is regarded as one of the best British film, theatre and television writers working today. In 2006, the writer and director produced two television movies linked by character and by theme. While Gideon’s Daughter is perhaps the more successful of the two, Friends & Crocodilesremains an interesting – if not consistently satisfying – viewing experience. While it doesn’t have as strong a cast as its companion piece, I think it covers more interesting ground, and feels a tad more ambitious, even if it does succumb to the same awkwardness in places.

Dealing with his inner Damians...

The problem with Poliakoff’s writing, both here and in Gideon’s Daughter, is a lack of nuance or depth when it comes to his own views or opinions. There are times when, as an audience member, I felt a little suffocated as the author went off on a particularly passionate tangent. For example, a section through the middle of the film sees his male lead joining a venture capitalist firm during the eighties, with a montage of proposals and ideas.

Of course, every single idea seems to be an idea around a particular theme, and you can tell that Poliakoff isn’t fan. While a variety of applicants out line plans for banal investments like lines of tinned goods, they are followed by those suggesting more information-age attitudes towards the arts. I felt like Poliakoff had been banging me on top of the head with a large blunt object, without any particular nuance or wit.

It's not quite a picnic...

In a sequence that feels particularly conservative only a few years later, we catch Paul, our venture capitalist, sketching idly as one interviewee goes on about “electronic books.” later on, he smugly dismisses audience participation or engagement with fiction (through ridiculously V.R. helmets), storming off after insisting, “People rather like to be told stories.” Poliakoff seems disgusted at the idea that future generations may be able to read “without ever having to touch paper.”

When Paul presents his report to his fellow venture capitalists, his suggestion is rather old-fashioned. “There are very few bookshops,” he suggests, to an audience rather… unimpressed with his proposal. The largest concession he will make towards modern living is to allow for a coffee shop inside the store. “Let the books do the talking,” he advises. Paul is mocked by his fellow venture capitalists, and rather abruptly fired. Of course, in Poliakoff’s version of reality, Paul is completely correct and manages to make a bit of money with his book stores.

Is that what's on the table?

This isn’t the only example of Poliakoff’s heavy-handed storytelling, but it is the most obvious. Friends & Crocodiles (as one might imagine from the title) drips with contempt for the bohemian social circles, where power-hungry and fame-seeking leeches tend to discard friends as casually as fashion trends. It’s a classic theme, and Poliakoff concedes the debt to The Great Gatsby. “He really has turned into Gatsby,” the writer Sneath concedes of Paul at one point, and Paul discovers that those sorts of friends are fickle at best.

There’s a lot of anger directed towards that sort of vacuous image-driven society. Indeed, the theme plays a major part of both Friends & Crocodiles and Gideon’s Daughter. Both of the writer’s protagonists must navigate changing social currents, while remaining curiously detached. Paul and Gideon are both insiders and outsiders, often at the same time. As in Gideon’s Daughter, though, it’s often the stuff happening beneath this palpable contempt that proves to be the most fascinating aspect of Poliakoff’s work.

The best laid plans...

I quite enjoyed Poliakoff’s usage of time, exploring how times change. The series unfolds in both 1981 and in 1997, bookending around Conservative rule in Great Britain, and Poliakoff offers a rather wonderful illustration of how even the most radical of free thinkers must be institutionalised.I think it’s the smartest way that Poliakoff expresses his disdain for those sort of intellectual circles, where loyalties and belief systems are subject to change with the prevailing wind.

“Paul collects people who interest him,” William Sneath explains in 1981. “And then lets them do whatever they want.” There are writers and poets and anarchists.  One such radical toasts Paul for his contribution to their art, thanking him for his support, “Because with you there are no structures! There is freedom!” Just over fifteen years later, it’s amazing how many have renounced their earlier positions and are now working in government jobs. And most of them have abandoned Paul. Years later, with his long hair, he muses, “I find it interesting how people react to me.”

Who is in the write?

There’s also the play’s central non-love-story between Paul and the woman he hires as his secretary. Lizzie is very much the opposite sort of personality to Paul, one who brings structure and reason to his idealist flights of fantasy. I do wonder if Poliakoff couldn’t have had her do more than “colour-code” his ideas, because it doesn’t seem like a smart enough system to demonstrate his two leads deserve one another. Over the course of the story, the two come close and drift apart, trying to find a way to work with one another, but failing spectacularly.

Here, in fairness, Poliakoff is ambiguous. Is it a romantic spark that unites the two, even if neither will admit it? Lizzie does, after all, creepily model her wedding around on of Paul’s wild parties. “I never thought of you that way,” she insists. She tries to come up with a word to describe the relationship between the two, because “platonic” doesn’t quite fit. “What’s that called?” Poliakoff doesn’t necessarily develop the idea as much as one might like, but perhaps that’s for the best. The alternative would be to see him drive it into the ground. Instead, he simply throws it out there, suggesting it for the audience to digest.

Married to the job?

Of course, my own estimations of Poliakoff’s writing are entirely personal. I know he’s a respected author, and that any criticism inevitably seems like an attempt to go against the grain. That said, I’ll concede that he’s a fine director. He has a great eye from framing shots. His work feels staged, like a painting of canvas, but I think it suits the material. After all, it doesn’t seem like his characters inhabit the real world, but a more ethereal and magical realm that only occasionally intersects. Poliakoff captures beauty remarkably well, and that’s true of both his 2006 BBC productions, and I’m glad that they are readily available on the BBC iPlayer for those with an interest in the material.

While I think that Friends & Crocodiles is probably the better constructed of the two films, I will concede that it has a weaker cast. That’s no disrespect to the wonderful Damian Lewis, who is absolutely superb as Paul, but Bill Nighy was simply amazing in Gideon’s Daughter. Nighy is able to elevate the entire movie with his central performance.

Who let him Lewis?

In contrast, Lewis seems to find and lose his character a bit as we jump around. There are moments of sheer perfection as he understands exactly what is going on inside the head of his venture capitalist, and then there are moments when Paul seems to slip slightly through his fingers. I find it interesting though, that Lewis has managed to do such superb work in both the UK and USA, and I’m glad to see that he doesn’t want for work. I will concede, though, that Friends & Crocodiles does make better use of Robert Lindsay.

Friends & Crocodiles might lack the straight narrative through-line of Gideon’s Daughter, and Damian Lewis might not be quite as convincing as Bill Nighy, but I think it has its own strengths. In fact, I think that Poliakoff has some stronger and more interesting ideas at play here. That said, I think both productions are superb accomplishments, and I think the BBC should be very proud of bringing them to life.

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