Shooting the Past
25th Anniversary

UK 1999, 182 mins
Director: Stephen Poliakoff

+ Q&A with writer-director Stephen Poliakoff and actors Lindsay Duncan and Timothy Spall

Often cited as Stephen Poliakoff’s masterpiece, this story of an American corporation’s proposed takeover of a building, threatening the closure of a treasured stills archive, incorporates a critique of capitalism, a eulogy to photography’s capacity to capture history and remind us of who we are, and highlights the importance of the accumulated knowledge located in any archive. These major themes are woven organically within the personal story of a ‘family’ of curators who cherish their work and are faced with the fight of their lives to try to save their collection, alongside one American’s growing awareness of the archive’s value. Featuring stunning performances from an extraordinary cast, this work celebrates the power of television drama at its very best and will be followed by a discussion with Poliakoff and cast members.

Shooting the Past is a compelling mixture of nostalgic drama and polemic. This technically flawless and beautifully acted work was the first of three long-format television plays which gained Stephen Poliakoff a much wider audience and consolidated his reputation as one of Britain’s foremost writers. All three plays deal with themes of family and history, but Shooting the Past is the most contemporary and the most political.

The series is a heartfelt cry against what Poliakoff sees as the rampant philistinism of capitalism that has gradually infiltrated British attitudes towards culture and heritage. The photo archive seems to represent the ‘old’ Britain, with its eccentricities and core values – a portrait which could come straight out of an Ealing film – while the American company is the hard face of the market, with Anderson as the anti-hero who eventually sees the light in an audience-pleasing conclusion. But there’s a sense of urgency underneath the somewhat wish-fulfilling narrative which suggests a darker reality; Oswald’s despair and attempted suicide have a ring of truth which bring us up short. To Poliakoff, it seems to be a matter of life and death, even if the issue is less mortal than cultural.

As in Perfect Strangers (BBC, 2001), and his film Hidden City (1987), history is omnipresent in the form of photographs, stories and memories; photographs are often flashed before us with a hypnotic intensity. The photo archive represents the idiosyncratic, highly personal nature of history and the stories we are told from the photos are ones which impinge heavily on the characters while skirting the major events of the past. Poliakoff is fascinated with the idea of history being a series of stolen moments, captured forever on film, and the idea that the archive should be unceremoniously destroyed or divided becomes unbearable, just like the notion of the family being broken up. Marilyn’s only act of real treachery is forsaking Oswald, a betrayal which becomes central to the second half of the story, and it shocks us because the staff of the archive are the family of the story, one into which Anderson is gradually assimilated. The staff and the photo archive are like an extended family with their own histories which, as Oswald’s minute knowledge of the contents demonstrates, are inextricably linked. This theme of extended families being broken apart is central to both Perfect Strangers and The Lost Prince (BBC, 2003).
Mike Sutton, BFI Screenonline, screenonline.org.uk

Director: Stephen Poliakoff
Production Company: TalkBack
Commissioning Company: BBC
Executive Producers: Simon Curtis, Peter Fincham
Producer: John Chapman
Line Producer: Helen Flint
Head of Production: Sally Debonnaire
BBC Production Executive: Jane Hawley
Production Accountant: Penny Anderson
Production Co-ordinator: Lia Stephenson
Location Manager: Dee Gregson
Picture Researcher: Henry Wilks
First Assistant Director: Nick Heckstall-Smith
Second Assistant Directors: George Walker, Ben Howarth
Third Assistant Director: Rebecca Sutton
Continuity: Mary Haddow
Casting Director: Andy Pryor
Script: Stephen Poliakoff
Photography: Bruno de Keyser, Ernest Vincze
Focus Puller: Charlie Palmer
Clapper Loaders: Rod Marley, Jim Jolliffe
Grip: Jim Crowther
Gaffer: Laurie Shane
Best Boy: Colin Powton
Electricians: Alan Grayley, Mark Hutton
Editor: Paul Tothill
Assistant Editor: Russell Beeden
Production Designer: John-Paul Kelly
Art Director: Peter Robinson
Standby Art Director: Emma MacDevitt
Production Buyer: Sara Wan
Prop Master: David Horrill
Costume Designer: Susannah Buxton
Costume Supervisor: Franca Knight
Costume Assistant: Liza Bracey
Make-up Designer: Penny Smith
Make-up Artist: Nabila Al Own
Composer: Adrian Johnston
Sound Recordist: Richard Manton
Dubbing Editor: Catherine Hodgson
Dubbing Mixer: Paul Hamblin

Lindsay Duncan (Marylin Truman)
Timothy Spall (Oswald Bates)
Liam Cunningham (Christopher Anderson)
Billie Whitelaw (Veronica)
Emilia Fox (Spig)
Arj Barker (Garnett)
Blake Ritson (Nick)
Sheila Dunn (Molly)
Jean Channon, Jennifer House (dinner ladies)
Andy Serkis (Styeman)
Geoffrey Beevers (doctor)
Leslie McGuire (nurse)

UK tx BBC2 10/17/24.1.1999 Episode 1+2 122 mins
Interval 45 mins, panel discussion 60 mins
Episode 3 60 mins

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Programme notes and credits compiled by Sight and Sound and the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
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