It’s not always a good place to go, the past.
The BBC 2 seems to be treating us to a little Romola Garai feast at the moment. On Tuesday evenings she’s starring in the implausible but finely acted TV studio drama set in 1956 against the background of Suez and the Soviet invasion of Hungary, and on Sunday night the channel showed Stephen Poliakoff’s big screen drama of fascist sympathies among the English aristocracy, Glorious 39. Garai stars in that, too – in fact, there’s hardly a moment she’s off the screen. The rest of the cast is stellar, too – Bill Nighy, Julie Christie, David Tennant, Christopher Lee, Corin Redgrave, Jenny Agutter and Corin Redgrave (in what must have been his last performance before his death in 2010).
Glorious 39 bombed at the box office and received some pretty dreadful reviews, but I admire Poliakoff’s work, and though this was not one of his best efforts, I enjoyed it. Some critics lambasted it as implausible tosh, but I think they missed the fact that Poliakoff here presents us with metaphors for the fascist state that England might have become had the machinations of the appeasers in politics and the secret services succeeded.
Poliakoff ‘s film is set in the weeks before and following the outbreak of World War Two, when the talk among the British aristocracy was for the need to appease Hitler and stay out of any continental conflict. Anne Keys (Romola Garai) is an actress, the adopted daughter of the scion of an old English aristocratic family and high-ranking politician (Bill Nighy). As the story unfolds, connections emerge between the men of the family and the secret service in a deadly campaign to silence critics of Chamberlain’s appeasement policy. As Anne tries to find out exactly who is behind a series of deaths to close friends, the film takes on the character of a paranoid thriller in the style of Hitchcock or John Buchan.
The film opens in present-day London as Michael Walton (Toby Regbo) visits his cousins, Walter and Oliver Page (Christopher Lee and Corin Redgrave). Michael is interested in family history (as are the characters in so many Poliakoff dramas); he has come to ask them about his great aunt, Anne Keyes, the Romola Garai character, of who it seems no-one has known the whereabouts since 1939. Oliver advises Michael: ‘It’s not always a good place to go, the past’.
But, into the past we go – back to the glorious summer of 1939 and very English scenes of the English aristocracy at their leisure. There’s plenty of typical Poliakoff attention to the details of aristocratic life – the stately home set amidst rolling parkland, country churches, balls, frocks and dinner jackets. But soon, out of this picture of a tranquil England, emerges what one character calls a vision of hell.
On the run from shadowy forces intent on her destruction, Anne (family nickname, ‘Glorious’) discovers that she is the daughter of gipsies, and in another metaphor for the catastrophe about to engulf continental Europe she encounters a facility where the capital’s pets are being systematically destroyed and burnt on huge pyres. Anne, too, is incarcerated and eventually disappears. The gipsy has been expunged from the English family.
In the film’s coda we return to the present, and Michael with his cousins. A surprising encounter seems to indicate the return of the gipsy to the embrace of the English family.
Poliakoff spoke about what compelled him to write Glorious 39 in an interview with Time Out:
I got very obsessed with this period, about what a close-run thing it was that I’m here, that all my family is here.
I thought: This story has never been told and it’s still in living memory. One of the cast, Christopher Lee, was there. He remembers it all. It was extraordinary to work with an actor who was a witness and who was even there watching the Nuremberg Trials. He was there in Nuremberg, although for reasons I still have to find out. […]
I think there’s a younger generation who have been taught about WW2 but for whom it’s still a shock to realise that it could have been different. There was a powerful collection of forces that were opposed to us facing up to fascism. … There were many people, especially many aristocratic families who were deeply passionate about what the appeasers were doing and were sympathetic to Hitler – they weren’t all Nazis, although some of them sympathised, but the much greater fear was Communism. And there was violent anti-Semitism amongst a lot of the upper class and the political class and no doubt the Secret Service, which was very active. So I don’t know what would have happened to them… people changed very, very quickly.
Everybody in the elite… I’m exaggerating because there was always a powerful, small minority that objected to the appeasement policy in the elite. But nearly every newspaper editor and proprietor and a vast majority of the House of Commons – because the Tories had a huge majority – and even the Royal Family were all very, very pro-appeasement. When Chamberlain fell at the end of April 1940, they wanted Lord Halifax, who was a great appeaser and wanted to do this deal with Hitler.
A lot of the things in the film are true, such as the spying on the younger group of MPs around Churchill who were trying to bring down Neville Chamberlain. There were only about 20 of those MPs, so it was very easy to keep tabs on them all. Churchill’s phone was listened to all the time – Chamberlain wrote to his sister: ‘I know what he’s doing every hour of every day and he has no idea that I know’. […]
I knew about appeasement, of course, but I didn’t realise until I started reading about it all in detail the extent to which people tried to suppress criticism of that policy and stop Churchill being an effective force. The intelligence services actually sponsored a magazine hilariously called Truth which regularly tore into the anti-appeasers.
There’s a tremendous book called Troublesome Young Men… it’s an American book by someone called Lynne Olson, which describes the Secret Service campaign as ‘a dirty tricks campaign equivalent to Nixon’s Watergate’. So, it was quite hairy stuff and I built on that. There were people who had to be very, very brave, and who were regarded as enemies of the State. People stood up in Parliament and said: ‘These characters should be shot’. […]
Anne seems secure within her world, and of course discovers she isn’t, and that does parallel what happened to so many people in mainland Europe. The Jews in Vienna, for example. One minute they’re sitting at the cafes, then the Nazis walk in, and within hours, they’re being pulled off trains, being beaten on the pavements. What happened there, could so easily have happened to my family here at that time. My mother was from a Jewish aristocratic family, and all the people she’d known growing up, they’d turned their backs on her, just like happened in the rest of Europe. It’s a shocking thing to think about, but what happened in Vienna could have happened to my family here.
Poliakoff spoke about the scene in which a great pile of exterminated family pets burn on a pyre on a a London common:
It was something I stumbled upon when I was researching the film and I was so grabbed by it. One book described the piles of dead animals on every high street in London so while you clip clopped to the post office you had to pass these dead cats, dogs, rabbits and budgies. It must have been so horrific in reality, but was also such an eerie harbinger of what would have happened if we had become a Vichy style state.’
In a review of Glorious 39, Arthur Sloman commented that:
The phrase ‘Evil triumphs when good men do nothing’ seems an appropriate thought for the film that this could have been. The upper classes’ eagerness for an appeasement with Hitler is a dark and greatly unexplored part of Britain’s history and something Poliakoff is no stranger to. His 2007 BBC drama Joe’s Palace handled the subject of appeasement expertly by examining how it affected the life of a man whose father had done business with the Nazis.
The … tension in Poliakoff’s films is between his sense of Englishness and something much more European. He started out in the 1970s writing stage and television plays about contemporary England, often set in bleak, desolate cityscapes. His breakthrough drama was 1980’s Caught on a Train, which follows a young Englishman’s rail journey across Europe. The film has all Poliakoff’s signature preoccupations of the period: drunken football supporters, city centres emptied of people at night and unpleasant railway stations. But then the young man meets an elderly Viennese woman called Frau Messner (played by Peggy Ashcroft), who starts talking about her youth after the Nazi Anschluss. With this encounter, Poliakoff had found his subject: the collision between a certain kind of Englishness and the dark history of Europe in the 20th century.
It took another 20 years for Poliakoff to find his voice as writer and director. In the space of four years, from 1999 to 2003, he produced his three masterworks: Shooting the Past (1999), Perfect Strangers (2001) and The Lost Prince (2003). Each has an apparently simple story – a unique photo archive is to be closed down and the people who work there try to save the millions of old photographs; a large Jewish family has a grand reunion; the Ruritanian world of the English royal family around the time of the First World War is seen through the eyes of Prince John, a child with severe learning difficulties who is prone to epileptic fits. Poliakoff takes these stories and turns them into anatomies of a present that is haunted by the past.
Poliakoff’s best films are always set in a familiar and very English world of grand country houses, in which people dress in black tie or ball gowns for candlelit dinners. There aren’t many working-class people in Poliakoff’s films, nor many grimy northern backstreets or belching factories. Instead, everything is grand: the family reunion in Perfect Strangers takes place in a magnificent West End hotel; the country house in Glorious 39 has been in the family for generations.
But something strange always happens. A mysterious photograph or record is discovered, and turns out to be a clue to some disturbing family secret. Or someone will begin telling a story about the past, which could not be less English – about a little Jewish girl in Germany (Shooting the Past, Perfect Strangers), or an Englishman who turns out to be a gypsy. Elliott Graham in Joe’s Palace is a strange, fabulously wealthy recluse. He knows there is some secret hidden in his past. It will emerge that the secret is buried in Nazi Berlin.
Poliakoff rubs these two elements – the very English and the decidedly un-English – together, and the result is a mystery that someone will set out to solve. Often these stories involve children. Indeed, you could argue that Poliakoff is more interested in children and families than any other leading writer of his generation. The families he writes about may be rich, but they are always unhappy.