Steven Poliakoff: A Gathering Storm

The writer and director Stephen Poliakoff talks to Charlotte Crow about how his view of the recent past has informed his new film, Glorious 39, a historical thriller.

‘I got really gripped with the idea of what a close-run thing it was that I and my family and so many other people are here at all today as Jews, and the fact that Britain didn’t do a deal with Hitler’, says the renowned playwright, film-maker and director Stephen Poliakoff.He is referring to the ideas that underpin his latest work, Glorious 39, a historical thriller set in Britain in the months leading up to the outbreak of war.

The first film for cinema that Poliakoff has made in a decade is a disturbing drama about the mood of the nation following Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. It centres on an aristocratic family who believe it is their duty to take any steps necessary to prevent another war.Alexander Keyes, the head of the household and a First World War veteran, is a Conservative MP with close links to the secret services. The prime minister himself does not appear in the film but an unlikable character called Balcombe (played by Jeremy Northam) is inspired by Sir Joseph Ball, Chamberlain’s friend and, at the time, director of the Conservative Research Department, a dark master of espionage and smear campaigns directed against Churchill, the opposition parties and Jews.

‘The forces were much more powerful than people realise,’ says Poliakoff. ‘I got terribly obsessed with this story and wanted to make it relevant for a modern audience. I find Chamberlain an extraordinarily unattractive character, one of the most sinister figures of the 20th century. I used to think of him as a man out of his depth doing the best he could but he was in fact a deeply untrustworthy and unattractive individual.’

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