History Files



Following his darkly erotic, but highly attractive and approachable BBC film, The Tribe, Stephen Poliakoff created another gem in this three-part BBC2 drama. With little fanfare, it appeared immediately after the Christmas schedules and quickly captivated its audience.

An American businessman, Christopher Anderson (played by Liam Cunningham, who was also in the 1996 film, Jude, with Kate Winslett), is driven by something in his past of which he had no conscious memory. He arrives in London intent on founding a new, state-of-the-art business school with a revolutionary teaching method. He finds the site he wants, but it is occupied by a very old photographic collection, one of the biggest collections in the world, holding literally thousands of pictures shot since the start of photography in the 1830s, about 93% of them in black and white. The collection's curator, Marilyn, (Lindsay Duncan), and the four assistants (including Timothy Spall, Emily Fox and Billie Whitelaw), are all a little withdrawn from the real world, all thoroughly involved in the collection. 

Apart from the upkeep of such a vast collection, they are also charged with renting out photos for specific marketing or media needs, or drawing together separate threads, photos taken at different times and in different places, but featuring the same person over several years of their life. They put these photos together, recreate the life, and finish the story that these photos tell. One such absorbing series of photos tells the tale of a young Jewish girl in Nazi Germany, whose parents allowed her to be adopted into a German family, so that she won't face the perils of her own race at that time. The photos depict her last meeting with her real Mother, a secret day trip with her Father, getting lost, and appearing at different places in the city. And then of the same girl, in London, 60-odd years later, very much changed by her life. It's a very haunting story, with an all-too realistic end. However, Anderson refuses to be moved by it, and, apart from buying the most important pictures in the collection, is not interested in saving the rest. That's where the obsessive Oswald (Spall) comes in. He persuades Anderson to show him a picture of the American's mother. Oswald's unusual thought processes lock the image in his mind and he begins a search for other pictures relating to Anderson's mother or grandmother. But time for the collection is fast running out as Marilyn vainly searches for a buyer, desperate not to split up the photos. Oswald realises that, to make a point to Anderson, to give urgency to the situation in which Marilyn must show Anderson the photos he has singled out, he must make a dramatic gesture, something that will bring home the true urgency of the situation. And therein lies the programme's dramatic and totally enthralling finale, as Marilyn weaves the true life facts of Anderson's grandmother around a montage of photos, revealing a side to his family that Anderson was not previously aware of, but which seems to make sense. But will he save the collection?

Spall's infuriating, bolshie expert headed a scintillating cast, as Poliakoff set up the opposing arguments over value and profit, culture and business in the library's atmospheric setting. Filmed at Ham House, near Hampton Court, it was a drama of ideas delivered by fully formed characters both among the buttoned-down businessmen and the eccentric library staff. In the background were the photographs, not relics of the past, but powerful images that told some extraordinary human stories. Beautiful, insistent music served to highlight the mystery behind the photos, and added a final, haunting sheen to a highly professional, thoughtful, intelligent drama. Such a rare commodity in the late 1990s.



Marilyn Truman Lindsay Duncan Oswald Bates Timothy Spall
Christopher Anderson Liam Cunningham Veronica Billie Whitelaw
Spig Emilia Fox Garnett Arj Baker Nick Blake Ritson
Molly Sheila Dunn Styeman Andy Serkis
Dinner Ladies Jean Channon and Jennifer House


Written and Directed by: Stephen
Producer: John Chapman
Music: Adrian Johnston

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