In 1909, John was discovered to have epilepsy. As his condition deteriorated, he was sent to live at Sandringham House and was kept away from the public eye. There, he was cared for by his governess, "Lala" Bill, and befriended local children whom his mother had gathered to be his playmates. Prince John died at Sandringham in 1919, following a severe seizure, and was buried at nearby St Mary Magdalene Church. His illness was disclosed to the wider public only after his death.
Prince John's alleged seclusion has subsequently been brought forward as evidence for the inhumanity of the royal family. However, records show that the Prince was in some ways given favourable treatment by his parents, in comparison to his siblings, and contrary to the belief that he was hidden from the public from an early age, John for most of his life was a "fully-fledged member of the family", appearing frequently in public until after his eleventh birthday.
His long acknowledged learning disability and a possible intellectual disability have both been linked to his severe epilepsy; recent speculation finds some behaviors consistent with autism.
Prince John was born at York Cottage on the Sandringham Estate on 12 July 1905, at 3:05 a.m. He was the youngest child and fifth son of George Frederick, Prince of Wales and Mary, Princess of Wales (née Mary of Teck). He was named John despite that name's unlucky associations for the royal family, but was informally known as "Johnny". At the time of his birth, he was sixth in the line of succession to the throne, behind his father and four older brothers. As a grandchild of the reigning British monarch in the male line, and a son of the Prince of Wales, he was formally styled His Royal Highness Prince John of Wales from birth.
John was christened on 3 August in the Church of St Mary Magdalene at Sandringham, the Reverend Canon John Neale Dalton officiating. His godparents were King Carlos I of Portugal (his third cousin once removed, for whom the Prince of Wales stood proxy), the Duke of Sparta (his first cousin once removed), Prince Carl of Denmark (his uncle by marriage and first cousin once removed, for whom the Prince of Wales stood proxy), Prince John of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg (his great-great-uncle, for whom the Prince of Wales stood proxy), Alexander Duff, 1st Duke of Fife (his uncle by marriage, for whom the Prince of Wales stood proxy), the Duchess of Sparta (his first cousin once removed, for whom Princess Victoria of the United Kingdom stood proxy), and Princess Alexander of Teck (his first cousin once removed, for whom Princess Victoria stood proxy).
Early life and illness
Much of John's early life was spent at Sandringham with his siblings—Prince Edward (known as David to the royal family), Prince Albert, Princess Mary, Prince Henry and Prince George—under the care of their nanny Charlotte "Lala" Bill. Though a strict disciplinarian,[note 2] the Prince of Wales was nonetheless affectionate toward his children; the Princess of Wales was close to her children and encouraged them to confide in her. In 1909, John's great-aunt, the Dowager Empress of Russia wrote to her son, Emperor Nicholas II, that "George's children are very nice ... The little ones, George and Johnny are both charming and very amusing ..." Princess Alexander of Teck described John as "very quaint and one evening when Uncle George returned from stalking he bent over Aunt May and kissed her, and they heard Johnny soliloquize, 'She kissed Papa, ugly old man!'" George once said to U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt that "all [his] children [were] obedient, except John"—apparently because John alone, among George's children, escaped punishment from their father.
Though a "large and handsome" baby, by his fourth birthday John had become "winsome" and "painfully slow". That same year he suffered his first epileptic seizure and showed signs of a disability, probably autism. When his father succeeded as George V upon Edward VII's death in 1910, John was awarded the title "His Royal Highness The Prince John". John did not attend his parents' coronation on 22 June 1911, as this was considered too risky for his health; nonetheless, cynics said that the family feared their reputation would be damaged by any incident involving him. Although John was deemed not "presentable to the outside world," George nonetheless showed an interest in him, offering him "kindness and affection".
During his time at Sandringham, John exhibited some repetitive behaviors as well as regular misbehaviours and insubordination: "he simply didn't understand he needed to [behave]." Nonetheless there was hope his seizures might lessen with time—. Contrary to the belief that he was hidden from the public from an early age, John for most of his life was a "fully-fledged member of the family", appearing frequently in public until after his eleventh birthday.
In 1912 Prince George, who was nearest in age to John and his closest sibling, began St. Peter's Court Preparatory School at Broadstairs. The following summer, The Times reported that John would not attend Broadstairs the following term, and that George and Mary had not decided whether to send John to school at all. After the outbreak of World War I, John rarely saw his parents, who were often away on official duties, and his siblings, who were either at boarding school or in the military. John slowly disappeared from the public eye and no official portraits of him were commissioned after 1913.
In 1916, as his seizures became more frequent and severe, John was sent to live at Wood Farm, with Bill having charge of his care. Though John maintained an interest in the world around him and was capable of coherent thought and expression with his lack of educational progress the last of his tutors was dismissed and his formal education ended. Physicians warned that he would likely not reach adulthood.
At Wood Farm, John became "a satellite with his own little household on an outlying farm on the Sandringham estate ... Guests at Balmoral remember him during the Great War as tall and muscular, but always a distant figure glimpsed from afar in the woods, escorted by his own retainers." His grandmother Queen Alexandra maintained a garden at Sandringham House especially for him, and this became "one of the great pleasures of [John]'s life."
After the summer of 1916, John was rarely seen outside the Sandringham Estate and passed solely into Bill's care. After Queen Alexandra wrote that "[John] is very proud of his house but is longing for a companion," Queen Mary broke from royal practice by having local children brought in to be playmates for John. One of these was Winifred Thomas, a young girl from Halifax who had been sent to live with her aunt and uncle (who had charge of the royal stables at Sandringham) in hopes her asthma would improve. John had known Winifred years earlier, prior to the outbreak of World War I. Now they became close, taking nature walks together and working in Queen Alexandra's garden. Leslie Saward Heath (born 1914 in Wolferton Station House), whose Grandfather was Harry Leonard Saward RVM MVO, the Royal Station Master at Wolferton from 1884-1924, also played with Prince John at the farmhouse. John also played with his elder siblings when they visited: once, when his two eldest brothers came to visit John, the Prince of Wales (formerly Prince Edward) "took him for a run in a kind of a push-cart, and they both disappeared from view."
John, pictured on a postcard from c. 1912-13
As John's seizures intensified (Bill later wrote) "we [dared] not let him be with his brothers and sister, because it upsets them so much, with the attacks getting so bad and coming so often." Biographer Denis Judd believes that "[John]'s seclusion and 'abnormality' must have been disturbing to his brothers and sister", as he had been "a friendly, outgoing little boy, much loved by his brothers and sister, a sort of mascot for the family". He spent Christmas Day 1918 with his family at Sandringham House but was driven back to Wood Farm at night.
On 18 January 1919, after a severe seizure, John died in his sleep at Wood Farm at 5:30 p.m. It is now known, due to modern autopsy techniques, that people with epilepsy may die of it, with no other illness or injury contributing to death nor to the etiology of the condition.
Queen Mary wrote in her diary that the news was "a great shock, tho' for the poor little boy's restless soul, death came as a great relief. [She] broke the news to George and [they] motored down to Wood Farm. Found poor Lala very resigned but heartbroken. Little Johnnie looked very peaceful lying there."
Mary later wrote to Emily Alcock, an old friend, that "for [John] it is a great relief, as his malady was becoming worse as he grew older, & he has thus been spared much suffering. I cannot say how grateful we feel to God for having taken him in such a peaceful way, he just slept quietly into his heavenly home, no pain no struggle, just peace for the poor little troubled spirit which had been a great anxiety to us for many years, ever since he was four years old." She went on to add that "the first break in the family circle is hard to bear, but people have been so kind & sympathetic & this has helped us much." George described his son's death simply as "the greatest mercy possible".
On 20 January the Daily Mirror said that "when the Prince passed away his face bore an angelic smile"; its report also made the first public mention of John's epilepsy. His funeral was the following day at St Mary Magdalene Church, John Neale Dalton officiating.Queen Mary wrote that "Canon Dalton & Dr Brownhill [John's physician] conducted the service which was awfully sad and touching. Many of our own people and the villagers were present. We thanked all Johnnie's servants who have been so good and faithful to him." Though nominally private, the funeral was attended by Sandringham House staff; "every single person on the estate went and stood around the gates and his grave was absolutely covered in flowers." Queen Alexandra wrote to Queen Mary that "now [their] two darling Johnnies lie side by side".
Prince John (right) and Prince George photographed during a royal shopping trip.
Prince Edward who had hardly known John, saw his death as "little more than a regrettable nuisance." He wrote to his mistress of the time that "[he had] told [her] all about that little brother, and how he was an epileptic. [John]'s been practically shut up for the last two years anyhow, so no one has ever seen him except the family, and then only once or twice a year. This poor boy had become more of an animal than anything else." He also wrote an insensitive letter to Queen Mary, which has since been lost. She did not reply, but he felt compelled to write her an apology, in which he stated that "[he felt] like such a cold hearted and unsympathetic swine for writing all that [he] did ... No one can realize more than [she] how poor little Johnnie meant to [him] who hardly knew him ..." He went on to state "I feel so much for you, darling Mama, who was his mother." In her final mention of John in her diary, Queen Mary wrote simply "miss the dear child very much indeed." She gave Winifred Thomas a number of John's books, which she had inscribed, "In memory of our dear little Prince." "Lala" Bill always kept a portrait of John above her mantelpiece, together with a letter from him which read "nanny, I love you."
In recent years, Prince John's seclusion has been brought forward as evidence towards the "heartlessness" of the Windsor family, According to a 2008 Channel 4 documentary, much of the existing information about John is "based on hearsay and rumour, precisely because so few details of his life and his problems have ever been disclosed," and the British Epileptic Association has stated, "There was nothing unusual in what [the King and Queen] did. At that time, people with epilepsy were put apart from the rest of the community. They were often put in epilepsy colonies or mental institutions. It was thought to be a form of mental illness," adding that it was another twenty years before the idea that epileptics should not be locked away began to take hold. The royal family believed that these afflictions flowed through their blood, which was believed to be purer than the blood of a commoner, and, as such, wished to hide as much as possible in regard to John's illness. Others have suggested that John was sent to Wood Farm to give him the best environment possible under the "austere" conditions of World War I. Undoubtedly the royal family were "frightened and ashamed of John's illness", and his life is "usually portrayed either as tragedy or conspiracy". At the time that Edward VIII (formerly Prince Edward) abdicated, an attempt was made to discredit Prince Albert, who had succeeded as George VI, by suggesting that he was subject to falling fits, like his brother. In 1998, after the discovery of two volumes of family photographs, John was briefly brought to public attention.
The Lost Prince is a British television drama about the life of Prince John – youngest child of Britain's King George V and Queen Mary – who died at the age of 13 in 1919.
A Talkback Thames production written and directed by Stephen Poliakoff, it was originally broadcast in January 2003. It won an Emmy Award in September 2005.
John suffered from epileptic seizures and an autism-like developmental disorder, and the Royal Family tried to shelter him from public view; the script shied away from presenting the Royal Family as unsympathetic, instead showing how much this cost them emotionally (particularly John's mother, Queen Mary). Poliakoff explores the story of John, his relationship with his family and brother Prince George, the political events going on at the time (such as the fall of the House of Romanov in 1917) and the love and devotion of his nanny, Charlotte Bill.
A spellbound young Prince John gazes as his family attend an elaborate birthday party for his pampered and indulged grandmother, Queen Alexandra, held at Sandringham in Norfolk during the winter.
When summer arrives there is much excitement again as Tsar Nicholas II, Tsarina Alexandra, and their children, visit their relatives, the British royals at the Isle of Wight. The Russians entrance Prince John with their exotic splendour. It is clear, even at this stage, that Johnnie, a charming and attractive boy, has an eccentric view of the world and is uninhibited in a way that is alien to his parents. His ailing grandfather, King Edward VII, loves him for his frankness. It is clear also that his nanny, Lalla, is reluctant to reveal the seriousness of his medical condition.
While the populace of the capital gaze into the night skies to catch a glimpse of an approaching comet, Johnnie's parents are called to Buckingham Palace to be by the King's deathbed.
During the funeral attended by all the heads of state of Europe, including the Kaiser Wilhelm, Johnnie succumbs to a serious epileptic fit. Queen Mary, Johnnie's mother, summons doctors to examine him and their diagnosis confirms her and Lalla's worst fears. Lalla volunteers to look after Johnnie to prevent him being sent to an institution. The two of them are to be sent to Sandringham, where Johnnie is to be prevented from encountering anybody but the closest members of his family.
His sibling, Prince George, who has always treasured Johnnie, swears to protect him. Johnnie, now a few years older, is deprived of the company of any children and finds the schooling of his tutor, Hansell, unfathomable. Although lonely, he always takes an optimistic view of life. Then one day, to the acute embarrassment of King George V and Queen Mary, he speaks his mind at a tea party held for Prime Minister H.H. Asquith and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lloyd George.
Johnnie is summoned to London to be re-examined by the doctors. During his stay he is taken by his brother George up to the minstrel's gallery looking down on the banqueting hall of Buckingham Palace, to observe a grand state occasion. The assembled dignitaries are chattering feverishly about the poise with which the Queen has dealt with the intrusion of a suffragette, who has confronted the Queen to demand her support for women's emancipation.
During the banquet Asquith and Lloyd George are called back to Downing Street to receive the news that is to prove to be the catalyst for the start of the First World War.
The following morning Johnnie receives a rare audience with his father King George, who shows him his treasured stamp collection. Johnnie is more interested in his father's pet parrot, Charlotte. Suddenly, father and son are interrupted by the King's Private Secretary, Stamfordham, who has come to relay the news of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Realising that the news has been withheld from him, the King erupts in fury. Unnoticed by the adults, Johnnie pursues Charlotte, as the terrified bird flies away into the bowels of the building. The Queen, Lalla and George go searching for Johnnie and his mother is shocked when she sees, for the first time, one of Johnnie's debilitating fits. In the midst of scurrying officials gathering for urgent diplomatic meetings, Johnnie is secreted out of the Palace and back to the isolation of his country estate.
Prince George witnesses the brinkmanship of the allies in the face of the belligerent posture taken by Germany. Much to the surprise of all concerned, the weak and vacillating Tsar of Russia mobilises his troops and plunges Europe into war. Against his wishes, George is sent to the harsh Naval Academy where his rebellious nature leads him to question the propaganda about the cruelty of the German armed forces.
Propaganda combined with the disastrous consequences of the conflict on the battlefield of Flanders turns the public's attention to the German ancestry of the British royal family. The trauma of war is even felt by Johnnie, Lalla and their household, who are forced to live in increased isolation in Wood Farm, on the fringes of the Sandringham estate. Prince George is determined, however, to maintain contact with Lalla and his brother. He arrives to relay the news that the family is to change its name to Windsor and that the Tsar of Russia has abdicated and is to be exiled in Britain by the Bolshevik revolutionaries.
George is alarmed at the reaction of his own subjects and persuades Stamfordham to press Lloyd George to reverse the invitation to the Tsar. Johnnie dreams innocently of his Russian cousins coming to live with him and is being prepared by Lalla to give a recital to his parents. King George and Queen Mary are traumatised by what follows -- the execution of the Romanovs. Weighed down by the effects of the conflagration that has enveloped Europe, they find consolation when their son Johnnie dies in his unbounded optimism and unalloyed love of life. We know that George and Lalla will be comforted every day of their lives by remembering his pure and untarnished character.
Reception & awards
The drama won a high viewing figure and much praise, was released on VHS and DVD, and was repeated on BBC One in January 2004. A further repeat showing followed on BBC Two in January 2006. It is now occasionally shown in two parts on the BBC cable channel UK History. Both Miranda Richardson and Gina McKee received Best Actress nominations at the British Academy Television Awards. The miniseries was also nominated for BAFTA TV awards for editing (Clare Douglas), music (Adrian Johnston), and photography (Barry Ackroyd).
After presentation in the United States in October 2004, it won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Miniseries in 2005. Miranda Richardson was nominated for a Golden Globe.
It was also repeated on BBC Two on 14 & 21 November 2009.
A life in drama: Stephen Poliakoff
'What really buys you freedom is being successful. So long as you deliver, they leave you alone'
Saturday 28 November 2009 00.05 GMT
For someone best known for Shooting the Past, a television drama apparently so slow and un-televisual that BBC executives begged him to speed it up, Stephen Poliakoff is a very fast talker. Sentences tumble into one another, thoughts jerkily digress, regroup and change their angle of attack. Ideas flit in and out of focus as all the while a plastic drinking straw is furiously twiddled between his fingers. Outlining details of his latest venture, Glorious 39, his first feature film for 12 years, Poliakoff makes glancing references to George W Bush, Bulldog Drummond, the history of the wire tap and Norfolk's evergreen oaks in expressing his fascination and horror at the aristocratic and establishment appeasers who, in the run-up to the second world war, mounted a desperate last effort to do a deal with Hitler in the hope of retaining their power and privilege.
Poliakoff's 1999 play Talk of the City had addressed the BBC's reluctance to broadcast news of Jewish persecution in Nazi Germany before the outbreak of the war. "But for some reason I didn't then ask the obvious question as to what was going on in the political and aristocratic elite. I sort of accepted that Chamberlain was this rather boring figure with a silly umbrella and it all worked out in the end. But then I read up on the period and found out what an incredibly close run thing it was. There was just a tiny band of people around Churchill who were up against most of the Tory party, the aristocracy, the royal family and the newspaper editors of the time. My mother's family were aristocratic Jews and leading figures in the Liberal party. If the appeasers had won and Britain had become a Vichy-style state, she would certainly have been taken away. I became very interested in how close I came to not being here."
Although Poliakoff's early plays were aggressively contemporary – "appalling hamburger bars, subterranean discos, early versions of karaoke, neon and violence" – it is for his idiosyncratic treatment of the past that he is best known today. "But I didn't really write about my Jewish background until I was into my 40s." More or less oblique references to the Holocaust and the 1930s cropped up in Shooting the Past (1999), Perfect Strangers (2001) and Joe's Palace (2007) before the more direct study in Glorious 39. "So both my parents were dead by the time I really addressed the subject," he says, before, for the first time, abruptly stopping the apparently endless flow of conversation.
"It really hadn't occurred to me until this moment that – and it's such an obviously glaring fact now I say it – those things could be linked. I didn't really write about Jewishness and what happened to the Jews until my parents died."
In Perfect Strangers, a character says: "If you dig hard enough, there are at least three great stories in any family" and Poliakoff's use of the family as the arena in which wider events reverberate has became as characteristic in his work as the large mysterious houses, the archives of sound or images, or the hidden corners of history.
Neither Churchill nor Chamberlain feature in Glorious 39, in which the drama is played out in the aristocratic Keyes family whose adopted daughter, played by Romola Garai, begins by feeling "very secure in this world, but when it begins to unstitch it happens incredibly quickly", explains Poliakoff. "That's what happened all over Europe for Jewish people who had lived happily among their neighbours for years. Then it changed. In the case of Vienna, it changed within hours.
"One minute it was a café society and everything going along nicely. Then Hitler entered and people were watching through the windows as their Jewish neighbours were cleaning pavements and being spat at. It shows how an apparently civilised surface can crack open to reveal the darkness incredibly quickly, as most recently happened in the former Yugoslavia. We never had to face up to our antisemitism after the war because of our brave and proud history – and it was brave and proud. But it was a damn close run thing, and the forces trying to do a deal were incredibly powerful. It really could have happened here."
Poliakoff was born in London in 1952 into a home that was both "quite formal and quite chaotic". His father's family had come to the UK from Russia in 1924, having witnessed the revolution from their flat near Red Square before escaping – with a diamond smuggled in a shoe – when Stalin came to power. His inventor grandfather died when Poliakoff was a child, but his grandmother lived on into his adulthood telling "amazing stories that lasted only a few seconds, which she told with absolutely no elaboration. So she'd say, 'I once saw Tolstoy and followed him down the street to see how many people recognised him'. And that was it. She saw the first production of The Cherry Orchard but never said a word about how it was received."
Poliakoff's father and grandfather's firm produced, among other things, hearing aids – including Churchill's – and later invented the hospital bleeper. The family were great Anglophiles even when they lived in Russia, and Poliakoff says his father was obsessed with manners and became very snobbish. "There was a lot of tension in the house about using correct forks, and even into the 1990s he would kiss women's hands." Although the business was sometimes financially precarious, the firm bought a Rolls-Royce, which would pick Poliakoff up from school. "And then my father would speak to the headmaster just to mention that he had 'brought the Rolls today'."
Poliakoff had been the only Jewish boy at his prep school and fellow pupils would watch him carefully to see which bits of the Lord's Prayer he said. In those days, he says, he twiddled a stick between his fingers, not a drinking straw. His education continued at Westminster school, where he wrote a play that was reviewed in the Times. Christopher Hampton had just been appointed as the first resident dramatist at the Royal Court, and part of his job was "to go prospecting". "So I heard about this play at Westminster and went along," he says. "Stephen was much as he is now: nervous, clearly very bright with too many things on his mind to formulate complete sentences. His play was extremely promising and I got the Royal Court to commission another one from him which, in time-honoured Royal Court fashion, they ended up deciding not to do."
Hampton remembers even then a "distinctive writing personality. Like everyone's first plays, it was unsophisticated and ragged round the edges – but it had a real intensity. And then, as now, he seemed to be slightly off the rhythm in that the work is sort of jazzy, you don't get quite what you expect." Poliakoff says the cancelled play, which Richard Eyre was due to direct, was his "first lesson in how devastating showbiz can be. Shortly afterwards my mother, who was far too interested in my career having wanted to be an actress herself, said to me that, despite being only 17, my career 'was going nowhere', which I thought was a bit harsh."
The following year Poliakoff was invited to participate in a now notorious theatre project when seven radical fringe theatre writers, including Howard Brenton, Trevor Griffiths and David Hare, collaborated on an experimental work, Lay By, about a rape and its consequences. "It verged on the pornographic," Poliakoff recalls. "I had to look up some of the sexual terms in a dictionary. I was very much the baby of the pack and only actually contributed a few lines, but it did have an interesting effect. Naturalism was frowned upon at the time, and the sort of heightened realism I felt I was gravitating towards wasn't part of their world. The others weren't terribly interested in evoking time and place or psychological character development, and that helped to define me, albeit in a negative way, because at least I realised what I was not."
Poliakoff says he has always thought of himself as being on the left. "But I never wanted to be didactic or agitprop or even polemical. I was more interested in celebrating complexity. I've always thought people are more complex than the marketing men, or the political class, or the media class give them credit for. People can contain two contradictory ideas in their heads at the same time, so telling them what to think at the end of a play insults their intelligence. There are ways of showing different ways in which the world might be ordered. But not by pointing them out. Instead you try to deal with the complexity."
Poliakoff went up to Cambridge to read history but left before completing his degree. He says he was too late for 60s euphoria and optimism, and by the time he was writing on the fringe it was against a backdrop of the "brutal rebuilding of Britain. All those city centres torn up and redesigned for the car, which now seems ridiculously short sighted. This all coincided with a tottering minority Labour government held up with IMF loans, huge industrial unrest and bombs going off in Northern Ireland. My first big success, Hitting Town (1975), was about a brother and sister retreating from the violence into an incestuous night. It was private reaction to public bleakness."
That his early plays were almost exclusively urban and contemporary he says, in hindsight, must have been some sort of reaction against his background. "Both of my parents were born before the first world war and had very old-fashioned views that were quite claustrophobic. My father's love of Georgian architecture and Rolls-Royces, my mother's fascination with matinee idols and people like Rex Harrison, this was a 30s view of Britain carried through into the 60s and 70s. I wanted to write about what I saw around me."
He also wanted his work to be seen by as large an audience as possible. He remembers "stumbling across" Pinter's A Night Out on television when he was 10 or 11. "I was completely alone and had no context for it, but thought it was fascinating and also that it was the norm, which in a way it was as 11 million other people watched it." He says even though the Times didn't carry television reviews until well into the 80s, "it was both sexy and artistically credible to be on TV. Dennis Potter was already famous. John Osborne and Tom Stoppard did television work. There were plenty of role models and I had no problem moving between TV and theatre."
Poliakoff's television breakthrough came in 1977 with the nuclear thriller Stronger Than the Sun in the BBC's Play for Today slot. His 1980 television film Caught on a Train, starring Peggy Ashcroft, won a Bafta. While he acknowledges that its success encouraged the BBC to allow him more freedom, he also says "Everybody had more freedom back then. There was always a bureaucratic thing about money, but no one was ever told how to write. The tradition was to put on the writer's vision."
But by the time he returned to television in the late 90s, after a period working in the theatre and making feature films, both he and the medium had changed. Breaking the Silence, his 1984 RSC tragicomic play set on a train just after the Russian revolution, had been his first serous attempt to deal with both his, and the continent's history. "Then Michael Jackson [controller of BBC1 at the time] said he wanted something that people would remember. Which did make me a bit cross because I thought I'd done that once or twice already. But I did attempt to write something completely different to what was on television." Written and directed by Poliakoff, Shooting the Past starred Timothy Spall and Lindsay Duncan in a story about a battle for a picture library. It was written in irregular length episodes with long, slow scenes that lingered over photographs and faces.
"I wanted to fight the idea that people couldn't concentrate for long, and when it was finished all hell did break loose. By now they did try to tell you how to write, and some relatively junior executives thought it should be cut and made quicker, which would have ruined the whole point of it. I went bananas and eventually won the battle. So it wasn't a question of being invited by the BBC to do what I liked.
"People did try to interfere, but I resisted them and was ultimately proved right." He followed up with the Bafta winning Perfect Strangers (2001) the Emmy winning The Lost Prince (2003) and Golden Globes for Gideon's Daughter (2005). "What really buys you freedom is being successful. So long as you deliver, they leave you alone."
Lorraine Heggessey, a former head of BBC1 and now chief executive of Talkback Thames, Poliakoff's long-time producers, says the degree of control he exercises is indeed exceptional. "The fashion for some time, and I've been part of this myself, is to edit everybody. You give them input to 'improve' their work. And in most cases it works. But sometimes you can also dilute things and you lose some of the original artistic vision. Stephen's vision remains intact and his work, in the theatre or on television or in the cinema, is instantly recognisable. And anyway, such is his personality that it's difficult not to let him do his own thing. He cares so much and puts so much into his work that of course there can be tensions. But someone once said to me: 'Work with the best, not the easiest.' And who are we to judge? You get the brilliance because of the purity of vision."
Poliakoff still expresses strong opinions about TV drama – most recently when he identified "Kafkaesque committees" at the BBC – and enjoys talking shop about Saturday night schedules, the impact of DVDs and reminiscing about the time, not so long ago, when The Lost Prince premiered against ITV's big gun of A Touch of Frost and between them pulled in 21 million people.
His next project will be a new stage play – "contemporary and urban" – and in future he intends to work simultaneously in the theatre, film and television. "I have some ideas for more movies, but I'm not giving up television. I want to write a 20th-century story but I might not direct it, as I just won't have the time. The alternative is not to write for television at all, and I have so many more things I want to do. But not a single person I've told believes that I'll be able to let go enough to allow someone else to direct. We'll see. I'm interested myself to see how it turns out."