Poliakoff was born in Holland Park, west London, England to an Anglo-Jewish mother, Ina (née Montagu), and a Russian-Jewish father, Alexander Poliakoff. His brother, Martyn Poliakoff, is a Research Professor of Chemistry at the University of Nottingham, as well as the Foreign Secretary and Vice-President of the Royal Society. Martyn is also the father of physicist Simon Poliakoff and Psychology lecturer Ellen Poliakoff.
He lives in London and is married to fellow scriptwriter Sandy Welch, with whom he has two children. He was awarded a CBE in the Queen's 2007 Birthday Honours list.
The second of four children, Poliakoff was sent at a young age to boarding school, which he hated. He then proceeded to Westminster School where he attracted sufficient attention for Granny, a play written and directed by him, to be reviewed in The Times newspaper. After Westminster, he went to King's College, Cambridge but never took a degree.
Poliakoff continued to write stage plays, becoming writer-in-residence for the National Theatre at the The second of four children, Poliakoff was sent at a young age to boarding school, which he hated. He then proceeded to Westminster School where he attracted sufficient attention for Granny, a play written and directed by him, to be reviewed in The Times newspaper. After Westminster, he went to King's College, Cambridge but never took a degree.
Poliakoff continued to write stage plays, becoming writer-in-residence for the National Theatre at the age of 24, but he became increasingly interested in the medium of television, with Stronger Than the Sun (1977 – BBC1 Play for Today), Bloody Kids (1980 – ATV), Caught on a Train (1980 – BBC2 Playhouse) starring Peggy Ashcroft, and Soft Targets (1982 – Play for Today). There were also TV adaptations of his stage plays Hitting Town (1976 – Thames Television/ITV Play for Britain) and City Sugar (1978 – Scottish Television / ITV The Sunday Drama).
Poliakoff's first feature film was Runners, directed by Charles Sturridge, starring James Fox, Jane Asher and Kate Hardie. It received a limited theatrical release in 1983 before being shown in Channel 4's Film on Four slot. His directorial debut was the much-lauded and now rare Hidden City (1988), premiered at the Venice Film Festival and starring Charles Dance, Richard E. Grant and Cassie Stuart. His television career continued with She's Been Away (1989) starring Peggy Ashcroft and also winning awards at Venice, before a return to film with Close My Eyes (1991), starring Clive Owen, Saskia Reeves and Alan Rickman in an elaborate reworking of the incest theme that had been central to Hitting Town, followed by Century (1993), with Owen, Dance and Miranda Richardson. Less successful were Food of Love (1997) with Grant, Nathalie Baye and Joe McGann and The Tribe (1998) starring Joely Richardson and Jeremy Northam, the latter eventually screened on BBC2 in the absence of a cinema distribution deal.
He subsequently returned to his favoured form, television, this time choosing a flexible serial format resulting in the acclaimed and Prix Italia-winning Shooting the Past (1999), the fresh critical and audience success of Perfect Strangers (2001), a family drama starring Matthew Macfadyen, Michael Gambon and Lindsay Duncan and The Lost Prince (2003), a single drama recognized with anEmmy award rare for a non-American production. The film also featured Miranda Richardson in a Golden Globe nominated performance as Queen Mary of Teck. Michael Gambon, Gina McKee, Tom Hollander and Bill Nighy appeared in major roles. Late 2005 saw the one-off drama Friends and Crocodiles starring Damian Lewis and Jodhi May, with its overlapping companion piece, Gideon's Daughter, starring Bill Nighy, Miranda Richardson and Emily Blunt, appearing early the following year. The latter won a Peabody Award in April 2007, with Golden Globes for Nighy and Blunt.
In 2005, he renewed recent criticisms of BBC scheduling and commissioning policy, arguing that the reintroduction of a regular evening slot for one-off plays on BBC1 would provide the re-invigoration of drama output that has become a priority for the corporation.
Joe's Palace was screened on 4 November 2007 on BBC One and Capturing Mary was screened on BBC Two on 12 November 2007. The Culture Show also screened a Poliakoff special, including an interview between Poliakoff and Mark Kermode and a new TV play, A Real Summer, on 10 November.