Close to the Enemy review – pure Poliakoff: haunting, clever and arrogant

The small-screen maestro’s latest has all his hallmarks: stunning locations, strange dialogue and, of course, jazz. Plus, inside Britain’s prisons – filmed by prisoners themselves

An English naval port, 1946 – a menacing place with guards and searchlights sweeping the dark water. A German man and his daughter have just disembarked from a ship and are being questioned. They’re not here by choice, judging from the man’s anger, the look on the girl’s face and the way she clings to her soft toy. The building they’re in is extraordinary: long, curved, beamy, like a massive hayloft, or the inside of an airship. He does give good location, Stephen Poliakoff.

This is the writer and director’s new thriller, Close to the Enemy (BBC2), set in the aftermath of the second world war. And the good locations continue, up in bombed-out London (actually filmed in Liverpool) where kids with toy guns and toffee apples play at soldiers in the rubble. Also in the red-brick Connington hotel that stands unbombed, miraculously – like St Paul’s – given the surrounding destruction.

“It’s a funny old dump, but with some surprisingly good perks,” the Brigadier tells Captain Callum Ferguson (Jim Sturgess), presumably referring not to the grey-grim post-war food in the restaurant, but to the glamorous ladies who wander the corridors upstairs. And a soon-to-reopen nightclub in the basement.

Ferguson has been given the job – his last before being demobbed – of babysitting the German Dieter and his daughter, Lotte, at the Connington. And of persuading Dieter, a jet-engine scientist, to come and work for the British, rather than the Americans or – worse – the Russians, what with the cold war just around the corner (probably best not to think too much about you-know-what-just-happened when watching Close to the Enemy). Is it perhaps more beneficial to the nation to cream off Nazi talent than to chase down war criminals?

Ferguson can use any methods he pleases, which means another toffee apple and special Austrian cabbage for Lotte, and (for dad) a visit to the basement for the opening night. Jazz! Of course; it wouldn’t be Poliakoff without jazz.

Or without strange, mannered dialogue, delivered theatrically. “We would like some more cabbage please, but this time cooked with onions and garlic and butter,” Ferguson tells the maitre d’.

“We can’t do that sir, not cabbage with onions.”

“You can’t do cabbage with onions?”

The cabbage-off continues, with eventual victory for Ferguson, after which dealing with Dieter, and even the cold war itself, should prove a doddle. Ferguson has six days to get the job done – six days and seven episodes. No one ever accused Stephen P of galloping too quickly through a story, if indeed there is one.

Actually, Close to the Enemy has more narrative momentum than some of his work. Otherwise, it’s pure Poliakoff: a thoughtful examination of an extraordinary time, the aftermath of the bloodiest war, with complicated individuals struggling to find inner peace, and love, and a country having to make difficult moral choices about digging about in the recent past or moving on. Cooked with onions and garlic and butter and jazz. It’s bold, and beautiful, haunting, clever and original. And a bit arrogant; both splendidly and annoyingly so.

Elsewhere, this – The Secret Life of Prisons: Cutting Edge (Channel 4) – is extraordinary, both in what it says and how it says it. Filmed by prisoners using illegal phones smuggled into jail inside hollowed-out Mars bars and various human anatomical hiding places, it shows a side to prison you don’t see when camera crews are granted permission to film inside. Anarchy; sickening violence; drug use on an epidemic scale (mostly the no-longer-legal high spice, smuggled in the same way as the phones, or by drone, or even via children’s pictures soaked in a spice solution, then dried); a system actually at breaking point (witness the escape from Pentonville this week).

It’s one thing to read and hear about a prison crisis – not just the Pentonville escape but the death and stabbings at the same prison, the Bedford riots, appeals and threats of protests by the Prison Officers Association. It’s another to see Simeon staggering about on spice, screaming before having a heart attack. To watch men willingly take a punch to the face in exchange for a gram; to witness schizophrenic Sam being beaten up over a drug debt. Deeply disturbing; did you watch it, Liz Truss?


Sam Wollaston

The GuardianTramp

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