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I would just like to take this moment to withdraw an earlier comment I have made, Stephen Poliakoff is not the second greatest person working on T.V, he is THE greatest person ever to work on T.V and Perfect strangers is his masterpiece. Developing themes explored in his earlier work Shooting the Past, Perfect Strangers captures the magic and wonder surrounding such things as war stories, mysterious photographs, and dark secrets and hidden stories from family trees. But it's the way he tells these stories, using instantly likeable characters and beautifully worded passages to create a tale, which anyone with a childhood will instantly recognise and relate to. Although the programme is only a third the way through, the final part comes next Thursday, I feel it's safe to say that Poliakoff has created an everlasting programme which will be rediscovered and repeated for years to come. Perfect Strangers deserves to win all the BAFTAs and Media awards it will surely be nominated for.
There's a lot to like about this excellent British drama. The story about the relationships between the members of a family, may seem a bit too simple, and the lack of big surprises may disappoint some people, but anyone who takes a closer look, will discover a rich, subtle, heartwarming family drama that offers very authentic, original characters and more emotions and reality than any soap opera will ever do. Stephen Poliakoff's direction is impeccable, the casting is truly perfect (even for the smallest roles), the actors never less than wonderful. The beautiful music supports the dramatic events in a way that 'Perfect Strangers' will be in your head for several days. An absolute masterpiece.
Mild-mannered surveyor (a valuer, as we call them down here) Daniel
(Matthew MacFadyen), an obscure member of the prominent and wealthy
Symons family is invited, with his parents to a family reunion at
Claridge's Hotel. The family, many of whom he has not met before are
indeed a rich and varied bunch, and Stephen (Anton Lesser), a
genealogist member, has collected all sorts of surprising information.
Daniel also meets cousins Rebecca and Charles (Claire Skinner and Toby
Stephens), and their elegant aunt Alice (Lindsay Duncan), who seem to
hold the key to part of Daniel's own past. Daniel develops a rather
un-family like attraction to Claire, which is a little awkward as she
seems rather close to her brother, Charles.
Needless to say, a family like this has plenty of skeletons, but there are also some vaguely uplifting stories, like that of the sisters from Birmingham who by a fluke avoided a German bomb on their house and then lived for months during the war in the country by themselves. Then there is the photo, found by Stephen, which so intrigues Raymond (Michael Gambon), Daniel's father, of his father, a bitter stern man, dancing by himself in an ornamental garden. And who is the third child in the childhood photos of Rebecca and Charles?
All is explained, though the pace slows down a bit towards the end in fact I felt I'd walked the long and damp distance between the mansion and the marquee too many times. Stephen Poliakoff has created an interesting set of minor characters also, such as wheeler-dealer Irving (Timothy Spall), Poppy the event organiser at the end of her tether (Kelly Hunter) and even Ernest the nonentity patriarch (Peter Howell). The whole thing for most of its 300 minutes has a festive feel to it a celebration of belonging, for better or worse, to the human family. This family is a little over the top - it would not be surprising to discover they had issued their own visa card - but there's a lot of fun in finding out their secrets.
This is one of the best TV productions of the last ten years. It is
being screened on BBC4 as part of the Poliakoff season, and it's a
complete delight to see again. The whole cast is terrific. I could
watch Gambon just standing in a bus queue.
Poliakoff himself says - a little diffidently - that he wants to make television that people remember. I expect most directors do, but few succeed. I have remembered stills, scenes, even expressions from this drama after five years. Watching it again was like looking through a photo album. It was 'familiar' in more ways than one.
(I've finally worked out that Jason Klamm's perplexing comment on this board is based on the presumption that Stephen Poliakoff's original drama is following on from some late 80's US comedy series. I promise you, the two productions have NO connection apart from the title... not even fifth cousins.)
I never cease to be amazed at what one finds in the local library in a
small town in Florida. During a wet few days, due to a stalled
hurricane, I borrowed a DVD with Timothy Spall's name on the box
expecting it to be a two hour movie. Was I ever surprised! This was one
of the most riveting stories I have ever seen, and I watched the entire
saga in one sitting.
As the extended family gathered for a all-expenses paid reunion at a London hotel, the characters meet other relatives whom they had either not known about or had little contact with. The family had once been wealthy and successful, but as subsequent generations branched off, some had fallen on hard times. They begin to discover their similarities. Michael Gambon was superb as the black sheep son who had lost the business his father had built up when he ventured out on his own. When he has to stay at his cousin Ernest's London flat to recuperate after a collapse, he finds that his cousin shares his taste in British war movies starring Jack Hawkins.
Matthew McFaddeyn played the son who had no idea that he was related to a wealthy family. Upon meeting them he is taken with the kind of wealthy upper middle class life he could have had.
Timothy Spall played the more than slightly disreputable cousin into various questionable ventures with the oily charm of a junk car dealer from the wrong side of town. He sees the reunion as a business networking opportunity.
The three eccentric old aunts played by veteran British actresses of the 40's and 50's, at least one of whom starred in a Jack Hawkins film. Anton Lesser was the historian who uncovered many of the family secrets and lies which affect future generations and some of which are a repeated trait.
The performances are brilliant. My only reason for not rating this film a 10 is that the back stories somehow seem to interrupt the flow of the present day story. I realize that the stories of the past are essential to the narrative, yet they seemed out of place.
I will definitely be viewing this for a second time.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This was perhaps the best BBC drama I have watched in a very long time.
Matthew Macfadyen was brilliant, capturing the character of an outsider
who desperately wants to belong to a family he's never really been a
part of. The best scenes are those where we see his profound
embarrassment at the conduct of his father and those where we see him
interacting with the seemingly perfect members of the family in who's
circle he attempts to install himself. One winces when he, raised in a
relatively middle class environment, but part of an upper class
extended family gives away those roots in the manner of many middle
class people who yearn to be part of the other set especially when he
becomes aware of what he has just said or done after the fact.It brings
to life, in a very subtle fashion, the continuing dark side of the
Britsih class system.
Matthew has managed, in his shy gestures and boyish smile to bring to life a character on the fringes who just wants to fit in and fix everything, but who's task ends up destroying the relationships he so wanted to maintain.
I was totally enthralled. I thought this was one of the best things I have seen on Television. I still think about it several years later and will certainly get a copy to keep in my collection to watch again. But not too often - I don't want to spoil a good thing by over familiarity. Since I first saw Perfect Strangers I have sought out everything Stephen Poliakoff has written. I have not been disappointed with the quality of his other plays and television writing. He is simply brilliant. In the Perfect Stranger the cast was Perfect with the mood evocative of an earlier gentler more refined age. Understated, sad, interesting nostalgia but never overly sentimental nor cloying. The sort of thing which British television is so good at. It would be unfair to pick out any particular aspect for praise as it was all so good. Having said that however I must mention Claire Skinner. I don't know why she has not become an A list Superstar. Maybe that is her own choice, but I would rather go and see her in anything she does rather than see any of the other so-called superstars. Maybe she is just famous on British television but if so Amercian television and Hollywood have certainly missed the boat by not grabbing her.
This drama is 4+ hours long but it held us in its power throughout. It was
not originally intended to be seen all in one day, of course, but is so
gripping that if you have it all you'll want to see it all. Some of
Britain's finest stage and TV talent was gathered for this - the BBC must
have known they were on to a good thing when they saw the script - and that
talent is deployed masterfully.
It bears a passing resemblance to "Shooting the Past", another Poliakoff piece for which we have a lot of time. But Perfect Strangers is better. The story is more plausible, the script is better and the characters more rounded.
As far as TV drama goes, this is about as good as it gets. Highly recommended.
I am approaching 40, and have a family of my own. I also recall
memories from my childhood; family celebrations; weddings;
One recalls all those people that seemed immortal. One's parents,captured in photographs; cousins whom one has not seen for years. Then in middle age, you meet people to whom you are related. but have not seen for years. You see pictures of those that are no longer with you.
Perfect Strangers is a sublime drama, one which evokes much of the above and so much more. The central performances are touching and evocative. Matthew Mcfadyen is totally convincing as Daniel, and he is well supported by Michael Gambon, Lindsay Duncan, Claire Skinner and Toby Stephens.
Stephen Poliakoff creates a memorable drama, more remarkable in an age of instant TV, reality TV and vapid game shows. Lose yourself in the characters, and the charming, touching story. I dare you not to shed a tear, not to be drawn into the images, the music....in an all to shallow world, this reminds us of what drama can do. Enchanting.
I caught this movie on a re-run on BBC America. It was late at night. the movie caught me unawares and drew me in to its web like a spider might. I spent the next several hours amazed at the tenderness of the story, the sadness of the characters and he sheer thrill of discovery just over the threshold. If only American TV could be so good. Ever so often you discover a jewel, Perfect Strangers (Almost Strangers in America on BBC America) is one of those jewels. It has a strong central character, plenty of supporting characters and people you find yourself rooting for. Secretly, we all have family members like these. A familiar face on a new wardrobe. Watch the movie. You will not forget it.
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