Did we like it?
Like all of Steven Poliakoff’s opuses, Joe’s Palace was exquisitely shot, delved about in and caressed the depths of human emotions and was sumptuously slow without ever appearing ponderous – but it was lacking, a cohesive, coherent core.
What was good about it?
• Because of the rather muddled, opaque themes that ran through the drama, we’re unsure what Poliakoff was trying to tell us. However, we saw that the obsession with routine and the way this can fray and erode the joy from someone’s life appeared to be a central theme.
• Elliot Graham (Michael Gambon) was a reclusive billionaire who owned an opulent London mansion that he refused to live in because he was unsure how its purchase had been funded by the wealth he inherited from his father. As a consequence, he cut a rather forlorn figure who would peer out from his smaller residence across the road, or creep about its numerous dusty rooms, in one instance surprising the similarly wandering Joe.
• Gambon brilliantly conveyed Graham’s phobia of social contact when he attended a photo shoot for the richest men in the country where he stumbled and bumbled over his words eventually making an utter fool of himself, before scrambling out of the building in an act of abasing self-ejection not seen since Alan Partridge fled the BBC building with a knob of cheese skewered on a fork.
• And it was Graham’s maladroitness that fuelled his friendship with the equally alienated Joe, a teenager who took a job as the ‘security guard’ at Graham’s mansion. And it was the incremental forging of their comradeship that was the most engaging plotline of the drama. Both were alienated for varying reasons, and both found comfort in the other’s loneliness; although Graham was far more conscious of his isolation than Joe, perhaps having endured it for much longer.
• Joe (the impressive Danny Lee Wynter) was an outcast and spent his days dreamily gazing out from the balcony of the council flat he shared with his mum. Wynter managed to portray Joe as a blank canvas for Graham to use as a tool to break out from his soul-destroying routine. When Graham asked Joe to buy him some meat from the delicatessen, Joe ordered a novel selection that encouraged Graham to trust him more, almost as if Graham were blind and Joe was his new pair of eyes for gazing out on the world in all its pretty new colours.
• Rupert Penry-Jones as the scheming/sincere cabinet minister Richard Reece, who used the mansion as a place to conduct an affair with married lobbyist Charlotte (Kelly Reilly). Richard would lavishly praise Joe for seemingly innocuous deeds such as “You look great at your desk, Joe”, while continuing to bring other women other than Charlotte back to the mansion. But Joe has developed a crush on Charlotte and is broken out of his routine when he decides to interrupt Richard with a fake message that Graham is on his way to the mansion and Richard must leave. Yet, as Richard explained to Joe, he was not a mendacious, nasty piece of work but someone who worked hard who occasionally needed a release from the treadmill of public life; proving this when he called Joe over when he passed him in the street in his ministerial motorcade.
• The nobility of Penry-Jones in his efforts to raise money for Children In Need to appear naked in as many shows as possible during one week.
What was bad about it?
• The lack of a clarity on what Joe’s Palace was actually trying to say left many of the scenes redundant and tedious. It was epitomised when Graham and Joe stumble upon a group of dancers merrily salsa-ing away in the middle of a park – were they meant to symbolise the freedom of people not bound into a crushing routine, were they a nod to Dennis Potter surrealism, where they a spot of rhythmic frenetic movement to break up the one-paced script? With Poliakoff you try to peer beneath the surface veneer and be rewarded with some gem of insight, but here the water was just too muddy; it was never transparent or even translucent was going on, but worst of all, you didn’t care.
• Making Joe monosyllabic for much of the piece (half his dialogue was either “yes” or “no”) was a typically brave move by Poliakoff. However, the result was that you really didn’t care that much about Joe; you felt no pangs of sympathy when Richard was buttering him up so he’d keep quiet about his weekly assignations, no sense of imperilment when the vagrant chased Joe about the mansion armed with a knife, and there was no sense of euphoria when Joe stopped Graham from shooting himself after he discovered where his father’s wealth came from.
• Some of the dialogue and symbolism was a little clumsy, something we don’t expect in a Poliakoff masterwork, such as Graham’s sanguine, jittery rant towards his fellow billionaires about how they don’t pay any tax, and when Joe invites a homeless man back to the mansion to contrast the disparity between people shivering on the streets against huge palaces standing empty in the more salubrious districts of London.