Written and directed by Stephen Poliakoff (b 1952), Shooting the Past first aired on the BBC back in January 1999. It tells the story of the staff employed at The Fallon Library, a vast photographic collection housed in an 18th-century country house on the outskirts of London. The library has survived over the decades largely thanks to the philanthropy of the house’s previous owners. But when the house is purchased by American developers who plan to convert the house into an “American Business School for the 21st century”, the future of the library and its collection is threatened.
The curator of the library, Marilyn (played by the lovely Lyndsay Duncan) tries to convey a sense of the importance of the collection to Anderson (Liam Cunningham) the man charged with making sure the renovation of the house and the closure of the library happen ASAP. She does this by showing him a pictorial history of a little Jewish girl separated from her parents in an increasingly anti-Semitic Berlin.
One of the images shown is of the girl stopping to look at an Olympia typewriter booth …
In Episode Two, Marilyn accidentally drops a box of photographs.
One of the photographs she picks off the floor is this one …
Two city typists at work in an open air swimming pool during a hot summer.
Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images. Circa 1937
The downfall of the library is due, in part, to its failure to move with the times and embrace new technology. To reinforce this idea, Marilyn and her secretary, Veronica (Billie Whitelaw) wear tweed suits.
Veronica is also briefly shown in the background, typing on an electric typewriter …
“Oswald, did you at any time receive a letter giving us notice of the new owners’ intention to close the library?”
“No, absolutely not.”
As “dusty and un-computerised” as they are, the staff at the library do at least have a fax machine …
And it’s because of this new-fangled gadget that the underhandedness of Marilyn’s second-in-command, Oswald Bates (Timothy Spall) is revealed, when the Americans fax through a copy of the letter that Oswald has previously denied ever receiving or replying to.
In an effort to avoid redundancies, the staff of the library are interviewed by Anderson for possible alternative employment. Oswald sabotages his chances of a job however, by showing complete contempt for the Americans and making several threats to burn down the building.
“Is the man lying, or is he completely insane? Or is he just an arsehole that can’t stop farting about?
But sometimes people who break the rules, sometimes, however irritating they are, they can do things that others can’t.
(Like what?) Like answering the question: Can you photograph a lie? Lying is interesting, isn’t it? You often think people are lying, but can that moment be frozen, be caught, there in a photograph? Not like on TV programs, like Nixon lying, where it’s the whole general impression, but the very moment it comes out.
Can a still, neat image catch that forever, as it escapes out of a person?”
Marilyn implores Anderson to give her more time to find a home for the collection and he agrees. A week, he says, but no extension beyond that, and there’s a condition: Oswald (“the guy’s a fruitcake”) must be off the premises tonight and never return to this house.
Marilyn has no option but to agree to the condition. An advertising agency shows interest in buying the collection, but eventually they reject the deal for the reason that only 7% of the collection is in colour.
Marilyn uses her feminine wiles to try and convince Anderson to buy the collection himself, but he turns her down, refusing to be distracted from his Business School objectives.
Seeing no future for himself, Oswald has only one option left, suicide – a fate which is foreshadowed by his narration right from the start, as he videotapes his “suicide note” …
Oswald survives his suicide attempt, but is never the same again. Poliakoff’s three-part drama never fully recovers either, failing to rescale the heights it reached in Episode One.
While the pictorial story of the Jewish girl (that Oswald put together) is plausible, in Episode Three, the pictorial story Marilyn tries to piece together from the clues Oswald left behind about Anderson’s mother and grandmother, isn’t.
Thanks to Anderson’s intervention, the collection is eventually purchased by an American photographic agency. It’s a happy-yet-sad ending, given what happened to poor Oswald.
As Oswald himself said: “I’d rather see the building burn down.”