Michael Gambon plays Elliot
Michael Gambon, who plays Elliot in Joe's Palace, laughs that when Stephen Poliakoff calls, he never says no. Having previously starred in two of the writer-director's most memorable works, The Lost Prince and Perfect Strangers, the distinguished actor had no hesitation in assenting to Stephen's offer to play the lead in his latest piece.
The 66-year-old, indisputably one of the finest actors of his generation, begins by paying the writer-director the highest possible compliment: "Stephen is the only person I would work for in television. All actors scramble to work with him, he's a complete one-off!
"He is such a wonderful writer. I love the complexity of his characters, they all have such richness. He is brilliant at dialogue, too. His sentences are never predictable; they are never quite what you expect them to be.
"Lots of different things are going on at any one time, there is a lot of subtext, and the characters never quite say what they are thinking. It's very layered writing that works on several different levels. That sort of subtlety is very rare these days, and it should be cherished."
The actor, who has starred in such outstanding films as Harry Potter, Gosford Park, The Insider, Longitude, Sleepy Hollow, The Wings Of The Dove, Amazing Grace, Maigret, and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover, plays an elderly, wealthy recluse in Joe's Palace.
He is plagued by a sense that his father has amassed the family fortune in a nefarious way. He recruits Joe (newcomer Danny Lee Wynter), the caretaker of his opulent central London mansion, to help him get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding his father's possibly ill-gotten gains.
Michael, a multi-award-winning stage performer, has been awarded a knighthood for his services to acting. He outlines what makes his character in Joe's Palace so fascinating. "He's a very rich man who appears to be a very easy-going bloke. But underneath the surface, he is deeply troubled by questions about where his father's money comes from.
"Elliot smells a rat, and he can't rest until he's solved this puzzle. At first, when he finds out where the money has originated, he falls apart, but then he manages to pull himself together again. It's a riveting story of one man's journey into his family history."
The actor, who is soon to be seen on BBC One with Dame Judi Dench in the period drama, Cranford, and opposite Emma Thompson in Julian Jarrold's big-screen version of Brideshead Revisited, reflects that family history is a recurrent topic in Stephen's work.
"Look at Shooting The Past and Perfect Strangers," muses Michael, who has recently endeared himself to a whole new generation as Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter movies. "They contain the same theme of the past influencing the present. Stephen has a very rich past himself.
"In conversation, he just drops in these great anecdotes about his Russian Jewish family. Did you know that his grandfather witnessed the Russian Revolution in Red Square?
"Or that his father invented the doctor's bleeper? You're about to drop dead and then suddenly the doctor gets bleeped and he rushes in to save you. What a great contribution to science that invention is!"
Michael goes on to praise Stephen as a director: "He's an inspired filmmaker. He creates a really good atmosphere on set. He's great company, he loves to gossip. He also has a terrific sense of humour, he's got a wonderfully infectious laugh, like a hyena! But above all, he's incredibly hard-working, he's totally immersed in his work."
The actor was also drawn to the very touching relationship in Joe's Palace between the ageing Elliot and his naïve young protégé Joe. "Elliot really likes Joe because of his absolute openness. Joe is extremely unsophisticated and in that he is different from most people Elliot meets."