Summer of Rockets Q&A: Stephen Poliakoff, Keeley Hawes, Lucy Cohn, Helen Flint
In a special Q&A for BBC Two's Summer of Rockets, Stephen Poliakoff describes how real-life elements formed the basis for his new and enticing cold war drama
Poliakoff's father invented the Pager and crafted hearing aids for Winston Churchill. He strived to climb up the social ladder, but was belittled because of his class, race, and nationality. This was exacerbated by his being suspected of bugging Churchill's ear.
Culture Whisper attended a screening of the first episode of Summer of Rockets at the BFI & Radio Times Television Festival. A Q&A followed with Poliakoff, Keeley Hawes, Lucy Cohn, and executive producer Helen Flint.
Stephen Poliakoff and Keeley Hawes on the set of Summer of Rockets
Stephen [Poliakoff], we know that there’s an element of autobiography in this. We are assuming that maybe that little boy [the son, Sasha] and you share some kind of DNA?
Stephen Poliakoff: He’s much braver than me. My father and grandfather invented the Pager. They went to St Thomas’s [Hospital] and there were all these bells ringing and these tannoy announcements. They said ‘we can do this better for you’, and created the ‘staff locators’ they called it. That was used by St Thomas’s, didn’t catch on very quickly at all. People felt it was impertinent to be beckoned by bleep.
The main element that’s true is that they did do Winston Churchill’s hearing aid, they were suspected of bugging his hearing aid, they were followed and put under surveillance. Those elements haunted me.
The Petrukins, closely modelled on Poliakoff's family
Why set it precisely in 1958?
SP: It was the most extraordinary year, a sort of pivotal year in my mind. That summer began with the debutantes being the last to be presented to the queen. It ended, that summer, with the Notting Hill riots.
And all through it, these rockets were being launched by both the Russians and the Americans, and the first satellites were going into space – the beginning of the modern world, really. Change was in the air, unrest was in the air.
Alongside ideas about progress and society changing, fundamental to that is the role of women. Keeley [Hawes], your character is possibly – at this stage – the most enigmatic.
Keeley Hawes: Yes, enigmatic is a good word. Even from the first episode, we can see that something is going on with Kathleen. I read the scripts, and I was lucky enough to read five before we started. I just fell in love with Kathleen. She’s front-of-house, you know, she’s a politician’s wife. She’s incredibly important in their little world. But she’s still a woman who stays at home and doesn’t have a job.
Lucy Cohu: [1958 was an] extraordinary time for women. There was so much energy. [Our characters] represent the older generation, and it’s a beautiful piece about youth in all shapes and forms.
Keeley Hawes plays Kathleen
Helen [Flint], you’ve worked with Stephen since the turn of the century. If you look at this production, and other Stephen Poliakoff productions - they’re very often period, very often involving wonderful locations, many people seamed with many people…
Helen Flint: Yes, the beauty of working with Stephen is that whenever you crack open a script you absolutely know that his ambition is going to be impossible. And so, you have to find a way to take his magical words and put them on the screen.
SP: Even as a child, I remember that time – the fear of nuclear war was so strong, was so palpable in the air. There were these huge images of the Russians parading their big missiles on their Mayday parades and they were shown on television. It was very frightening.
We have echoes of it now, like twitches of the Cold War coming back – especially in this country in relation to Russia after the Salisbury poisonings. Those shadows are coming back a little bit, but they were so strong in that time.
And then there was the enormous paranoia about anybody that had come from Russia – possibly up to no good, possibly up to espionage. That’s why my father fell under suspicion.
'That's why my father fell under suspicion'
There’s a real sense of anxiety that runs through the whole screenplay.
SP: Yes. That it is a reflection of the time, but also that’s the autobiographical side of it. My father’s business was perilously poised, bankruptcy threatened because they were very ambitious. They created the first hearing aid with a volume control – nobody thought of that before, that you could actually switch it up and down. It seems amazing now that nobody thought of it. That was a feature of my upbringing.
But it was a time of enormous conformity – girls were still meant to dress like their mothers. In Hannah’s character [played by Lily Sarcofsky], through the story we begin to see her rebelling and the whiff of the ‘60s. But that sense of life being very insecure is from my own life, really.
'We begin to see [Hannah] rebelling'
The shadow of the Second World War is still very much present. It is poised between this threat of possible terrifying confrontation ahead and the very real experience of war just before.
SP: The boarding school that I went to was so Dickensian. I had to water it down [for the series] because I thought it would seem so over the top, my school. But there was the shadow of the war and the masters, some of them had been injured in the war. There was a sort of rage that their lives had been so disrupted, and they took it out on the boys.
The son of the family, Sasha, is based on Poliakoff himself
How important do you think it is to bring antisemitism into drama these days?
SP: Antisemitism does recur in this piece. There’s an important plot development that involves it later on in the series. There are very few Jews in British drama, for some reason. Since the death of the great Jack Rosenthal, we haven’t had a lot of Jewish character portrayed. They’re often portrayed in orthodox settings, like the recent Rachel Weisz movie [Disobedience].
Whereas there’s a whole other strand of the Jewish émigré story, of people wanting to assimilate – and that’s where Samuel comes from, where my father comes from. It’s rarely dramatised in British stories. Obviously, antisemitism is a huge issue at the moment and a terribly worrying one. I never thought it would come back in my lifetime in the way that it has.
Summer of Rockets starts on BBC Two at 9pm on Wednesday 22nd May. After airing, the whole series will be available on BBC iPlayer.