I finally got round to watching Summer of Rockets, Stephen Poliakoff’s latest BBC serial, and the first since Close to the Enemy in 2016. It is a more intimate piece of work than some: The Lost Prince for example he set in Buckingham Palace to cover the outbreak of the Great War and what followed, which is a grand theme, but in Summer of Rockets Poliakoff confines himself to a season and, while there is a grand theme and threat of war, it is the personal which predominates.
The series is available as a box set on the BBC iPlayer and is worth a look.
Poliakoff is rightly renowned as a playwright, and this is his most personal work to date, to the extent that it has been described as semi-autobiographical, for the central character, Samuel Petrukhin, is based on Polikoff’s father, with the detail an amalgam of his father and his grandfather and in the frightened little boy, Sasha, we see the writer himself. The writer is quite explicit about the origins of the characters in his article on BBC Media Centre.
In Summer of Rockets, grand politics is played out, but through the filter of the personal. The scene is set in the summer of 1957 (which was the summer following the Suez disaster, and the beginning of the Macmillan ministry, and the summer after Khrushchev crushed the Hungarian Revolution). It is also the summer after the Gold Coast became independent as Ghana, beginning the dismantling of the Empire. The Cold War was very real and close and the threat of nuclear obliteration hovered in the background even as the summer parties continued. The fear is an explicit background theme and motivator, but not central, we eventually find.
The characters are set up early: Samuel Petrukhin (played by Toby Stevens): entrepreneur, inventor (with all the detail taken from Poliakoff’s father), and signalled as a good egg from the beginning; Miriam his wife; Hannah his daughter, a reluctant debutante; and his quiet, inquisitive son Sasha.
Petrukhin is an outsider: a Russian and a Jew, and in trade. He craves high society, but cannot be accepted, except through his accidental friendship with the Shaw family, the ultimate insiders. This status as an outsider, locked out of the echelons of society he observes, is the major dynamic to the plot.
Richard Shaw (played by Linus Roache) is an MP and well regarded, a war hero, with connections in all the highest places, and his wife Kathleen, playing the perfect hostess, living the summer idyll in a grant country house (where writers like to place secrets in dark corners). Kathleen Shaw is played by Keeley Hawes, who is barely off the screen these days, but the screen does not seem to mind. Here too is the genial Lord Wallington (Timothy Spall, brilliant as ever), the dark genius of we know not what.
The third node is Field of MI5 (Mark Bonnar), who has decided that something is going on at the Shaw household.
Much the plot is in Samuel Petrukhin’s observations – as an eternal outsider ever tapping at the window, he observes from the outside and serves as the voice and ear of the audience. At the same time his children observe at their own levels and are confided in at points by grown-ups, again serving as proxies for the otherwise puzzled viewer. This is a technique Poliakoff has used before – The Lost Prince was about the events leading to and through the First World War with the prince of the title as an observer and an innocent confidant.
Interestingly, even with a large cast and some wide settings, Poliakoff manages to keep the feel intimate.
The characters set up, the plot is drip-fed to us, as each side confides in the Outsider. MI5 is full of Soviet agents, according to Lord Wallington, who simply wishes to expose them; and the Shaws are the centre of a plot to launch a coup d’état according to Field. The credibility of each side ebbs and flows as the episodes progress, and Petrukhin is forced one way and the other, by his need to prove his patriotism, his social climbing, his commercial dependence and his friendship with the Shaw family. In this tension flows the plot, as Petrukhin lurches between the two sides, never knowing whom to trust.
We now know, years after the events, that MI5 was indeed stuffed from top to bottom with Soviet agents and useful idiots. Many off the failures of those years and the loss of national confidence can be put down to the poisonous influence of Communists in the system. That year, 1957, was a turning point in a way – many vocal Communists in literature and academia changed their opinions radically when the Soviets crushed the Hungarians in the winter of 1956 but the true believers stayed even when the nature of Communist brutality was clear, and in the Summer of 1957 they were in place deep within the state.
In reaction, was there a faction ready to overawe the government, stand against dissolution of the Empire and purge socialism from the system? Quite possibly, though nothing came of it. This was a tense age in much of Europe and Africa, but surely not in the perfect English countryside? Maybe not then as portrayed, but in the 1970s there were voices who spoke of creating private armies to keep order as the Wilson government appeared to be sliding towards a mixture of totalitarianism and anarchy. The horrid images in Anthony Burgess’s 1985 seemed close to a future reality.
In the drama, Petrukhin is dragged back and forth, unable to know whom to believe, little events leading to sudden suspicions and changes in direction – the MI5 dog who understands Russian commands, the General who spits anti-Semitic tropes, the attempted assassination, but of whom and by whom? The audience is kept in doubt just as much as Petrukhin, its voice.
This being the BBC, you do not expect the Commies to be the baddies in the end (and in any case their influence was too undercover to make for good drama). It is a beautifully constructed piece for all that, helped by the writer’s personal investment in the emotion.