Summer of Rockets – a semi-autobiographical drama from Stephen Poliakoff set in Britain during the Cold War – is coming to BBC2 this spring. Starring Keeley Hawes, Toby Stephens, Timothy Spall and Linus Roache, it is a tale of family, espionage… and bespoke hearing aids.
Here’s everything you need to know about the drama:
When is Summer of Rockets on TV?
Summer of Rockets began on Wednesday 22nd May at 9pm on BBC2 and continues on Wednesdays at 9pm.
The full series is now available on BBC iPlayer.
Is there a trailer for Summer of Rockets?
Yes! Take a look at the trailer, below…
What is Summer of Rockets about?
The drama covers the “tumultuous” summer of 1958, as “fear and excitement for the future permeates the lives of all”. At the centre of the story is Samuel Petrukhin (Toby Stephens), a Russian Jewish émigré and inventor of bespoke hearing aids who was inspired by writer Stephen Poliakoff’s own father. After befriending Kathleen Shaw (Keeley Hawes) and her Tory MP husband Richard Shaw (Linus Roache) and getting to know the impressive Lord Arthur Wallington (Timothy Spall), he is approached by the secret service.
According to the BBC’s synopsis: “The series follows Samuel and his family, wife Miriam and children Hannah and Sasha, as he is approached by MI5 to demonstrate his work. Yet it is not his inventions the operatives require – instead Samuel is tasked with the secret mission of obtaining information about his charming, newly acquired friends… As Samuel’s life becomes more and more intertwined with his mission, how far is he willing to let things unravel for his cause? And who can he truly trust?”
The show is set against the backdrop of Britain’s first hydrogen bomb test, and the Russians beating the Americans in the first phase of the space race. Everything seems to be shifting as technology and space exploration open up new possibilities, but over everything hangs the threat of the Cold War and nuclear catastrophe.
“It was the most extraordinary year, 1958,” Poliakoff said at the BFI & Radio Times Television Festival. “A pivotal year in my mind, because it was framed – that summer began with debutantes, the last to be presented to the Queen, the last time she received the debutantes in that extraordinary period ceremony. It ended, that summer, with the Notting Hill riots in late August. 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 first communication satellites. The beginning of the modern world, really. So change was in the air, unrest was in the air.”
Lost in Space star Toby Stephens leads the cast as inventor Samuel Petrukhin, while Bodyguard’s Keeley Hawes plays politician’s wife Kathleen Shaw – a woman with secrets.
“Enigmatic is a good word,” Keeley Hawes said at the BFI & Radio Times Television Festival. “Even from the first episode, we can see that something is going on with Kathleen…”
Homeland’s Linus Roache is Kathleen’s husband Richard Shaw, and Mr Turner star Timothy Spall plays Lord Wallington.
Lily Sacofsky (Bancroft) stars as Samuel’s daughter Hannah, alongside Lucy Cohu (Ripper Street) as his wife Miriam, Gary Beadle (Grantchester) as his right-hand man Courtney, Mark Bonnar (Line Of Duty) as Field, Ronald Pickup (The Crown) as Walter and Rose Ayling-Ellis (Reverberations) as Esther.
Full details of filming locations have yet to be revealed, but executive producer Helen Flint has revealed that a key scene in episode one was actually filmed on location outside Buckingham Palace in London.
“So you inevitably know when you get a Stephen script that you’re going to be inside a house, but you’re also going to be outside of Buckingham Palace at four o’clock in the morning,” she said. “With all those girls getting ready and not being able to get them on the set until seven o’clock in the morning, and then all the tourists coming at ten o’clock in the morning on a Sunday. It was terrifying…”
Who is writer Stephen Poliakoff?
Poliakoff is a screenwriter known for penning period dramas Close to the Enemy and Dancing on the Edge, as well as the series Perfect Strangers, Friends and Crocodiles, and Frontiers, and the films The Lost Prince and Shooting the Past.
Summer of Rockets is described as “semi-autobiographical”, as Stephen Poliakoff offers “a personal insight into this unforgettable time in British history, through a lens very close to his heart.”
Samuel (Stephens), an inventor and designer of bespoke hearing aids, was based on the writer’s father Alexander Poliakoff (1910-1996). Samuel is a brilliant but slightly scatty man who runs a family business which employs many deaf workers. The company is struggling, but Samuel hopes to turn their fortunes around with his latest invention: the “staff locator”, an early form of pager. Its first use is at St Thomas’s Hospital in London.
“The Toby Stephens, Samuel, side of this first part especially is largely true,” Poliakoff said. “My father and grandfather invented the pager… they went to St Thomas’s and there were all these bells ringing, and these tannoy announcements, and they said, ‘We could do this better for you.’ They created the staff locator, as they called it, and that was used by St Thomas’s.
“But it didn’t catch on very quickly at all… people felt it was impertinent, to be beckoned by a bleep.”
He added: “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 had thought of that before, that you could actually switch it up and down, it seems amazing now that nobody thought of it. But that meant their hearing aids were slightly more expensive than everybody else’s, so that was a problem. And they weren’t brilliant businessmen, they weren’t ruthless businessmen.”
In the drama, Samuel’s most famous client is Winston Churchill – but he is horrified to learn the real reason why he was dropped as the Prime Minister’s hearing aid provider during the Second World War: he was a Russian, and therefore considered a potential spy.
This, too, is based on Poliakoff’s own family history.
“The very surprising element that’s true, is that they did do Winston Churchill’s hearing aid,” the screenwriter said. “They were suspected of bugging his hearing aid, they were followed and put under surveillance – although I didn’t know that until 2007 when it was revealed on secret government papers, that were released under the 50-year rule. So, my father never knew that.
“Those elements haunted me and I decided to use them as part of a larger ranging [story]… But it does have a personal element all the way through. And the boarding school is very closely based on my boarding school.”
Samuel’s young son, Sasha Petrukhin, is played by Toby Woolf in the drama – and in the first episode he finds himself sent away to a draconian boarding school. This was based on Stephen Poliakoff’s own experiences. “The school itself was so Dickensian I had to water it down because I thought it would seem so, so over the top, my school,” he revealed.
Poliakoff, who was born in 1952, also drew on his memories of growing up under the shadow of the Cold War and mutually assured destruction.
“I think even as a child I remember at that time that the fear of nuclear war was so strong, so palpable, in the air, that something might happen,” he said. “And there’s these huge images of the Russians parading their big missiles on their Mayday parades, and they were shown on television, and… a lot of the population had a telly by now, which was very recent after the coronation.
“And so they saw these images for the first time from around the world, rather than hearing about it on the radio, and it was very frightening.
“And they were, we have echoes of it now – slight twitches of the Cold War coming back. Especially this country in relation to Russia after the Salisbury poisonings, and maybe they interfered with democracy. So, those shadows are coming back a little bit, but they were so strong at that time. And then there was the enormous paranoia about anybody that had come from Russia at any time comparatively recently was under suspicion, possibly up to no good, possibly up to espionage – and that’s why my father fell under suspicion.”