Stephen Poliakoff wrote and directed his first drama when he was 12. “At boarding school I put on a comedy thriller about finding cash inside a piano. I called it Notes among the Keys,” he says when we meet in the sparse living room of his west London home. “Unfortunately, I cast myself as the lead. I was one of the world’s worst actors, but it might explain my career path since.”
It might well, as he went on to become one of the UK’s outstanding screen and stage dramatists, winning the Dennis Potter Award at the Baftas in 2002 and Royal Television Society Awards.
Poliakoff creates self-consciously important but never portentous dramas that focus on big, epoch-changing events, often through the prism of troubled families. The Lost Prince (2003) was about the royal household and the outbreak of the First World War. Dancing on the Edge in 2013 dealt with race and class in 1930s society London. Close to the Enemy (2016) tackled Britain’s development of military jets with the help of Nazi scientists.
Poliakoff’s latest, Summer of Rockets, takes place in 1958, just as Britain tests its first hydrogen bomb, the Cold War rages and paranoia pervades the government and security services. It’s in this climate that Samuel Petrukhin, a Russian-born Jewish inventor of hearing aids who counts Winston Churchill among his clients, is approached by a British agent (Mark Bonnar, purring with evil) and asked to spy on his new upper-class friends: MP Richard Shaw, played by Linus Roache, and his troubled wife Kathleen, played by Keeley Hawes.
The couple are suspected of passing secrets to the Soviets, in connivance with Lord Arthur Wallington, a spectacularly sinister Timothy Spall.
“I’m attracted by hinge moments in history,” Poliakoff says. “In this period, the Brits were smarting because of the recent Suez fiasco. They were very conscious that they would become diminished, a laughing stock. There is a comparison with Brexit in that.”
There are many other contemporary resonances in the six-part series, but Summer of Rockets is also a deeply autobiographical work. Samuel is based on Poliakoff’s father Alexander, an electrical engineer, inventor and entrepreneur.
“My father, along with my grandfather, provided Churchill’s hearing aids during his second premiership in the 50s and they were both suspected of bugging him,” Poliakoff reveals. “They didn’t, of course.”
The brutal scenes at the boarding school where Samuel sends his eight-year-old son, Sasha, are essentially Poliakoff’s own childhood experiences. “I haven’t written about it until this moment, but I still mind about it,” he says.
“We were treated with vicious sarcasm all the time and belittled. The headmaster had a wooden leg and he was in constant pain. He used to hit me over the head and say, ‘You’re such a self-righteous little boy.’ I didn’t know what self-righteous meant, but I thought it would probably be best not to ask. I had to tone the school down for the show; it would’ve just been too Dickensian. But it was in lovely surroundings and my father fell in love with that.”
Poliakoff’s father, like Samuel, was besotted by the English upper classes and their lifestyle. “He was impressed by old money,” Poliakoff says, “by beautiful houses that had been in the family for generations, lovely gardens and Rolls-Royces, although he couldn’t afford one himself. He liked all the people I am profoundly suspicious of; that old, English elite. Keeley’s character, Kathleen, is the personification of somebody he would’ve been drawn to, though not necessarily had an affair with.”
Although Poliakoff senior’s wife, Ina, was from the Jewish aristocracy (“When my mother moved in with my father she had to adjust to life without a single servant – she’d never boiled an egg before”), he was desperate to belong to the old-money set. Petrukhin is the same and signs up his 18-year-old daughter, Hannah, for the debutantes’ season (1958 was the last year debutantes were presented to the Queen at court). Hannah, beautiful, headstrong and Jewish, soon attracts resentment.
“I was very aware of the anti-Semitism that was around when I was a boy,” says Poliakoff. “But I never anticipated that all the stereotypical anti-Semitic tropes, like the Rothschilds running the world, would come back. It’s all across Europe and I find it heart-rending. I know a woman in her 90s who was one of the last children put on the boat to Britain to escape the Nazis. She’s a living witness; one of the worst atrocities for many centuries is still within living memory! Schindler’s List [Stephen Spielberg’s film about the Holocaust] educated a certain number of people, but now we’re a quarter of a century on and people are so ignorant. Really, it’s extraordinary.”
Poliakoff is in the Labour Party. He resists claims that the party is institutionally anti-Semitic but laments “cultural insensitivity”. In particular he refers to Jeremy Corbyn’s endorsement of a mural in east London that showed hook-nosed bankers dining on the backs of the poor (an endorsement Corbyn later withdrew).
“It’s perfectly possible to have concerns about anti-Semitism being used, a little bit, to destabilise the current leadership and to also realise the present leadership obviously has a blindness to anti-Semitism,” he says. “Corbyn endorsed that mural, which is one of the most anti-Semitic images I’ve ever seen, and then said he didn’t look at it properly. I mean, a child of four could’ve told you it was anti-Semitic.”
Poliakoff places Corbyn’s confusion in the wider context of British ignorance about Jewish people’s appearance, which, he says, is partly the fault of television. “Since [writer] Jack Rosenthal died, there’s not been a lot of Jewish drama on telly. The Jewish people tend to either wear skull-caps or they are Jewish mothers saying, ‘Come in and eat this lovely loaf I have just made.’
“Years ago I wrote a play based on my father and grandfather’s time in Russia during the revolution. One critic wrote in a newspaper review, ‘Alan Howard is very good, although he is about as Jewish as a ham sandwich.’ Alan was half Jewish! It was because he was blond and people think there are no blond Jews. Lily Sacofsky, who plays Hannah in Summer of Rockets, is half Jewish and actually ash blonde.”
In one of the series’ most striking moments, Hannah, surrounded by debs in silk and taffeta gowns, is expected to curtsy before a giant cake at a Mayfair ball. The scene, which simultaneously captures the allure and infantilism of the upper classes, is pure Poliakoff, visually lush and loaded with political and social meaning.
“I remember being told by various senior executives about ten years ago that high-end drama was doomed because it was so expensive,” he says. “Now it’s the dominant art form in the world.” So, the writer of Notes among the Keys made the right career decision? “Yes, I’m thinking of another story right now.”
Summer of Rockets will air in six parts on BBC2, starting on Wednesday 22nd May at 9pm and will be available on BBC iPlayer as a box set immediately after episode one