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Stephen Poliakoff: My new BBC drama is my most personal yet

Summer of Rockets, starring Keeley Hawes, Timothy Spall and Claire Bloom starts on BBC2 next week.

    Keeley Hawes in Summer of Rockets
    Keeley Hawes in Summer of Rockets (Photo: SOPHIE MUTEVELIAN)

    It is a picture of the establishment at leisure, of unruffled gentility. The men have come to Goodwood in top hat and tails and, after the races, families sit down to a picnic.

    But there is a difference about the Petrukhins. In a corner of the tablecloth laid before them, you may just catch sight of an old-style box of Rakusen’s matzah.

    In an JC interview 12 years ago, Stephen Poliakoff — whose new six-part drama Summer of Rockets starts on BBC2 next Wednesday — acknowledged never having attempted a “full-frontal” Jewish film. Not that you would probably ever use “full-frontal” of his work, characterised by its nuanced textures and slowly unfolding story.

    Much of that work over the past 20 years has, he says, been “haunted by the rise of fascism”. His 1999 TV series Shooting the Past, about an endangered photo-library, touched on the fate of a Jewish girl in pre-war Berlin. One of the characters in Perfect Strangers was a Holocaust survivor.

    In his film, Glorious 39, a group of English aristocrats wanted to cut a deal with Hitler. Joe’s Palace featured a twist about Nazi looted art. Dancing on the Edge, about a black jazz band trying to make their name in 1930s Britain, looked at the limits of liberal tolerance. His most recent TV drama, Close to the Enemy, screened in 2016, centred on a German scientist the English wanted to recruit for their post-war jet programme but who was suspected of complicity in war crimes.

    In Summer of Rockets, the Jewish theme is more explicit, set in the late 1950s at the height of the Cold War and inspired by his own family history. Samuel Petrukhin is a Russian Jewish émigré, proud of fitting into English society, who attracts the attention of the security services. Samuel is an inventor of adjustable-volume hearing aids and pagers, as was Poliakoff’s own father, Alexander.

    While the espionage plot is fictional, it draws on “many biographical episodes. My father was a Russian Jew who was very keen to assimiliate and loved everything English”— Georgian architecture, fine wine and country houses. “It was a life he aspired to very much.”

    But the story’s reference to antisemitism could hardly have become more topical when concern about it is now on the rise. When Samuel and his black business associate enter a club to meet a client, the man mutters out of earshot, “Here come the darkie and the Jew”.

    Stephen Poliakoff on set
    Stephen Poliakoff on set (Photo: SOPHIE MUTEVELIAN)

    “The antisemitism story is quite subtle for a long time,” he says. “But later on it plays quite a crucial part. It bubbles slowly to the surface — because I didn’t want it to be relentless.”

    Today, he finds the rise of the populist right in Europe “worrying”, and what has been happening in the Labour Party here, particularly its tardiness in tackling antisemitism, “tragic”.

    “People obviously have been using it to destabilise Jeremy Corbyn, but it is also possible to realise there is a complete blind-spot among the people around him,” he says. “I think the Ken Livingstone attitude — ‘if you are Jewish, you must be rich, therefore you won’t vote for the Labour party’ — is what they think.”

    Charitably, he says, you might attribute part of the problem to historical ignorance, despite the Holocaust still being within living memory. His sister’s mother-in-law was “one of the last people to be got out of Germany. I don’t think people realised how scalded the sensibility of anyone with a Jewish background was. These memories are still indelible for most families.”

    Generally, Anglo-Jewish experience has rarely been portrayed on the screen, he says, even though there are “lots of wonderful Jewish writers. Howard Jacobson springs to mind, his work has never been dramatised. I thought it would be natural for television.”

    That absence probably reflects the small numbers of British Jews, compared to their American co-religionists but, for whatever reason, no one has “picked up the mantle” of the late Jack Rosenthal.

    At university, contemporaries held the stereotypical view that “if you were Jewish, you either came from an incredibly rich background or your father was in the rag trade”. But as an example of the lack of knowledge of Jews, he says that, when he wanted to introduce matzot on to the set, none of the crew had seen one before.

    His own family certainly does not follow the more typical East End to suburbs route of many Anglo-Jews. Alexander Poliakoff came here in 1924 as a young teenager with his father Joseph, who had “helped to design the first automated telephone exchange in Moscow”. He had co-operated with the Lenin government when there was a mixed economy but Stalin’s rise to power prompted the family to flee, “with one diamond concealed about their luggage. If they had been found, they would have been shot. I wrote a play about some of that, Breaking the Silence, for the RSC many years ago.”

    They had, he says, “to bluff their way to survive. My grandfather was quite a confident character— tall, imposing — my father was a tiny little man. Samuel is a sort of combo of both.”

    The family faced insecurity. Not only did they have to borrow money to start their business in England but they came under the suspicion of the secret services because of their Russian connections. “They had a history of keeping in touch with the Soviet Trade Delegation to do business.”

    An incident in Summer of Rockets is actually true — MI5 intervened behind the scenes to stop them supplying Prime Minister Winston Churchill with hearing aids, which they were “suspected of bugging”. In the play, Samuel learns the reason, although Poliakoff’s father never knew — it came to light only after his death in the archives.

    Like Miriam Petrukhin, Stephen’s mother Ina was from “Jewish aristocracy,” who had been presented as a debutante at court. She was the granddaughter of the first Lord Swaythling, Samuel Montagu, founder of the Federation of Synagogues.

    The illustrious family included Swaythling’s nephew, Viscount Samuel, first Commissioner of Palestine. And, in a JC piece some years ago, Poliakoff recalled grand family Seders in Kensington at the home of Great Aunt Gladys, the Dowager Lady Swaythling, which was “like something out of The Forsyte Saga”.

    His mother Ina’s father, George Montagu, had bought Great Foster’s, “a huge Elizabethan House, near Windsor. It was a bit of a wreck. A bit like Citizen Kane, he poured his whole fortune into it, like a love letter to his wife, my grandmother Florence (who called herself Florenza), till there was no money left.”

    His mother, who had been raised on 40 servants and had never boiled a kettle, found herself at the start of her married life having to learn to cook.

    While his father went to synagogue only occasionally, his mother was more responsible for the family’s Jewish observance. “We did Friday-night, candles, a few mumbled prayers,” he says.

    “We weren’t allowed seafood at all, plus some eccentric things like mushrooms, which my mum would never allow in the house because she had once been poisoned by them.” Poliakoff’s first prawn sandwich, bought in an Army and Navy Store after his O-levels, provided an “incredible sense of freedom. I can still remember sinking my teeth into it”.

    Now 71, he revisits his childhood in the series in the character of Sasha, played by the young Jewish actor Toby Woolf, who gives a “wonderful performance”, alongside a glittering cast that includes Timothy Spall, Keeley Hawes, Toby Stephens, Gary Beadle and, at the age of 88, Claire Bloom, who plays a grand dame.

    Like the young Poliakoff, Sasha is the lone Jewish boy at his preparatory boarding school in the country, despatched by his father to be inducted in the ways of the English gentry. His own school, where teachers hit boys with hairbrushes and wielded “slashing sarcasm”, was actually worse than its fictional equivalent. “I used to wake up frightened every morning.”

    It harboured racist attitudes. “We stopped playing football against schools because they had people from ethnic backgrounds in their team.” Though his father was “quite liberal,” he says, “like Samuel, he was bewitched by the beautiful Queen Anne building the school was in. Underneath this gorgeous surface and beautiful grounds lay darkness.”

    Exposing the darkness beneath the seemingly calm and solid surface is a recurring theme in his works. The English country manor in Summer of Rockets may seem the epitome of enduring tranquillity but secrets gather around it.

    While he still writes for the theatre, he has focused on television in the past couple of decades — “the dominant force at the moment”. He loves its democratic reach. You “can’t judge from appearances” who is going to like your work, he says, “like the football fans I once encountered on a train to Newcastle. They asked me what I did and when I told them they said: ‘I saw that’. I love that.”

     

    Summer of Rockets is on BBC2 on May 22

     

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