Poliakoff’s debutante - actress Lily Sacofsky on making her mark in BBC drama Summer of Rockets

'The thing I like about Stephen’s work is how slow it is — in a wonderful way'


Until now, antisemitism in Stephen Poliakoff’s drama Summer of Rockets has been an undercurrent, conveyed in a barbed aside or an arched eyebrow. But in next Wednesday’s penultimate episode, it springs to the fore.

The series about an Anglo-Jewish family caught up in Cold War espionage in the late 1950s is Poliakoff’s most personal, which draws on his own background: an inventor father, an émigré from Stalinist Russia, and a mother descended from Jewish aristocracy (the first Lord Swaythling). Little Sacha, packed off to ghastly boarding school, reflects the playwright’s experience.

But there is one member of Samuel Petrukhin’s family who is entirely invented, Sacha’s older sister, Hannah, the reluctant debutante who is being prepared for “the season” — the party circuit with its promise of eligible bachelors.

“I didn’t know what a debutante was,” admits the actor who portrays her, 24-year old Lily Sacofsky, who in contrast to Hannah’s posh English, speaks in the down-to-earth accent of her native Manchester. It’s a large part: Hannah has an unexpected hand in the denouement of the main plot but is also the focus of a portrait of Britain on the cusp of social change.

It is only Sacofsky’s second TV role — she was a murder victim entangled in a lesbian fling with a dodgy cop in ITV’s crime drama Bancroft last year. But Poliakoff has a record of spotting talent; Emily Blunt and Ruth Wilson appeared in his plays early in their careers.

Sacofsky grew up in a mixed household, her mother Ruth from a Midlands coal-mining family, her father Julian from a Northern Jewish clan. “We go and do Passover and weddings,” she says. “We are involved in our family, but at home, [Judaism] has never been part of our upbringing.”

When she studied for her BA at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, “my zeida came to see all my plays. My bobba and zeida have been my biggest support.”

Her first part, fresh out of drama school in 2015, was Vera in Turgenevs’ Three Days in the Country at the National Theatre — “a wonderful debut,” said the Observer. Its director Patrick Marber, she says, was “such a great person to work with.”

But “I had to move back to Manchester because I couldn’t afford to live in London”. She landed a part in the stage adaptation of Howard Jacobson’s The Mighty Waltzer at the local Royal Exchange Theatre — as Lorna Peachey, the blonde, non-Jewish object of Oliver Waltzer’s desire across the table tennis table.

But Summer of Rockets is clearly her biggest break. She was back in London working as a teacher with special needs children when she got the call to audition. She was already familiar with some of Poliakoff’s writing because “my parents adore it. I remember the Christmas before, my mum and dad gave me Shooting the Past. ‘You will love it,’ they said. I think it’s my favourite of his works.”

Poliakoff’s drama, first screened 20 years ago, about an endangered photolibrary, includes the story about a little Jewish girl in Nazi Berlin — coincidentally called Lily.

“The thing I like about Stephen’s work is how slow it is — in a wonderful way,” she says.

Poliakoff’s gentle rhythm building into painting-like tableaux contrast with the helter-skelter pace of much TV drama.

“As soon as I read the script of the first episode,” she says, “ I loved the idea of Hannah, because she is an outsider and she doesn’t quite fit. And I really relate to that. I don’t quite feel, ever since moving to London and becoming an actor, it’s quite my world.”

Hannah only attends etiquette classes in order please her Anglophile father keen for her to seal her place in the upper echelons of English society. She would rather read books and talk current affairs.

Poliakoff told her he’d never written a character quite like Hannah, she recalls, “She is such a fascinating young woman. The purpose she serves is to represent that we are right on the verge of the 60s and very soon the way women live is going to change.

“The ‘season’ is this world you almost can’t believe — it’s so far from away the liberated upbringing I have had. Hannah sees it as a way of neutralising her, of turning her into a wife. And it sits horribly with her. How can I be thinking about how to sit on a chair [in etiquette class], she thinks, when people are worrying about nuclear explosions.

“She wants to be around the adult table rather than shoved into a room with lots of sweaty girls trying to get married. But she has this huge pull, which is her family. We can all relate that — not wanting to let your family down.”

The Petrukhins’ Judaism is glanced — for example, in a photo of Mrs Petrukhin lighting Chanucah candles.

“We decided they were a religious family, that followed certain rules but not all of them.”

Sacofsky’s natural blonde hair was thought too fair for Hannah. “There were conversations about how we just don’t associate Jewish people with being blonde, which is strange really. Because my bobba is really fair-haired.”

As for antisemitism, she says, it is not something she has personally experienced, probably “because people don’t know I am Jewish. But it is something I have heard a lot about through having a Jewish family. I know my dad had difficulties at school.”

She remains “incredibly proud of my heritage” and finds it “shocking” that antisemitism is “still prevalent. It is important we start to tackle and speak about it.”

Her next part is something Samuel Petrukhin would surely enjoy. She is filming for that most English thing, the TV costume drama adapted from a literary novel — Jane Austen’s unfinished work, Sanditon, which is due to air on ITV next year.


Summer of Rockets continues on BBC2 next Wednesday or can be seen as boxset on iPlayer.


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