This was fascinating. I was expecting John le Carre, but it was more Antonia Forest. I’m sure there’s plenty of spy stuff to come, but I’m far more interested in how sweet little Sasha copes with life at his snooty, sadistic boarding school (Stephen Poliakoff apparently hated it) and how his sister Hannah finds the London Season when she thinks that being a debutante’s a load of rubbish. And there was a lot of suspense over a broken shoe outside Buckingham Palace.
It’s called “Summer of Rockets” because it’s set in 1958. Hydrogen bombs, Cold War, etc. But not much has really happened about that yet. Not much has actually happened at all. Apart from some sinister-looking men getting out of a car, the only real drama was Hannah’s mishap with her high heel. But the characters are all so interesting that that doesn’t really matter. Every scene’s telling.
Samuel Petrukhin, based on a combination of Poliakoff’s father and Poliakoff’s grandfather, invents and sells hearing aids – to customers including Winston Churchill. He’s also in the process of inventing hospital pagers. Clearly a very clever and successful man … but what he really wants is to climb the social ladder. As a Russian-born Jewish man, who speaks with a pronounced accent even though he kids himself that he speaks pure RP, this isn’t going to be easy. His right hand man, Courtney Johnson, is black. You can imagine how the posh types in gentleman’s clubs react when “the darky and the Jew”, as one of them put it, turn up. And Samuel wasn’t allowed to deal with Churchill during the war years, in case he was bugging the hearing aids.
Samuel’s wife, Miriam, is from the “Jewish aristocracy” – just like Poliakoff’s mother, the granddaughter of a baron. She’s done all the debutante stuff, but she’s far more lacking in confidence than he is: she’s not kidding herself that it’s easy to gain acceptance when you haven’t got WASP credentials. However, they’re both determined that their daughter Hannah has to be presented, and poor Hannah is packed off to etiquette school to learn how to walk the walk and talk the talk. She thinks it’s all stupid.
Meanwhile, little Sasha, brilliantly played by young Toby Woolf from The Last Post, is sent to a posh boarding prep school, when he just wants to go to the local school. The headmaster makes pointed remarks about how he’s the only Jewish boy there. The other teachers (sorry, masters) make pointed remarks about him being the son of an inventor. The poor kid’s clearly going to have a nightmare there.
At the start of the programme, at Glorious Goodwood, once their party’s finally been admitted, Sasha wanders off and is found by posh Kathleen Shaw (Keeley Hawes, who seems to be everywhere these days!), wife of an MP and war hero who seems to be suffering from shell shock. There’s clearly something very dodgy about the Shaws, which is presumably where the spy stuff’s going to come in. Samuel is desperate to be best buds with them, because they’re part of the social elite. It’s obviously going to end in tears … but what I really want to know is how Sasha and Hannah are going to get on. It was billed as a Cold War drama, but it’s also – I’ll say “also” rather than “actually”, because the spy stuff’s obviously coming – a period drama about class and elitism and outsiders. And that’s more interesting than spy stuff!
What makes it particularly interesting is that it’s not stereotypical. I think this can be very challenging for scriptwriters: if they create characters who fulfill stereotypes, they’re accused of perpetuating stereotypes, but, if they create characters who don’t, they’re accused of not accurately reflecting the experiences of particular demographic groups. There was an argument over this twenty years ago, when Coronation Street brought in its first Asian family, the Desais, as the new owners of the corner shop. The same arguments still go on now. I want to say that we should just be looking at characters, not their ethnicity, religion, sexuality, gender identity, etc, but that doesn’t work either because then the issues relating to particular groups aren’t being reflected.
It’s a difficult one. But I do like the fact that Samuel, Miriam and Courtney are all removed from stereotypes. Courtney is not the stereotypical 1950s West Indian working-class man: he’s in a managerial role and “talks posh”. We haven’t been told Samuel’s back story, but we can tell from his age that “Russian-born” doesn’t mean “fled the pogroms” (most of which weren’t even in Russia itself, whatever people may think!!) but rather means “post-Revolution emigre”. Poliakoff’s Russian ancestors (thank you, Wikipedia!) owned a flat in a nice part of Moscow and a dacha in the countryside.
And Miriam’s from the “Jewish aristocracy”. No-one talks much about the “Jewish aristocracy”. There are books like The Matriarch and The Hare With Amber Eyes, about international banking dynasties, but not about people like Rufus Isaacs (Marquess of Reading), Ernest Cassel (before he converted to Catholicism), Poliakoff’s great-grandfather Samuel Montagu (Baron Swaythling), or Montagu’s nephew Sir Herbert Samuel.
Samuel’s not a very good social climber, TBH. Why give your kids first names that scream “non-WASP”? And he’s kidding himself that he sounds like an aristocrat: everyone can see that apart from him. He’s a brilliant man, a genius inventor with so much going for him – but he wants to be accepted into upper-class society, and it’s obviously going to lead him into trouble. That’s going to be interesting. But what happens to Sasha and Hannah is going to be even more interesting.