SUMMER OF ROCKETS
Stephen Poliakoff discusses his latest drama ‘Summer of Rockets’ and we discover what remarkably connects the story of the Pertrukhin family with his own.
“Did you know your father had been suspected of being a Soviet spy? And of bugging Winston Churchill’s hearing aid?”
I casually answered my phone one day in 2007 to be greeted by an unknown voice asking me this startling question. It transpired that secret government documents had just been released by the National Archives under the fifty-year rule and journalists sifting through the material had uncovered the story. Needless to say I was astonished by this revelation. My father, who died in 1996, had never mentioned anything to me about this. In fact, I was almost certain he had been totally unaware that for a period in the 1950s he had become a subject of interest to the British secret service as a potential enemy of the state.
Alexander, my father and Joseph, my grandfather had founded a company called Multitone that made hearing aids, amongst other things, and one of their clients was Winston Churchill. During Churchill’s second premiership they would regularly visit 10 Downing Street to service his many different hearing aids. The fact that they were Russian, (they had emigrated to the UK in 1924 when my father was a child) and had maintained links with the Soviet trade delegation aroused the suspicions of the secret service. The authorities had convinced themselves there was a strong possibility they were adapting Churchill’s hearing aids into a series of bugging devices and that they may have spread further bugs around the Cabinet Room itself. Alexander and Joseph were put under surveillance and Roger Hollis, then Deputy Director-General of MI5, wrote to Churchill’s private secretary to suggest my father and grandfather be denied any further access to Churchill. All contact promptly ceased. This was the same Roger Hollis who was later suspected of being a Soviet agent himself.
The discovery of this story about my father sowed the seeds for my new BBC drama Summer of Rockets. However, for a long time I hesitated writing something that directly drew on my family.
The image of my dad being trailed by the secret service across London and being suspected of hiding bugs behind the ear of Winston Churchill nevertheless continued to haunt me. I began to be drawn towards a story set in the 1950s that incorporated some of the things that happened to my family but also ranged wider in order to dramatise fully the extraordinary state of paranoia that existed at that moment in the Cold War. My thoughts began to crystalise around 1958, I think partly because my first real memories date from around that time. I was five years old in 1958 but even as a small child I could clearly sense the palpable tension in the adult world. While I played in Kensington Gardens for instance I would overhear some of the grown ups, as they stared up into a cloudless sky, wondering if a Soviet Sputnik was about to fall on the Round Pond, or whispering, “What if there’s another war? How much warning would we get of a nuclear attack?”
1958 was also a year of fascinating contrasts in the UK; in the spring the debutantes were presented to the Queen for the very last time and in late August the Notting Hill Riots broke out, bookending a summer that had been punctuated by rockets being regularly launched carrying the first satellites into space.
It was the beginning of modern communications; the world we know now.
My father and grandfather played their own part in the birth of this modern world for they invented the pager for St. Thomas’s Hospital. On the surface Alexander and Joseph were intensely conservative individuals. They were Jewish émigrés who had assimilated themselves into English life with a vengeance, acquiring the manners and appearance of what they supposed were perfect upper class gentlemen. It would have been a great surprise to anyone meeting them for the first time to be told they were inventors with a very original vision.
Before the creation of the pager they had produced the first ever hearing aid with a volume control and this is what led them to 10 Downing Street. Their dealings with Winston Churchill mostly occurred in the morning while he was propped up in bed sniffing at a glass of whisky. Arriving one day at the normal time they were told to wait in a certain room, only for them to go through the wrong door and find themselves in the middle of a Cabinet meeting.
They would have appeared a curious duo pottering around Downing Street, my grandfather tall and commanding like a Russian Sherlock Holmes and my father tiny and wafer thin but always exquisitely dressed as if he was setting off for Ascot.
Nevertheless this unlikely pair, by inventing the pager, revolutionised the way doctors and nurses were contacted in hospitals. The previous method had been a cumbersome combination of incessant announcements and multiple bells being rung. Their radical invention did not meet with instant success however. Those in authority recoiled from the idea that senior people could now be summoned like servants by a machine that they would have to wear on their person and which beckoned them with an impertinent bleep.
The initial lack of success with the bleeper cast a shadow over the family because my father’s factory was now teetering on the edge of bankruptcy (the business wasn’t secure until the 1970s). My mother tried to conceal the financial difficulties we were in from her children but she would have felt them deeply. The daughter of Jewish aristocracy, she had spent a lot of her childhood in an enormous Elizabethan house, Great Fosters (now a hotel) near Windsor, where she had been looked after by a veritable army of servants. In marrying my father, a recent Russian émigré with very little money, she was regarded as having chosen somebody well below her social status.
However, my father never allowed himself to be looked down upon. He conducted himself as if he was the equal of all the upper class clients he had to mingle with and feigned being totally unaware of any prejudice or anti-Semitism.
Nevertheless, the racism of the time was inescapable even for a small boy. Often staring out from the back seat of the car I would see signs saying, “No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs”, in the windows of houses and I would wonder did they mean no Jews as well? Hostility against minorities was part of every day life.
I was sent to a boarding school in the Kent countryside, very similar to the one portrayed in Summer of Rockets, where the atmosphere was exceptionally tense. We were frequently beaten with a hairbrush or lashed with a skipping rope, or hit over the head with our exercise books. Moreover, I was the only Jewish boy there. Just down the road there was another school which we often played at football and then suddenly all contact with them stopped. I asked one of the masters why and I was told it was because they had a black goalkeeper.
The Cold War came lapping close to our school too because by a strange coincidence the house that the Soviet Embassy used as their country retreat was almost at the end of our playing fields. We would watch fascinated as sinister black cars rolled past our school gates towards this outpost of the enemy. The very hedgerows seemed to be bristling with spies.
Of course I had no idea at that time that my own father had been considered a threat to national security. Nor as a child did I realise there really was a member of the family who was spying for the Russians. My mother’s cousin, Ivor Montagu, a filmmaker, writer and table tennis player, was an avowed Communist. He was also, recent research has revealed, a spy for Soviet military intelligence, the GRU, with the codename “Intelligentsia”. My parents talked about Ivor frequently but we were never allowed any contact with him even though here was a man who had been close to Alfred Hitchcock and Sergei Eisenstein and as a film-obsessed child I would have loved to have spent time with him. I don’t know if my parents suspected he might be involved in espionage but the one time we encountered him by chance in the street they behaved as if they were in the presence of a demonic force.
The tensions of the Cold War therefore touched our family in many different ways, some of which have only just begun to make sense to me many years after my parents’ death.
In Summer of Rockets I have tried to bring all of these strands together in order to capture the particular atmosphere of that time, the threat of nuclear war, the unmasking of spies, the hatching of conspiracies against the state. The main story is fictional but incorporates many real episodes that my family experienced.
It is the first time that I have attempted to draw so directly from my own life and it brought some interesting challenges. The most obvious one was how to go about casting Samuel, the character inspired by my father. I needed an actor who had an open warm quality but who was also able to convey my father’s self-belief and refusal to be intimidated by the British class system without appearing arrogant or too bullish.
My search led me to Toby Stephens who I had worked with many years before in my BBC family reunion drama Perfect Strangers. Toby looks extremely Russian in the part and has, both as a person and as an actor, the same abundant curiosity and intelligence Alexander did.
My father was totally obsessed with English architecture, especially Georgian country houses, beautiful gardens, antique furniture, splendid porcelain and fine wine. He mostly had to admire this in other people’s houses. He aspired to live in a glorious English manor house himself but was never able to make that happen. In Keeley Hawes’ character, Kathleen, I have created somebody who is the personification of my father’s dream, seemingly the perfect hostess living in a magnificent house, somebody he would have adored to spend time with. However, very like Samuel in the story, blinded by his surroundings, he wouldn’t necessarily have been able to sense the torment she was in.
All through my childhood I became more and more aware of how much my father detested the realities of the Cold War and the fact that Russia was regarded as our enemy. He was thrilled when Glasnost happened under Gorbachev and the tensions between East and West began to thaw.
Now, so many years later, as Summer of Rockets reaches the screen, we have eerily returned to echoes of that time, the fear that Russia may have managed to influence our democratic process, the Salisbury poisoning, the shadow of a possible new Cold War closing in.
My father would have hated watching this happen. He was a penetrating observer of current events and regarded all governments as incompetent. He was also a stern critic.
I hope he would have approved of Summer of Rockets.