Spy story based on father shows Stephen has an ear for drama


AS one of the heavyweight champions of British television drama, it does not take much for Stephen Poliakoff to find the right words.

And he describes his new series, Summer of Rockets, which begins on Wednesday (9pm) on BBC Two, in said fashion.

At the centre of the story is Samuel Petrukhin (Toby Stephens), a Russian Jewish immigrant and inventor of bespoke hearing aids, based on Stephen’s father, Alexander, who also invented the pager with his father, Joseph.

In the drama, Samuel’s most famous client is Winston Churchill — but he is horrified to learn that he was dropped as the Prime Minister’s hearing aid provider during the Second World War because he was Russian and, therefore, considered a potential spy.

After befriending Kathleen Shaw (Keeley Hawes) and her MP husband Richard Shaw (Linus Roache), and getting to know Lord Wallington (Timothy Spall), Samuel is approached by the secret service.

“As a child, the Cold War spilled across the cornflakes at the breakfast table,” Stephen told me.

The drama covers the summer of 1958 and follows Samuel and his family, wife Miriam (Lucy Cohu) and children Hannah (Lily Sacofsky) and Sasha (Toby Woolf) as Samuel is approached by MI5 to demonstrate his work.

However, it is not his inventions the operatives require, as Samuel is tasked with the secret mission of obtaining information about his newly-acquired friends.

The show is set against the backdrop of Britain’s first hydrogen bomb test and the Russians beating the Americans in the first phase of the space race.

But over everything hangs the threat of the Cold War and nuclear catastrophe.

Playwright, director and scriptwriter Stephen said: “It was in 2007 that I discovered my father being suspected of being a Soviet spy and of bugging Churchill’s hearing aid.

“My father was unaware of it and a journalist had phoned me about it after going through the National Archive.

“I was astonished, but then started thinking about it and realised it was a lovely anecdote.

“Here was my father, who was a tremendous Anglophile, who loved British architecture and was besotted by the upper classes, yet was suspected of being a Soviet spy.

“With Summer of Rockets, I wanted to explore that, but also dramatise the paranoia of the Cold War.

“I remember that my father had Russian friends whom he kept up relations with, so maybe that is why he was of interest to the security service.

“Some of these friends were told to go back to the Soviet Union by the British.”

Stephen’s mother, Ina (nee Montagu), came from Jewish aristocracy — her grandfather was Samuel Montagu, the first Baron Swaythling.

“My mother wanted me to be barmitzvah, but my father had no interest in it,” recalled Stephen, who is married to fellow screenwriter Sandy Welch.

“She belonged to a liberal synagogue and liked Rabbi Louis Jacobs. We did Friday nights and the candles and all of that, but my father was not remotely religious.

“We also had a kosher diet and I did not taste prawns until I was 16 in what was an act of rebellion.

“I promised it to myself after I had taken my maths O-level.”

It was while at boarding school in Kent, where he was the only Jewish pupil, that he first experienced antisemitism.

“It was a tough and vicious place,” the father-of-four said. “We had to go to the chapel every morning and declare our belief in the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.

“I remember all the boys turning around to look at me to see if I was saying it, too — which I was not. It put me in an isolated position.”

Later, while at Cambridge, he encountered more racism, with the inference that his father was either very rich or in the rag trade “because that was the stereotypical view there at the time”.

Stephen, whose films include Perfect Strangers, Shooting the Past, The Lost Prince and Dancing on the Edge, has also written award-winning BBC plays and for the theatre.

Glorious 39, his 2009 film, told how some of Britain’s establishment worked to appease Hitler. But that revelation was certainly not a surprise to him.

He said: “There was terrible antisemitism in Britain in the late 1950s, even after the Holocaust.

“Harold Nicholson, for example, who was one of the good guys around Churchill and whom wanted the country to stand up for Hitler, wrote in his diary some terrible note about Jews being ‘insufferable people’.

“There was a lot of antisemitism among the elite and within sections of the intelligentsia in Britain.

“It plays an important part in the plot of Summer of Rockets later on, but builds quite subtly, I hope.

“My father used to pretend that he never noticed antisemitism.”

The 56-year-old made headlines last month when he told the BFI and Radio Times Television Festival that there were not enough Jewish characters in British dramas.

“I don’t think there is a single reason,” the father of four explained. “There are lots of Jewish writers, of course, and I always wonder why Howard Jacobson’s stories have not been dramatised.

“That one is a mystery to me because he is such a good and funny writer.

“Maybe it is just an oversight rather than any form of hard commercial reasoning.

“There was the recent film, Disobedience, with Rachel Weisz, but that was set in the frum community, so maybe that is what the majority of people think Jews are like.”

A Labour Party member, he is not enamoured of its leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

The father-of-two said: “There is clearly a blind spot at the top of the party that is incontestable and their excuses about it are unconvincing.

“I remember Ken Livingstone saying Jews are rich so they won’t vote for the Labour Party, which was obviously a terrible thing to say.

“There is a rigidity, ignorance and lack of a sense of history, as well as a gross insensitivity about it all, which is so upsetting.

“I have not thought of leaving Labour and I hope sanity will prevail.”

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