Summer of Rockets: in conversation with Stephen Poliakoff and Helen Flint.

Summer of Rockets is the new BBC Two 6 part cold-war drama series by Stephen Poliakoff. A semi-autobiographical drama sets in 1957. Petrukhin (inspired by Poliakoff‘s father) is a Russian Jew maker of hearing aids with Winston Churchill in person on his customer’s book.

At the 59th Montecarlo Television Festival, we sat down with writer and director Stephen Poliakoff and producer Helen Flint.

Can you tell us a little bit about the series?

SP: The Petrukhin character was based on my father so a lot of what you see is true from life: the invention of the pager at the hospital, being suspected by the secret services with the Winston Churchill hearing aid, the little boy boarding school that was pretty much my own background, the fear of a new war,… I remember that well as a child. 

When and why did you decide to use the point of view of Samuel to tell the story?

SP: As the story develops, we follow Samuel, his daughter Hannah, the little boy, and Keely Hawes. There are four points of view of the story but the beginning that you were able to see in the first two episodes BBC sent to you, the story is from Samuel’s point of view because he’s the main character and the emphasis moves with him and the others will come; but yes, Samuel was always the starting point of the story in my mind. 

Why 1958 was a so important year for Great Britain?

SP: 1958 was a special summer because lots of things happened within a few weeks that summer and it was the beginning of the world we know now: the National Aeronautics and Space Act, was signed into law by President Eisenhower on July 29th, UK and US signed the Mutual Defence Agreement and it was the last time of debutants at Buckingham Palace. So, that summer was a real pivot point in history. The fear of a nuclear war was in the air and was very very strong. The Soviets, the Russians, in the end, were the enemy. They were in a very bad position with Britain. The cold war for the rest of European countries is something between the United States and Russia, but for British people was a triangle between the US, Russia, and Britain.

Can you tell us a little bit about locations: these breath-taking houses and how did you manage to shoot at The Mall?

HF: To be able to shoot at The Mall, you need to book in advance; months before the day you need it and hope that it remains free. There are occasions you can’t predict: the Duke of Edinburgh might die as he is very old, so you won’t be able to use it, so it’s a gamble. Then you have to go there at a specific time, that for us, in August was 3 o’clock in the morning, get people ready and leave by 10 am. Luckily everything went smoothly even if we won’t allow leaving at 10 as the Regiments didn’t know when they were gonna parade. Thousands and thousands of tourists were surrounding us, they were coming into the Rolls Royces, we had to get rid of them. We had tourists, cyclists, runners, the Regiments, about 50 unicycles, and a Second World War airplane landing nearby. But, in the end, we did it. The thing about London streets is that you need permissions months months and months ahead, cars removed and then you are allowed for not so many hours so everything needs to be perfect. Plus you have to think about all the 21st-century things: the lamps, the flower plots, The Mall has traffic lights now and we had to paint them out, there was no choice, we couldn’t take them out, and all the lights on the floor, a lot of lights on the floor. These locations were a big challenge, make 1958 in London believable was tricky, as always when you work on a London period-series. 

When you started the script did you have someone in mind for some characters or you choose the cast through casting without any previous idea?

We chose the cast through auditions, we didn’t have any actor in mind for any role. It was a long process, especially for roles like the young boy or Lily. Hannah is a totally unknown actress, she did one day filming before as a dead body in the river. I worked with Toby Stephens before, but he was filming Lost in Space so we weren’t sure about it and in the end, he managed to work on both shows. What to say about Mr. Timothy Spall? He doesn’t need an introduction, but he rarely plays upper-class characters so this was something a little bit different for him. Claire Bloom, legendary British film actress. It was good to be able to bring Suanne Brown back to British television. And Keeley Howes is another one. It’s a great advantage when you have these kinds of actors who want to be involved in the project.

Watch Summer of Rockets on BBC iPlayer or on BBC Two.


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