sat 24/08/2019

Summer of Rockets, BBC Two review - pride and prejudice in 1950s Britain | reviews, news & interviews

Summer of Rockets, BBC Two review - pride and prejudice in 1950s Britain

Summer of Rockets, BBC Two review - pride and prejudice in 1950s Britain

Real-life experiences make Stephen Poliakoff's Cold War drama ring true

Kathleen Shaw (Keeley Hawes) and Samuel Petrukhin (Toby Stephens)

Hallelujah! At last the BBC have commissioned a Stephen Poliakoff series that makes you want to come back for episode two (and hopefully all six), thanks to a powerful cast making the most of some perceptively-written roles.

His most recent efforts, Dancing on the Edge and Close to the Enemy, were distinguished only by their contorted implausibility and woefully unconvincing characters. This time, he has drawn deeply on personal experiences of himself and his family, which seems to have helped him create rounded individuals it’s possible to identify with, amid a persuasive depiction of the way British society was changing in the late 1950s.

At the centre of the action is Samuel Petrukhin, a Russian-born emigré who now runs his own factory making devices of his own invention. These include hearing aids – the company supplies them to Winston Churchill, as indeed did Poliakoff’s father Alexander – and a new gadget which is an early version of an electronic pager.

Petrukhin is brilliantly played by Toby Stephens as a proud, honourable man who hasn’t just moved to England, but has enthusiastically absorbed everything he can of its history and culture. He congratulates himself on speaking perfect English, which he does, but with just enough of a hint of eastern Europe to mark him out as not quite “one of us”. He has worked diligently to embed his wife and children into the English upper class lifestyle, so he’s glowing with pride that his son Sasha (Toby Woolf) is about to be sent off to a posh boarding school, regardless of the sadistic tendencies of headmaster Mr Tezler (Peter Firth). He is insistent that his daughter Hannah (Lily Sacofsky, pictured above) must take etiquette classes and be presented at Court as a debutante.

Of course, Petrukhin’s too-eager social climbing (which includes annual visits to Ascot) makes him look slightly ridiculous, and his tragedy is that he’ll never belong in the way he so desperately wants to. When he visits one of his hearing aid customers at a gentleman’s club with his West Indian colleague Courtney Johnson (Gary Beadle, pictured below with Stephens), the client scornfully describes them as “the darkie and the Jew”.

Against a Cold War backdrop of missile tests and dangerous mishaps with H-bombs, Poliakoff has wrapped all this inside an espionage story which is yet to come clearly into view. There were glimpses of “bad” Poliakoff in the way that Petrukhin kept being melodramatically stalked by grim-faced men in dark suits, and the closing shot of four of them getting out of their car and marching towards him like a hit quad sent by Al Capone was a little bit silly.

More rewarding is the way the Petrukhin story is counterpointed by the family’s odd but touching relationship with Conservative MP Richard Shaw (Linus Roache) and his wife Kathleen (Keeley Hawes), who invite them to their leafy country estate and are on their way to becoming genuine friends. However, war hero Richard evidently has some sinister acquaintances and seems to be suffering from post-traumatic shock, while Kathleen is nursing a deep personal sadness which is conveyed with great sensitivity by Hawes (who was born to carry off the Fifties clothes and hairstyles). Composer Adrian Johnston’s limpid, melancholy string writing intensifies the aura of loss and regret hanging over the story, as if we’re observing a moment where past glories and high hopes are turning irreversibly sour.

Against a Cold War backdrop of missile tests and H-bombs, Poliakoff has wrapped all this inside an espionage story

rating

Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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