The idea that Stephen Poliakoff’s Russian-born father was a Communist spy – and indeed one who extracted information from then-Prime Minister Winston Churchill – was not only unbelievable, but one that never fails to make the acclaimed screenwriter chortle at the mere thought.
“It’s totally astonishing,” he grins. “Dad was the least likely person involved in spying. He was a huge Anglophile and enormously in love with everything English. The idea of him bugging the Cabinet war rooms was extraordinary. I think he would have found such an accusation outrageous.”
Alexander Poliakoff, together with his father, Joseph, invented the pager and ran a firm that manufactured hearing aids, with a host of clients that included Churchill. But when MI5 head Roger Hollis harboured suspicions the pair had turned the premier’s hearing aid into a covert bugging device, they were promptly denied all access to 10 Downing Street.
Only years later, when Hollis’ memorandums on the matter became declassified, did Poliakoff learn the truth about why his father’s visits to Churchill were stopped.
The incredible story is just one of several real-life incidents that Poliakoff has drawn from for his semi-autobiographical drama, Summer of Rockets, which airs tonight on BBC2.
Samuel Petrukhin, played by Lost In Space actor Toby Stephens, is a Russian Jewish émigré and inventor of bespoke hearing aids, who finds himself approached by the British secret service after befriending Kathleen Shaw (Bodyguard star Keeley Hawes), her Tory MP husband Richard (Linus Roache) and the impressive Lord Arthur Wallington (Timothy Spall).
The gripping Cold War drama is set over just a few months during the summer of 1958, when the screenwriter himself was a young child.
Poliakoff, whose body of work includes Close to the Enemy, Dancing on the Edge and Perfect Strangers, explains: “It was a very tense time. The fear of nuclear war hung in the air, but it was also a moment when rockets first sent satellites into space and my father invented the pager, bringing about the birth of the world we recognise now. At the beginning of the summer, it was the last time debutantes were presented to the Queen and by the end, it was the Notting Hill riots, so there was also this sense of two Britains, one looking back at the empire and one in a changing world. That’s why I was attracted to 1958.”
Britain was also grappling with class divides and racial tensions, as shown in Summer of Rockets by the aristocracy’s cool reception of Petrukhin’s black business partner, Courtney (Gary Beadle), but so too were Jews treated unfavourably – something Poliakoff finds “extraordinary” given that the Holocaust had happened only years earlier.
The 66-year-old writer says: “I think people do forget the antisemitism that was around then – and still around today of course – especially among the upper classes. It ran right through the 1930s and after the war, but what I find so extraordinary is that even with all the revelations of the Holocaust, there was still this antisemitism. It just shows how embedded it was in Britain.”
It’s perhaps little wonder that Poliakoff’s father, being Jewish and Russian at a time of rising antagonism between his birth and adopted countries, came under suspicion as an enemy of the state while merely servicing Churchill’s hearing aid.
Still, there were a few “funny little vignettes” that Poliakoff recalls being told by his father about his visits to Number 10.
“He once told me about Churchill sitting up in bed with a glass of whisky and my father took a book for him to sign,” he smiles. “As he handed it to him, Churchill brusquely said, ‘I have written others, you know.’ Another time, my father and grandfather went through the wrong door and found themselves in a cabinet meeting.”
For his latest drama, Poliakoff has not only drawn upon his father’s experience as a Russian Jewish émigré living in Britain, but also his own “searing” childhood memories of being sent away to boarding school , as brought out in the character of Petrukhin’s son, Sasha, played by Toby Woolf.
“I had to tone down the school, because today it’s a charming place, but at that time it was a very, very tough place to be, with an extraordinary amount of physical hitting and a lot of savage sarcasm. It was quite Dickensian and there was a lot of viciousness.
“Interestingly, one of the reasons I ended up at this school was because the one my parents wanted to send me to in London – which would have been lovely and cushy with me living at home – had a Jewish quota and they didn’t want any more. It’s a stark reminder of what used to go on.
“I spent five years of my life there, over 50 years ago, and still find myself resenting my time there. It was quite a searing experience.”
Summer of Rockets airs on Wednesdays, 9pm, BBC2 and the full series is now available to watch on iPlayer