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Espionage thriller Summer of Rockets is the first screen work from acclaimed writer/director Stephen Poliakoff to draw on his own life, set in 1958 at the height of the Cold War. He and executive producer Helen Flint talk to DQ about merging fact and fiction.

As a writer and director for the screen over the past four decades, Stephen Poliakoff has been behind work that has amassed numerous Bafta, Emmy, Golden Globe and Peabody awards. The playwright, who learned his craft in the theatre, counts series and films such as Perfect Strangers, The Lost Prince, Friends & Crocodiles, Gideon’s Daughter, Joe’s Palace and Capturing Mary, as well as recent dramas Dancing on the Edge and Close to the Enemy, among his extensive credits.

Yet for all his fascination with the past – among many examples, Dancing on the Edge trails a black jazz group in 1930s London and Close to the Enemy is set in the aftermath of the Second World War – his latest series is the first to draw on his own family and life experiences.

Written and directed by Poliakoff, Summer of Rockets is a semi-autobiographical drama set during 1958, a year that marked the height of the Cold War as fear and suspicion clashed with the start of the mobile revolution and the Space Race. It was also the last time debutants were presented to the Queen at Buckingham Palace and the year of the Notting Hill riots in West London.

Stephen Poliakoff, writer and director of Summer of Rockets, pictured during filming

Poliakoff says the fact it is partly based on his own life marks Summer of Rockets out as “significantly different” from anything he’s done for the screen before.

“My first real memories are from this time – I was five in 1958 – so I could feel, even as a small child, the apprehension in the air, the feel of nuclear war,” he says. “The Russians were the enemy and yet I was half-Russian, so that made me feel an extraordinary sense isolation as a child. I was also sent to boarding school, as we see in the story, and was the only Jewish boy there. That was why I was drawn to this time.

“There’s a lot of resonance for us now, as Russia again seems to be our enemy and there is also unfortunately, tragically, anti-Semitism in Europe and it’s coming back to the UK. Well, it never goes away. But above all, it was a sense of the absolute epicentre of the Cold War; the fact nobody could be trusted, especially if they were foreigners.”

Another parallel between that period and today, he notes, is the “humiliation” of the Suez Crisis in 1958, which left Britain “a laughing stock” on the world stage. “Things have happened since I’ve written the piece and we’ve become a laughing stock for very different reasons, with people harking back to a sense of our past glories, which also plays a part in the story,” Poliakoff says. “This is not a story about Brexit or a metaphor for it, but nevertheless there are resonances in the piece.”

Toby Stephens (Black Sails) stars as Samuel Petrukhin, a Russian Jewish émigré modelled on Poliakoff’s father Alexander, an inventor and designer of hearing aids, whose clients include former UK prime minister Winston Churchill. The series also focuses on Samuel’s wife, Miriam (Lucy Cohu), and their children, Hannah (Lily Sacofsky) and Sasha (Toby Woolf). In the show, having developed a new paging system for hospitals, Samuel is is approached by the UK’s domestic intelligence agency MI5 to demonstrate his work.

Set in 1958, the series stars Toby Stephens as Samuel, who is based on Poliakoff’s father

However, it’s not his inventions the agency (led by Mark Bonnar’s mysterious Field) is interested in but his fledging friendship with MP Richard Shaw (Linus Roache) and his wife Kathleen (Keeley Hawes), who also introduce him to Lord Arthur Wellington (Timothy Spall). As Samuel’s life becomes intertwined with his mission, he is left to question how far he is willing to let things unravel for his cause and who he can trust.

It was Poliakoff’s discovery that his father had been suspected of bugging Churchill’s hearing aid, a revelation he first heard when a journalist contacted him about newly released government papers in 2007, that sparked the story behind Summer of Rockets,

“It took me a long time to think about writing it because it meant revisiting my youth and a very traumatic time at boarding school,” he says. “I also tend to write slightly away from my immediate family experience because I find it easier to invent like that. But, after quite a considerable while, because the story kept haunting me, I broached it to the BBC.”

His father’s work, he explains, is truthfully reflected in the story by his hearing aids business, the deaf workers he employs in the factory and his invention of the paging system, which he created for St Thomas’ Hospital in London.

“But I always saw that as a jumping-off point for Keeley’s side of the story,” Poliakoff continues. “My father was besotted with everything English; he was a real anglophile. He was a Russian Jew but he wanted to be an English gentleman, so there’s the story of him being involved in this English upper-class family who have their own darkness and trauma hidden away in a magnificent house. They have charm and grace, they entertain people, but this covers a deep unhappiness.

“My father would have loved to have been entertained in such a house, so that was what led me from that jumping-off point for the fictitious side of the story, but it’s based on the sort of things my father loved and was attracted to by English life and aspired to. The story curve shows Samuel learning that he doesn’t want to be the perfect English gentleman.”

Bodyguard and The Durrells star Keeley Hawes plays Samuel’s wife, Miriam

Through the first episode, the story is laid bare against the backdrop of rockets being launched and rising anxiety over what might lie ahead, coupled with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder that stem from the still-raw fallout of the Second World War. Samuel’s technological achievements also shine a light on how industry was set to move forward rapidly over the next decade.

“When you have six hours of television drama, it’s a big canvas. The joy of longform is that you can build a complex world and you can delve deeper into character than you can in a two-hour movie,” Poliakoff says. “It’s great to try to be ambitious when you’re given that length of screen time.”

Helen Flint, MD of Little Island Productions and Poliakoff’s long-time producing partner, admits the writer’s outlines need very little development as they are often fully formed, “very detailed and very ambitious” by the time she becomes involved.

“The thing is to identify where and how you’re actually going to make it happen,” she says. “Both of us have been around far too long. Therefore, between us and the heads of department, we can work out how to put this on the screen, which is our craft.”

With all of Poliakoff’s work filmed on location, the first task on Summer of Rockets was to find the house belonging to Richard and Kathleen Shaw, which is a constant presence during all six episodes. They eventually settled on Benington Lordship, a grand setting close to Stevenage, 35 miles north of London, which is notable for the Norman keep adjoining the 17th century house and expansive gardens.

Catastrophe’s Mark Bonnar plays the head of MI5

“The other important thing was when to film it, because getting lucky with sunshine in this country is not a given – so the schedule is everything,” Flint says.

Finding London streets that could double for the time period also proved problematic, with the slums of Notting Hill in 1958 far removed from the affluent neighbourhood it is today. Another set piece saw a queue of 1950s cars lined up along The Mall, leading to Buckingham Palace, which was filmed early in the morning to avoid the crowds of tourists usually occupying the area.

“It takes a huge amount of work, more work than anybody would imagine, weeks and weeks, and then huge amounts in post-production just to paint out silly lines and stuff like that,” Flint says of filming in London. “After that, it’s all of the countryside, the driving [scenes] and the minutiae. But because we’ve got a cast that is working all the time, we have to try to jigsaw them all in, which is very complicated at certain points. Once you have those actors, the schedule is dictated by that. Then other problems come to the fore because if they’re not available, you can’t do the locations. London exteriors are the hardest, and then piecing it together is a massive jigsaw.”

In some cases, however, the reality on which some of the series is based was too extreme to be dramatised. Poliakoff decided to tone down scenes where Sasha is at boarding school, as his own experiences at school were too “draconian” to be depicted exactly as he remembered.

Summer of Rockets debuts on BBC2 tomorrow

“When I started writing it, I realised it had to be more interesting and more inventive than the actual thing I experienced, which in reality was relentlessly grim,” he says. “A little bit of that was fine, but I didn’t think an audience would stand for that being repeated in each scene. So, oddly enough, the bit that was closest to reality was the most difficult to write.”

The series sees Poliakoff reunited with Stephens, who starred in his 2001 family reunion drama Perfect Strangers, while this was his first time working with Hawes despite having known her since she was just 19. “She starred in my wife Sandy Welch’s adaptation of Our Mutual Friend 20 years ago,” he recalls of the actor, who has recently starred in Line of Duty, The Durrells and Bodyguard. “I’ve known her for some time and we’ve always wanted to work together. She’s phenomenal in her role, which is a really very juicy role, so I’m thrilled. I think she gives one of her greatest performances.”

Following Summer of Rockets’ launch on UK pubcaster BBC2 tomorrow, all six episodes will be made available on the pubcaster’s VoD platform iPlayer. The drama is distributed internationally by BBC Studios. “‘Bingeable’ is not the prettiest word but, actually, I think my work was born to be binged,” Poliakoff notes. “People over the years have always told me they’ve sat down to watch something like Perfect Strangers, which is only four hours long. They tend to watch the first part and then they’re there four hours later.

“So I very much hope the story has that effect. It does have quite a powerful story that gathers and evolves and changes. It’s great for people to watch it in a linear way or in an immersive way. Either way, I hope people will really get into it.”

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Know your Enemy: Stephen Poliakoff discusses his new show

Look to the past to find a good story, says Stephen Poliakoff, as a bomb-damaged hotel in post-war London provides the stage for his latest BBC drama, Close to the Enemy.

In this burgeoning world of multinational, cross-cultural scripted drama – where Canal+ makes Versailles as an English-language show, Deutschland 83 plays on US primetime and Scandinavian writers and directors are in charge of half the UK’s output – there’s a risk that nations will forget exactly what’s unique about their home-produced drama.

In the UK, if they ever forget, they can simply watch the latest from Stephen Poliakoff: the patron saint and reigning heavyweight champion of high-quality British drama.

In a career that’s ranged from radical 1970s theatre through intense movies about incest to scathing assaults on the nation’s disregard for its own culture and history, Poliakoff’s early years were spent writing for the stage and the big screen.

Poliakoff: 'I’m like a talent spotter for the BBC'
Poliakoff: ‘I’m like a talent spotter for the BBC’

For the past 20 years, however, he has concentrated on writing and directing for television. Quirkiness and eccentricity have always been present in Poliakoff’s work – his love of elaborate montage sequences, odd juxtapositions of sound and image, and extended narratives have always seemed more comfortable on serialised television than his earlier, slightly over-complex movies.

For his latest project – Close to the Enemy, pictured top – the writer effectively mounts a dramatist’s investigation into the post-war recruiting of Nazi scientists to serve the West. It’s becoming a theme of Poliakoff’s work – revisiting the crucible of the 20th century with ambitious projects about appeasers in the British ruling elite like Glorious 39 or the overlap between the Jazz Age and fascist princes in Dancing on the Edge. Where do such ideas begin?

“I usually start with a moment in time – in this case when the victorious Allies, the Americans, the Russians and the Brits, were literally seizing scientists off the streets of Germany, bringing them over here and giving them new identities so the world didn’t discover what they’d been up to during the war,” he explains.

What follows is a period of intense research from the sweeping vista of history to the daily minutiae of life. Poliakoff worked through the history of these street snatches – the British nabbed several hundred, which was dwarfed by the industrial scale of the Americans and the Russians, who took thousands – but also realised that, despite the tradition of post-war movies showing London as grey and foggy, the reality was that the absence of so many buildings meant the light was blindingly bright, and this shapes the look of the show.

“I start with the situation but then try to develop it into a gallery of memorable characters facing complex decisions in difficult situations. At seven hours, this is the longest thing I’ve ever done so the story has to be as compulsive as you can make it. I try to work purely through character, rather than making ranty points about torture or war crimes. I mean, it is fascinating that we were torturing people after the war but it’s not the real journey of the show.”

Many of Poliakoff’s scripts, it’s interesting to note, are about the perfidy of the British establishment. It’s a problem he returns to partly because of his own curious relationship with the British elite. “A lot of people would say I was very much a member of the British establishment,” he says. “I was brought up in very English landscapes and had a classic public-school, Cambridge education.”

Dancing on the Edge
Dancing on the Edge was nominated for three Golden Globes in 2013

The son of a Russian émigré businessman and aristocratic Anglo-Jewish actor, Poliakoff was packed off to boarding school in Kent at the age of eight, where he encountered plenty of low level anti-Semitism – both putting him at the heart of the elite and giving him an outsider’s perspective.

Some argue that his education explains the leeway he has at the BBC – suggesting a sort of old boys’ favour system that allows him the scope to deliver slow-moving but compelling dramas like Shooting the Past, which flew in the face of accepted broadcasting wisdom at the time.

Although it’s true, Poliakoff concedes, that the BBC grants him an enormous amount of freedom, he insists he won this himself: “I think the BBC trusts me and I hope it has been mutually beneficial. The great thing about that freedom is that I can cast whom I like and I actually have a very good track record of discovering stars – I’m like a talent spotter for the BBC.”

Poliakoff gave early breaks to Gemma Arterton, Tom Hardy, Matthew Macfadyen, Rebecca Hall, Ruth Wilson, Clive Owen and Emily Blunt, who won a Golden Globe for her role in Gideon’s Daughter. The BBC consulted him over casting Jenna Coleman as Doctor Who’s most recent assistant, Clara, after he helped discover her in Dancing on the Edge.

In Close to the Enemy, produced by Little Island Productions and Endor Productions for BBC2, he has cast Jim Sturgess as an intelligence officer charged with recruiting August Diehl’s German scientist to help the RAF develop the jet engine. Freddie Highmore plays Sturgess’s shellshocked younger brother, Charlotte Riley plays his best friend’s fiancée and Phoebe Fox plays a tough war crimes investigator, keen to bring Diehl to justice.

“There are one or two people in the show I have worked with before – Lindsay Duncan and Alfie Allen, for instance – but I’m new to Highmore, Sturgess and Riley and I think I’m giving them breakthrough roles,” Poliakoff says. “They’re all strong talents but I think you’ll see them differently after this piece.”

Poliakoff has cast and directed all his own work for the past 25 years. “It’s always an interesting exercise in a project when you move from being its writer to its director, but it does mean all my work is made on a brutal schedule,” he explains. “That’s partly why I do a lot of rehearsal. Some people do a week, but I do three weeks and I do everything in my power when we hire actors to persuade them that is part of their contract,” he says with a quick grin.

The BBC consulted Poliakoff before casting Jenna Coleman (right) in Doctor Who
The BBC consulted Poliakoff before casting Jenna Coleman (right) in Doctor Who

“I’m slightly surprised more people don’t do that. It doesn’t cost a lot of money, because the actors get rehearsal pay that isn’t reflective of their fees for the main shoot. So it’s quite a small investment but it pays off enormously. It helps to build up the actors’ confidence and it helps me to realise what I have written, too. It’s a sleight of hand really. You can achieve the quality of a feature film on the budget of a TV series.”

Another trademark Poliakoff technique is his extensive use of location – to keep costs down and to avoid overusing CGI. With Close to the Enemy, this was especially complex, as the show is set in heavily bombed post-war London.

“I was very keen to make a period show with hardly any CGI because I think CGI tends to make all period drama look a little bit the same,” he argues. “You show panoramas that are like animated paintings and viewers don’t quite believe it. A bombed London with virtually no CGI meant shooting among real destroyed buildings – and there are none in London so we shot most of it in Liverpool with other wrecks around the country. That posed a lot of problems with the schedule but it was worth it – the places really looked like they were bombed.”

Poliakoff is hands-on when it comes to location scouting – in part because a good location can influence his writing. In the case of Close to the Enemy, the team found the hotel at the centre of the story before he’d finished all of the scenes set within, and the building shaped the script to some degree.

“The danger of looking for locations before you’ve written them is that, if they fall through, you’ve already written rough sequences and you then have to adapt the whole script,” he says. “But that’s the great advantage of being a writer-director – you can swim with the tide of the production more easily.”

Despite these local details, Poliakoff is keen to stress that Close to the Enemy isn’t just a British story – he’s cast German actors in all the German parts, including Inglourious Basterds star Diehl as an ex-Nazi jet expert. The same goes for US parts, although Brit Charlotte Riley takes the prime American role.

It’s tempting to think it’s this global element that persuaded US broadcaster Starz to coproduce with the BBC. In fact, Poliakoff has already done surprisingly good business for the Spartacus and Da Vinci’s Demons network, with Dancing on the Edge picking up three Golden Globe nominations back in 2013. Is this Anglophilia pure and simple? Poliakoff doesn’t think so.

“If you tell good stories about the past, they resonate with people today,” he insists. “If you look at the events in Close to the Enemy and compare them to the situation in the Middle East now, you can see that the sense of your enemy becoming your immediately useful friend as soon as circumstances change never leaves us and is as perilous to the world now as it ever was.”

The key thing for any creative in this time of opportunity, Poliakoff argues, is to stick with your tried and tested ways – without trying desperately hard to please the entire world, tempting though such success may seem. “Everyone wanted a sequel to Dancing on the Edge,” he points out. “The BBC in particular was keen on another chapter, as it did quite well for it. But I don’t like sequels – I like to keep moving, to visit new stories and characters. As long as they are colourful and compelling, people want to watch.”

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