In between episodes five and six – the finale – of Stephen Poliakoff’s Summer of Rockets (BBC2, Wednesday) I read Cita Stelzer’s Working with Winston (Head of Zeus, 2019). It’s not the first time I’ve remarked in this blog on how the concurrent exposure to two different works of art can create a kind of unexpected synergy in the way we appreciate them. The Poliakoff is a drama set in England circa 1958, during the Cold War, and the Stelzer is an account of the careers of twelve remarkable people who undertook secretarial duties, or “took down”, for Winston Churchill. Therefore, at least in time and place, there is a degree of overlap between the book and the television drama. Indeed, Winston even has a cameo role in Summer of Rockets’ Episode 1, when the Russian-born, Jewish inventor Samuel Petrukhin fits him with a state-of-the-art hearing aid.
Recently a visitor to my home glanced at the small bust on the mantelpiece, and at the bookshelf of Churchilliana, and asked me, “Why do you admire Churchill?” And I wondered, is it because he could turn a good phrase? Is it more personal than that? Is it because, but for him, I would have started to learn German a lot earlier than I did, and in a rather more uncomfortable school?
Sometimes I think of demoting him. I say to myself, “It’s past, let it go, move on.” He was a Victorian aristocrat, old-fashioned even as a young man. He inhabited a different age. I read a book like The Patient Assassin by Anita Anand (Simon & Schuster, 2019), which recounts in a very personal way the events that took place at Jallianwala Bagh, the walled garden in Amritsar, on 13 April 1919 (Ms Anand’s grandfather was there), and even though Churchill denounced this atrocity (frightfulness, he said, is not part of the British Pharmacopoeia), I still find myself thinking it is time to move on. I could take his bust down and remove it with the books into the spare room, along with his portrait. I could call it “The Churchill Room.” I could say to my guest, “I’ve made up The Churchill Room for you. Is that all right?” And then something happens, and he stays in my living room.
I don’t suppose I’d have liked him much. How would I have got on if I’d been summoned to “take down”? (Only one of the twelve secretaries Stelzer describes was male, Patrick Kinna.) The relationship Churchill had with the young ladies has been dramatized in the film Darkest Hour with Gary Oldman playing Churchill and Lily James playing the secretary. The narrative of a young lady, initially nervous, intimidated, and bullied, sticking it out and eventually becoming devoted to her boss, is essentially the narrative of Stelzer’s book. But is it true? Personally I don’t think I could ever become devoted to anybody who bullied me. If Churchill had called me a bloody fool for typing in single rather than double space, I like to think I’d have taken the paper from the typewriter, crumpled it into a ball, chucked it at him, said, “Why don’t you ‘take down’ your own bloody speech?” and stormed out. And that would have been that.
But it was an entirely different world. It was extremely class-ridden. These young ladies, impeccably trained graduates of Mrs Hoster’s Employment Agency, no doubt walked the walk and talked the talk, but even they would have fallen short of the top drawer. Churchill’s way of life, with huge teams of lackeys responding to his beck and call, now seems unimaginable. Once asked whether he could cope with day-to-day life all on his own, he remarked, “I could boil an egg; I’ve seen it done.” He seems to have been extraordinarily inconsiderate. One of the young secretaries shared with her colleagues a joke, in which she imagined saying to Churchill, “Miss So-and-So has been in a serious accident.” To which WSC replies, “Oh. Will she be able to take down?” The irony is that this very scenario came to pass. The secretary informing Churchill of her colleague’s incapacity always regretted that, when asked if the injured lady could take down, she had not replied, “Well, it’s her ankle that’s injured so I suppose she could.”
Summer of Rockets simply reeks of class. Samuel Petrukhin, the Russian émigré, wants to mix with the right people and turn himself into an English gentleman. He would have his teenage daughter presented at court, come out, and attend all the balls of the season. She herself can’t stand the idea. Already she has moved into a different world. But Petrukhin himself is also ahead of his time. He is fascinated by gadgets, and has an inkling of the way they might take over the world. When his young son takes ill with appendicitis and is rushed to the hospital as an emergency, none of the duty doctors can be located. Petrukhin has already invented and is trying to market a new device, and he struggles to give it a name – bleep, bleeper, beeper, pager, staff locator… He realises that hospitals would be an ideal environment in which his invention would be useful. He himself never goes anywhere without his locator, sitting in his lapel pocket, much like a mobile phone now. The military might also find a use for this new device. And of course MI5. It functions in the drama much as a talisman of the new age.
(Parenthetically, the bleep did become a talisman for the doctor. There were three status symbols – the white coat, the stethoscope, and the bleep, and I can still recall a sense of pride when first pacing the wards with all three. But I soon came to realise that the bleep was as much a curse as a blessing. It went off so often that you could never get anything done because you were always off somewhere to find a telephone. I remember asking a staff nurse to hold my bleep – essentially to be my secretary, to “take down” – so that I could see the patients. But she was reluctant. What if there were a cardiac arrest? The arrest bleep in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary was low-pitched, slow tempo, and sinister. I ran into an old colleague last year who admitted that whenever he heard a faint echo of that sound his heart still missed a beat.)
I’ve loved the atmosphere of the Poliakoff world ever since I first saw Shooting the Past. In some ways his dramas are rather old fashioned, like a speech of Winston Churchill. They can begin, and meander, rather hesitantly. The tempo is quite slow. Scenes are set and characters drawn. There is attention to detail, an aesthetic of beauty, and a literary self-consciousness. Plots and subplots can be diverted down unusual avenues with many twists and turns. What is Summer of Rockets all about? It depicts a world full of secrets, in which nothing is quite as it seems, and nobody (with the possible exception of Samuel’s young son Sasha) tells the truth. Who to trust? The British establishment? The military? MI5? The mysterious Lord Arthur Wallington, so masterfully played by Timothy Spall? In the end, Petrukhin puts his trust in Hannah, his wayward daughter.
Poliakoff has his critics. Again like Churchill, he can be regarded as passé. Yet Summer of Rockets was full of contemporary resonances. More or less concurrent with the showing of the final episode, Mr Putin announced that the values of liberal democracy are obsolete. His remarks didn’t seem to cause much of a stir; they almost passed unnoticed. People nodded sagely in agreement.
So I glanced up at Winston, on his central point on my mantelpiece, and decided he had better stay.