A spy drama with no spying, or drama…Even the likes of Keeley Hawes, Toby Stephens and Timothy Spall couldn’t save Stephen Poliakoff’s ‘ridiculous’ espionage farce Summer Of Rockets, by Jim Shelley
Summer Of Rockets may well be the worst espionage show ever made.
It’s hard to say, because with two episodes and one third of the series gone, it’s been something rarely seen in the genre: a spy drama with no spying. Or drama, come to that.
A pretty radical approach certainly: even Killing Eve wasn’t that original. It had loads of spying.
One thing that it didn’t have though, where Phoebe Waller-Bridge lost out to Summer Of Rockets was…. hearing aids.
Awful: Summer Of Rockets may well be the worst espionage show ever made. It’s hard to say, because with two episodes and one third of the series gone, it’s been something rarely seen in the genre: a spy drama with no spying
The in-depth knowledge Summer Of Rockets displayed about hearing aids put even John Le Carre, who failed to give The Night Manager or The Little Drummer Girl a single hearing aid, to shame. Hearing aid sales, the development of hearing aid technology… Basically the history of the hearing aid was here.
Summer Of Rockets had something else unparalleled in espionage dramas: five-minute demonstrations showing how the first prototype of the modern pager (or ‘staff locator’) worked.
The Americans, Homeland, Hanna, and every other CIA/FBI thriller hadn’t had one between them. Summer Of Rockets meanwhile had already featured two – in real time (including characters standing around waiting in an awkward silence. A bit like us basically).
‘Rockets’ writer Stephen Poliakoff’s commitment to hearing aids and pager demonstrations was explained by his protagonist (Samuel Petrukhin) being based on his father (a pioneering inventor).
Strangely though, he had made him completely charmless – an obsequious, spineless, social climber (like a lot of the characters).
Everything about the premise was promising too. It started in 1957, with Britain beset by growing fears over the Cold War, the space race, and erratic nuclear weapons testing by America and the Soviet Union.
Petrukhin meanwhile was certainly an unusual character: a Russian émigré/British entrepreneur/family man who found himself not only suspected of being a spy (bugging Winston Churchill no less, using a hearing aid) but coerced into becoming one.
Boring: Summer Of Rockets had something else unparalleled in espionage dramas: five-minute demonstrations showing how the first prototype of the modern pager (or ‘staff locator’) worked
Poliakoff couldn’t have made his story less lifeless though. The first episode had ended with Petrukhin about to be approached by MI5 to spy on three new friends he’d made from the English aristocracy: Lord Alfred Wallington, Conservative MP Richard Shaw, and his elegant, enigmatic wife Kathleen. Somehow by the end of the second he still hadn’t actually started.
But even a cast as classy as Keeley Hawes (Kathleen Shaw), Timothy Spall (Lord Wallington), Claire Bloom, Peter Firth, and the sons of Dame Maggie Smith (Toby Stephens) or Ken Barlow (Linus Roache) could only do so much when they were given such ridiculous dialogue.
True there was nothing quite as excruciating as Petrukhin’s irritating 19 year-old daughter Hannah talking to her goldfish and then complaining: ‘I’ve got to stop talking to my fish!’
A moment in time: Everything about the premise was promising too. It started in 1957, with Britain beset by growing fears over the Cold War, the space race, and erratic nuclear weapons testing
Keeley Hawes gushing: ‘I LOVE disgustingly smelly cheese – really ripe ones! My God that’s strong!’ rivalled Petrukhin announcing loudly: ‘I’d be happy to go on a donkey!’
This was during the Shaws’ inexplicably trite summer fete at which Petrukhin’s colleague Courtney Johnson won a pig, a teddy bear, and every other prize available: a comic romp with the satirical substance of Rentaghost.
Frankly near all of it veered between the comically and the painfully ludicrous.
The car chases we’d endured last week had been so slow they made Heartbeat look like Grand Theft Auto. In some of them both MI5’s and Petrukhin’s vehicles had been stationary so were barely ‘chases’ at all.
Not good: Even stars as classy as Keeley Hawes could only do so much when they were given such ridiculous dialogue
Despite more frantic violins than the climax to a Bond movie, you knew Putrukhin was never in any danger – not least because it was the first episode.
Sure enough this week’s started with his pursuer Mr Field (Mark Bonnar) telling him: ‘we’re members of M15 Mr Petrukin – as I’m sure you’ve already guessed.’
Well he hadn’t but we had.
Petrukhin refused to meet Field and Denning the next morning, objected to having been investigated by MI5 (for being a Russian agent and then before being recruited). Most of all about being asked to spy on his new friends.
In each case he meekly soon agreed though.
Here we go: The first episode had ended with Petrukhin about to be approached by MI5 to spy on three new friends he’d made from the English aristocracy
If he’d stopped blathering he wouldn’t have wasted the entire episode.
Without any actual spying, Poliakoff filled the hour with some bizarrely dull, feeble, ‘action’ scenes that he seemingly considered ‘dramatic’ but were mostly completely pointless.
Hannah Petrukhin made a ridiculously big deal about whether to volunteer for a ‘civil defence exercise’ (for the emergency services and army to practise for a nuclear attack).
‘I sort of want to go to it,’ she told a deaf worker at her dad’s hearing aid company (whose name she hadn’t bothered to ask). ‘I’m not sure why.’
If she didn’t know, it was hard for us to.
Tedious: Without any actual spying, Poliakoff filled the hour with some bizarrely dull, feeble, ‘action’ scenes that he seemingly considered ‘dramatic’ but were mostly completely pointless
All it involved was ‘just lying down and playing dead’ but she couldn’t do that properly.
She ended up running away, convinced the men in white suits and gas masks were coming to get her.
She also suffered what Poliakoff seemed to see as another huge etiquette disaster. Last week she had broken a heel and missing being introduced to the queen.
Now she couldn’t cope with being a deb and having to attend ‘three or four parties a week’ for ‘the season.’
Indifferent: No one seemed remotely likeable in Poliakoff’s new drama
So she lied to her parents (about going to an important party, attending her etiquette lessons and meeting the Queen).
Petrukhin was lying too (to his trusty sidekick Courtney Johnson, his wife and children about his deal with MI5).
Even Petrukhin’s young son Sasha had been made to lie to his family by Kathleen Shaw (about seeing her husband having one of his PTSD attacks).
No one seemed remotely likeable except perhaps Petrukhin’s wife, who did not share her husband’s fawning obsession with his new ‘friends’ and refused to have anything more to do with them branding Kathleen Shaw’s fete as ‘ridiculous.’ A word you could have applied to everything else in Summer Of Rockets.
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