‘Summer of Rockets and ‘The Lost Prince’: Two Pieces of England

From 1946, just after the Second World War, through to the collapse of the USSR in 1991, there was dangerous tension between the USSR and the US, known as the Cold War. George Orwell first used the term in his essay “You and the Atomic Bomb”, published in 1945:

Looking at the world as a whole, the drift for many decades has been not towards anarchy but towards the reimposition of slavery … James Burnham’s theory has been much discussed, but few people have yet considered its ideological implications—that is, the kind of world-view, the kind of beliefs, and the social structure that would probably prevail in a state which was at once unconquerable and in a permanent state of “cold war” with its neighbours.

Some believed Orwell borrowed the term from a French phrase of the 1930s, la guerre froide, but the Encyclopedia Universalis indicates it goes even further back, to the fourteenth century, when Prince Juan Manuel of Spain used it to describe the endless conflict between the Catholic kings and the Moors of Andalusia.

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In 1956, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev uttered his infamous threat to the US: “We will bury you.” He explained later that he was not referring to war, but to the ultimate victory of communism over capitalism. Khrushchev was behind the deposition of Hungary’s Stalinist leader Mátyás Rákosi, leading to the Hungarian Revolution, and repeatedly threatened the West with nuclear annihilation.

Summer of Rockets is a six-part BBC mini-series set in the UK in 1957 during the Cold War. The world is in the grip of fear of the Bomb. Samuel Petrukhin (played by Toby Stephens) is an inventor of Russian-Jewish background. His inventions are beginning to earn him a place in the upper echelons of British society. He invented the hearing aid used by Winston Churchill. Kathleen Shaw (Keeley Hawes) meets Petrukhin while she is looking for a similar device for her hard-of-hearing aunt, and she invites him and his wife to a party at her home. Shaw’s husband, Richard (Linus Roache), is a well-known Tory MP. Their son, Anthony, disappeared when he was twenty-one, and his father has accepted that his son is dead, but his mother believes he is still alive. Reluctantly, Petrukhin attends the party, in hopes of securing a government contract for his latest invention, the “staff locator”, the world’s first pocket pager, as he desperately needs a lucrative contract to relieve the financial difficulties of his business.

Petrukhin’s daughter Hannah is booked to begin etiquette classes with Miss Laidlaws A-level ladies class but mistakenly walks into the casual B-level class, run by Nicolas Halliday. Rumours are circulating that Downing Street has stopped Churchill using Petrukhin’s hearing aid, due to Petrukhin’s Russian background, as they fear it might be a bugging device for espionage. Mysterious men, following Petrukhin, identify themselves as MI5 agents, persuading him to spy on and photograph the Shaws, whom they suspect are connected to Russian agents. In return, they assure Petrukhin of government contracts for his staff locator. But the men also threaten that, if he refuses to comply, MI5 will force his business into bankruptcy. Petrukhin agrees, subsequently receiving his first order, from MI5, for his pager. But Lord Arthur Wallington (Timothy Spall) puts two and two together, due to Petrukhin’s sudden interest in carrying a camera everywhere, and confronts him, telling him that, in fact, Soviet agents are the ones who have penetrated MI5. At first, Petrukhin refuses to believe this but when he casually speaks Russian to one of the MI5 agent’s dogs, the dog appears to understand him. Petrukhin confronts his MI5 connection about this, but is told that the dog learned to understand Russian when they worked at the Moscow embassy for three years and that it had been “a very good audience”. The agents inform Petrukhin of Russian penetration of MI6, and even Parliament, at the highest levels, including one of the closest associates of the Queen and even, possibly, the head of MI5:

Some very senior army commanders, members of the House of Lords, the House of Commons, a top civil servant or two, a newspaper magnate—who are all completely opposed to the dismantling of the British Empire, the granting of independence to our colonies, they are also furious about our national humiliation after the Suez fiasco and our loss of influence in the world.

The agents assure Petrukhin that they plan to expose this network, which they believe is based at the Shaw house and is planning a coup. They ask Petrukhin to help them so that they can bug the house and find the evidence they require.

Petrukhin is persuaded that the MI5 agents who have approached him are authentic and that it is Richard Shaw who is the traitor complicit in the seditious plot. He endears himself to Shaw, who eventually confides in him, telling him of the plan:

to encircle London Airport with tanks … General Maddock’s private army, [and] two other regiments we know we can mobilise. We will also be encircling three other strategically important sites. These locations, by the way, are about to request your pager system. Unwittingly helping us … that will be very important operationally on the day. The public will be told although there are tanks on the street, it is all an exercise to protect national security. But the government will realise that the airport and these other sites have been taken in an operation that they had absolutely no control over. This will concentrate their minds very quickly, lead to a change of personnel at the top and a complete change of direction, without any blood being spilt, or the general public being involved in any way.

Petrukhin is invited to the Shaw house for an important announcement. Shaw says, “Let nobody call this treason. I was a soldier for many years before I entered Parliament, and I can tell you, this is not treason. This is our duty.”

But in the middle of his speech, a Max Dennis comedy program comes on television, with a Dads Army-style sketch, presenting a parody of their entire plan:

Company, halt! I’m General Mad Dog Bonkers! And I’m going to take over the world. I’ve got my own private army, you see. Training! Training! See, I’ve got a jolly big house. And at the bottom of my garden, there’s a jolly big wood. And in there, I’ve got a lot of jolly big tanks … and pretty soon, we’re going to be coming out of the trees. Out of the trees! And we’re going to teach everyone a lesson, aren’t we … because we’re going to march down Whitehall with our great big tanks, handing out free bananas, free bananas, for anyone who joins us and realises we’re in charge now. Oh, yes, Old Mad Dog has got friends in very high places. Some of them are even lords of the realm! And they’re going to be helping us out in all sorts of ways. Yes, I’m General Mad Dog Bonkers, and I’m going to save the British Empire!

The meeting stops dead when everyone realises there has been a leak. The group cancels the military action and disperses. Lord Wallington tells Petrukhin that this will be the last time they can meet as he has to “disappear for a while. And I’ll be very difficult to find.” Kathleen Shaw is discovered to have been innocently oblivious to her husband’s intrigue.

No one is able to discover how the plans of the coup ended up on the comedy show until Petrukhin’s daughter, Hannah, tells her father that her etiquette teacher, Nicolas Halliday, has also been sidelining as a joke writer for Max Dennis, to which her father replies, “Ah, well, you must tell me all about that. I feel you have rather a lot to tell me.”

Stephen Poliakoff is an acclaimed British playwright, director and scriptwriter who wrote The Lost Prince (2003) and Dancing on the Edge (2013), a five-part series on a black jazz band in 1930s London, which won a Golden Globe. Poliakoff has said:

I’m writing about what’s happening now, about people searching for beliefs in what is no longer a religious country, and about how individuals of charisma and power can polarise things.

The Poliakoff family is composed of super-achievers, including his brother, a chemistry professor, Sir Martyn Poliakoff, who was been awarded the Meldola Medal, the Nyholm Prize for Education, the Lord Lewis Prize and the Royal Society of London Michael Faraday Prize, and was knighted in 2015.

Poliakoff’s grandfather, Joseph, was a Russian Jew, born in the Ukraine, who worked as a tele­phone inspector and helped build Russia’s first automatic telephone exchange. In 1924 he fled the Soviet Union with his family and took refuge in the UK. He was also an inventor, and the founder, with Stephen’s father, of Multitone Electric Company, designer of the selenium photograph telephony shutter, a device that allowed synchronised audio on film, the first paging beeper, a magnetic induction loop that allowed hearing-impaired people to hear in auditoriums, and the hearing aid used by Churchill.

In this aspect, Summer of Rockets is semi-autobiographical. But Poliakoff told Francine Wolfisz of Jewish News:

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. 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.

Daisy Goodwin, the creator of the series Victoria, said: “Forget Game of Thrones. Dad’s Army is the show that is embedded in this country’s imagination.” Dad’s Army was a BBC television comedy, broadcast from 1968 to 1977, set during the Second World War about the Home Guard—the armed citizen militia composed of over a million volunteers who were ineligible for military service due to age or work in reserved occupations (such as doctors and police officers). The Home Guard was to act as a second line of defence in the event of a German invasion. The BBC has been showing repeats of Dad’s Army on high rotation and Goodwin believes it has influenced Britain’s state of mind about Brexit. She said, “The world of Dad’s Army is a comforting place—it was reassuring during the mayhem of the three-day week and it’s soothing to those of us who worry about the effects of a no-deal Brexit.”

As is common with most historically-based drama these days, reviews of Summer of Rockets are polarised. Jim Shelley, for MailOnline, really put the boot in: “Summer of Rockets may well be the worst espionage show ever made … frankly near all of it veered between the comically and the painfully ludicrous.” He thought the story was “lifeless” and that “even a cast as classy as [this one] could only do so much when they were given such ridiculous dialogue”.

Frankly, I found the final premise of the plans of the coup ultimately being exposed in a comedy skit, broadcast over television in the room the seditionists were meeting in, a bit hard to swallow. But Barbara Speed of iNews said:

What could be seen as the series’ weakness is also its virtue: it mixes storylines of debutante balls and confiscated toys with secret agents and shoot-outs at airfields. Tense music plays liberally no matter the theme, gently aligning the threat levels of nuclear war and a child briefly going missing at the races.

Despite a few wobbles in the script, Emine Saner of the Guardian summed up the charm of the series most accurately:

Will Petrukhin’s new invention save his business? Will his debutante daughter make it to Buckingham Palace on time? Will he ever find out who is following him? Will a nuclear weapon fall out of the sky? Do I even care? I think I do, actually. That is not often the case with a Poliakoff drama. Usually the characters are too chilly, too unsettling, with his strange, stilted dialogue in their mouths. But the Petrukhins seem warmer, and more engaging, than usual. Perhaps that is because this drama is semi-autobiographical.

Poliakoff told Michael Hodges of the Radio Times:

My [father] was besotted by the English upper classes and their lifestyle. He was impressed by old money, by beautiful houses that had been in the family for generations, lovely gardens and Rolls-Royces, although he couldn’t afford one himself. He liked all the people I am profoundly suspicious of, that old English elite … I remember being told by various senior executives about ten years ago that high-end drama was doomed because it was so expensive. Now it’s the dominant art form in the world.

It is doubtful if there will be further seasons of Summer of Rockets. Three of Poliakoff’s previous mini-series, Close to the Enemy, Dancing on the Edge and Perfect Strangers, were one-offs and not renewed for additional seasons.


* * *

She had nursed him from his birth up with a devotion and care which knew no break. It is a strange thing, the love of these women. Perhaps it is the only disinterested affection in the world.
—Winston Churchill

During the nineteenth century, children of upper-middle-class families were raised in quite a distinctive way—a way that set them apart from the lower classes—in a practice that continued until it almost vanished after the Second World War.

The nanny, or nursemaid, was a woman employed as a servant to look after a child or children. If she breastfed her wards she was known as a wet nurse. She often played various roles during the child’s development. Many of these women stayed in service to one family for generations.

The Lost Prince is a British mini-series, produced by Talkback Thames Productions, and written by Stephen Poliakoff, focusing on the little-known life of Prince John, the youngest son of George V, who died at thirteen from complications of epilepsy and autism. It is also the story of the unique and tender relationship he had with his personal nanny, Charlotte Jane “Lalla” Bill.

The mini-series, first broadcast in 2003, begins with Tsar Nicholas II of Russia visiting his Royal British relatives on the Isle of Wight. The Tsar’s mother’s sister, Queen Alexandra (consort of Edward VII), the Tsar, and his wife Alexandra, are first cousins of George V. Prince Johnnie is an exuberant, uninhibited child and his grandfather, King Edward VII (played by Michael Gambon), loves him for his quirkiness. His nanny, Lalla (Gina McKee), loves him deeply, finding his joyful spirit refreshing, but Prince John is an embarrassment to his father, George V (Tom Hollander) and his mother, Queen Mary (Miranda Richardson), in the presence of important guests and dignitaries.

At first, Johnnie’s behaviour is accepted as that of a free-spirited child but, at the age of four, the first signs of epilepsy begin to show. Edward VII dies and, during the funeral, attended by Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and many heads of European states, Prince John suffers his first fit, which frightens his parents. Lalla offers to look after him at home, in order to prevent him being sent to an institution, as epilepsy at the time was highly stigmatised. It was a term of derision and the public often confused epileptics with idiots and imbeciles. The Queen also worried about public perception of the so-called “strain of madness” of the royal family, going back to George III. Catherine Whitney, in The Women of Windsor, wrote, “The royal family believed that these afflictions flowed through their blood, which was [thought] to be purer than the blood of a commoner.”

When news of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand reaches England, the government mobilises for war, and Prince John and Lalla are moved to an isolated farm at Sandringham. Johnnie becomes “a satellite with his own little household”. His grandmother, Queen Alexandra, wrote, “[Johnnie] is very proud of his house but is longing for a companion.” During this time, because of anti-German sentiment, the royal family changes its name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor, and King George issues a proclamation:

WHEREAS We, having taken into consideration the Name and Title of Our Royal House and Family, have determined that henceforth Our House and Family shall be styled and known as the House and Family of Windsor: And whereas We have further determined for Ourselves and for and on behalf of Our descendants and all other the descendants of Our Grandmother Queen Victoria of blessed and glorious memory to relinquish and discontinue the use of all German Titles and Dignities.

The Tsar of Russia abdicates, requesting asylum in Britain, but is refused for political and diplomatic reasons. Shortly after, the entire Romanov family is executed by the Bolshevik revolutionaries. There follows an almost unbearably beautiful scene where Prince John gives a recital on his trumpet that he has been preparing for weeks. Due to a mix-up of days, the concert has been scheduled on the day of an important meeting between the King and war cabinet ministers. As Johnnie fumbles with his instrument, King George impatiently stands up and announces that the concert will have to be postponed, due to the urgent state matters—but Prince John orders him, in a remarkable show of assertiveness, to sit down, and proceeds to play a very tender and moving piece. As the death of the Romanovs and their four children is still fresh in everyone’s minds, this is a particularly poignant moment and the emotional highlight of the series.

Prince John’s attacks continue to worsen and on January 18, 1919, after a serious seizure, he dies in his sleep.

Stephen Poliakoff became writer-in-residence for the National Theatre when he was twenty-four years old. He was awarded a CBE in 2007. The Lost Prince was his first work based on fact. He describes it as “history seen through a half-open door”:

It took me a long long time to write the Lost Prince because there was nothing absolutely anywhere about this boy in books … everything had to be found from tiny little fragments.

Mark Lawson of the Guardian wrote:

More than in any of his previous work, you are aware that this bushy-bearded man is an Anglo-Russian dramatist, whose father, according to family legend, watched the 1917 revolution as a child in his pyjamas in an apartment above a Moscow square.

Adrian Johnson, composer of the stunning score, won a 2002 Emmy for the mini-series Shackleton, and an RTS award in 2014 for the British-French production The Tunnel. The remarkable Gina McKee, who portrays Lalla, won a BAFTA Award for Best Actress in 1996, and was again nominated for The Lost Prince.

The nanny has always had a unique role in the life of royal and aristocratic children. Elizabeth Ann Everest was the nanny to the young Winston Churchill, Clara “Alla” Knight looked after the children of Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret, and Tiggy Legge-Bourke was nanny to Prince William and Prince Harry. Marion “Crawfie” Crawford was governess to the children of the Duke and Duchess of York in the 1930s, and wrote a book, The Little Princesses: The Story of the Queen’s Childhood by Her Nanny, that created such a scandal that the Queen Mother, who was said to have given permission for it to be published, never spoke to her again.

In Victorian times, nannies were instructed to discipline royal children, including administering beatings. They often kept children tethered on lines went they went walking. George V was an authoritarian father who once said: “I was frightened of my father and I’m going to make damn sure my children are frightened of me.”

Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy wrote in his book The Rise and Fall of the British Nanny:

It was universally accepted until well into the nineteenth century that the most effective, indeed, the only effective, way in which to discipline even tiny children was to beat them … to be born at all meant one was full of original sin. It had to be forced out by baptism—and by beating. Beating was a way of “saving” children, not just correcting them; a child that was spared the rod would not only be spoilt, it might lose its soul. It is from this view that that unpleasant word “naughty” derives its powerful undertones. Naughty, naught, nothing—a child who was naughty was nothing, worthless, soulless, evil.

This view is, partially, why corporal punishment was started very young and continued so vigorously.

James Boswell, the biographer of Samuel Johnson, suggested that “No attention can be obtained from children without the infliction of pain, and pain is never remembered without resentment.” Resentment is an intricate and complex emotion, a mixture of what the American psychologist Paul Ekman refers to as the six basic emotions: surprise, disgust, happiness, sadness, anger and fear. Resentment combines disappointment, anger and fear. Gathorne-Hardy wrote:

The effect of beating on young children is to fill them with rage. But since the person beating them is usually the person who is looking after them, the person, in fact, they love and depend on for love, they often find it difficult to express or even admit this rage and the murderous, vengeful fantasies it gives rise to. They suppress them, suppress their burning frustrated resentment, and the aggression does not surface until adolescence or adulthood.

Charlotte Bill was born in 1875, and had originally worked as under-nurse for the Duke and Duchess of York, but after reporting serious improprieties about the way her superior neglected the York children, she was appointed head nurse.

In 1905, the year of Prince John’s birth, Lalla went to work for King George and Queen Mary, looking after their new baby boy, which she did faithfully until his death in 1919. Johnnie was the youngest of George and Mary’s six children, the fifth in line to the throne, and was known as the family jester by his siblings Prince George, Prince Henry, Princess Mary, Prince Albert and Prince Edward.

In the Channel 4 television program Prince John: The Windsors Tragic Secret, Elsie Hollingsworth, daughter of Prince John’s coachman, recounted:

Prince John would spend the afternoon with his grandmother Queen Alexandra. She had a big flower bed made into a garden for him where he could dig and plant things. The gardeners would then dig up the plants he put in and put in ones that were in flower so when he came the next week they would all be in flower and he could pick them. It never occurred to him that it was odd in one week that plants could grow flowers that he could be picking. He just took it for granted.

Today, to become a royal nanny, one has to complete at least a three-year degree. Norland College, in Bath, offers a full-time “basic training” course. Maria Borrallo, Royal Nanny for Prince William’s children, graduated from Norland. Not only do you learn about diapers but also how to evade terrorists! A Newly Qualified Nanny (NQN) is a person who has completed three years of intensive training. Nowadays, spanking, beating and other types of corporal punishment are no longer permitted, and nannies are required to sign non-disclosure agreements.

 The Lost Prince was a tremendous success when broadcast on BBC One and won three Primetime Emmys, rare for non-US productions, including Best Mini-Series. It was nominated for a Golden Globe and seven BAFTA Awards.

It is the third instalment of an unlinked trilogy of Poliakoff television productions, after Shooting the Past (1999), about a photographic library, and Perfect Strangers (2001), about a family reunion. Mark Lawson of the Guardian said:

In television terms, Poliakoff’s trilogy is not just innovative; it is counter-historical. It represents the kind of serious, writer-driven drama that seemed to have been banished from the screen by a combination of game shows and cinema envy. This is why, whatever its ratings, The Lost Prince will confirm Poliakoff as the crowned head of TV drama.

Ruthe Stein of SFGate wrote, “as a dramatic retelling of a dramatic time in history, The Lost Prince ranks right up there with Elizabeth R and I Claudius. Charlotte Zeepvat of the Independent said:

Too often the story of Prince John is used as evidence that the Royal Family were unnaturally cold and unfeeling to their children … George V and Queen Mary gave him the best and most loving treatment any parents could have provided, by the standards of the day. Kept safe within the protective circle of the family, John commuted from London to Windsor, to Balmoral and Sandringham, with his brothers and sister, and he did meet visitors and play with other children.

Sue Mitchell of the British Epileptic Association agreed:

There was nothing unusual in what [the King and Queen] did. At that time, people with epilepsy were put apart from the rest of the community. They were often put in epilepsy colonies or mental institutions. It was thought to be a form of mental illness.

After Prince John died, his brother, Prince Edward, Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII, wrote to his first mistress, Freda Dudley Ward: “His death is the greatest relief imaginable and what we’ve always silently prayed for.” He later apologised. King George described Johnnie’s death as “the greatest mercy possible”, but Queen Mary said in her diary: “Miss the dear child very much indeed.” In many versions of the Windsor family tree Prince John has been omitted and one might think King George and Queen Mary had only five children, not six.

Lalla passed away in 1964 at the age of eighty-nine. She never married or had children of her own. She kept a portrait of Johnnie as a toddler on her fireplace mantel, with a letter from him signed, “Nanny, I love you.”

Prince John is interred at St Mary Magdalene Church in Sandringham, next to Prince Alexander John of Wales, the son of Queen Alexandra, Johnnie’s grandmother, who had been born prematurely and died the same day. After the burial, Queen Alexandra sent a personal letter to Queen Mary that now their “two darling Johnnies lie side by side”.

2 thoughts on “‘Summer of Rockets and ‘The Lost Prince’: Two Pieces of England

  • Davidovich says:

    Summer of Rockets initially showed promise but descended into farce and I certainly would not wish for a second season.

  • IainC says:

    Thanks Joe, I love everything you write, and this is no exception (fanboy blush).
    I used to avidly await and watch everything by Poliakoff, but I must admit I haven’t for the last 10 years or so. Not sure if my tastes changed, or his.

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