Interview: Keeley Hawes on BBC Two's Summer of Rockets

Set in the UK during the tumultuous summer of 1958, Summer Of Rockets follows Samuel Petrukhin, a Russian-born Jewish inventor and businessman, who specialises in manufacturing hearing aids. Following the Soviet’s launch the first intercontinental ballistic missile, and the start of the Space Race, fear permeates the lives of all.

1957. The Petrukhin family attend the Goodwood races where they meet Kathleen (Keeley Hawes) and Richard Shaw MP (Linus Roache). When their eight year-old son Sasha Petrukhin (Toby Woolf) wanders off, there is a frantic search and Kathleen eventually finds him. Over lunch, Sasha falls ill and is rushed to hospital with appendicitis.

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A few months later, Sasha is preparing to go to Downham House boarding school. His 17 year-old sister Hannah ( Lily Sacofsky) is soon to be presented as a debutant to the Queen at Buckingham Palace, yet she can’t help but question the futility of learning how to courtesy in a world that is shaken by the threat of the atom bomb. Both Sasha and Hannah dread their near futures.

Kathleen unexpectedly visits Samuel Petrukhin (Toby Stephens) at his hearing aid business as she is hoping he will have a suitable device for her aunt. He shows her his latest invention, the staff locator - a new piece of equipment that will revolutionise the way people communicate within hospitals and other businesses.

In preparation for her London debutant season, Hannah begins etiquette classes. She is meant to be in Miss Laidlaw’s class - the A Class - but chooses to attend the more casual B class run by Nicholas Halliday (Matthew James Thomas).

Samuel and his colleague Courtney (Gary Beadle) become suspicious when they realise they are constantly being followed by several men as they attend hearing aid fittings.

At half term, the Petrukhins attend the Shaw’s for lunch where they meet Lord Arthur Wallington (Timothy Spall). Samuel explores the garden and discovers something curious.

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Keeley Hawes plays Kathleen Shaw in Summer of Rockets.

Can you tell us about your character in Summer of Rockets?
I play Kathleen Shaw. She is a politician’s wife and very much a woman of her time. Everybody in the show has secrets and we find out that Kathleen is also hiding something. But because of her position in society, and the fact her husband is a politician, it’s a secret that is kept within the family. This is very difficult for Kathleen, because she is the public face of the family, and must behave as though everything is fine. And of course, it isn't.

Is there anything particular you did to prepare for this role?
It’s all there in Stephen's wonderful writing. And we had a really luxurious three-week rehearsal period which was very intense, fun and productive. Usually with television, you don't get any rehearsal; generally you just go straight in. Stephen spends weeks with the actors sitting, talking, going through every aspect of the script. Therefore everyone is very well informed by the time we start. I felt incredibly well prepared.

And you haven't worked with Stephen before Summer of Rockets?
I hadn’t worked with Stephen before but I'd wanted to for a long time. I met him at various times for other projects but nothing worked out until now. Summer of Rockets feels like the right thing to have made together. I was very flattered to be asked, and it was a unique experience.

When you were looking into the period (the late 1950s and the beginning of the Cold War) is there anything that stood out or surprised you?
The season’s debutantes being presented to the Queen and there being a huge cake brought out at Queen Charlotte’s Ball I had no idea about... I'm not sure how people don't know about that enormous cake! It’s extraordinary - it took about six people to wheel it out on set. It’s ridiculous and incredibly British and very old-fashioned.

And then of course there’s the fact this is very close to Stephen's heart and a very special piece for him. I’ve known Stephen for a long time and yet I had no idea about his father’s hearing aid business or that he was under surveillance by MI5. It is fascinating.

Is there a memorable moment that stands out?
All of it! It’s called Summer of Rockets and we filmed last year and could not have had a better summer. It really was extraordinary. There were endless beautiful locations and hugely ambitious locations - the cast and crew were filming on the Mall at 3am on a Sunday morning. When you’re watching those scenes, you would think its CGI, it’s incredible that they shot a period piece right there in front of Buckingham Palace. I'm still not quite sure how they managed that. They've done a brilliant job.

And the Shaw’s house and gardens were just breathtaking, amazingly beautiful.

And finally, can you sum up the series and why you think people should watch?
It’s semi-autobiographical and it’s about a really interesting period in history. It’s full of fascinating detail and the characters are beautifully drawn.

Also it's a love letter to film and TV, and really demonstrates Stephen’s great love for the medium.

There’s so much, it’s impossible to sum it up but: it looks extraordinary as well as being an incredible story. I’m very proud of it.

Catch Summer of Rockets on BBC iPlayer