WHITE HEAT – written by Paula Milne, directed by John Alexander (BBC Two)

The White Heat seven – the way they were.

White Heat reached a lukewarm finale this week.  What began promisingly eventually fizzled out  to a largely predictable and heavily stage-managed conclusion.

In the six part drama we followed the fortunes of seven characters over a heady 25 year period.

This group first meet as students in a shared house in North London. Each part is set in a different year, beginning in 1965 and ending in 1990.

A present day perspective is established from the outset with the now ageing group gathering at the home of one of the seven who has been found dead at his or her home.

The identity of the deceased is not revealed until the final episode and the contents of a locked safe is not opened until right at the end – this plot device  kept me watching to find out who had snuffed it and what his or her secret was; I’m not entirely sure I’d have made it to the finish otherwise.

The seven characters are deliberately selected  to get a balanced mix of gender, class, race and sexual orientation. There are three women (two English, one Irish), and four men (including a Gay Asian trainee surgeon and one black student lawyer).

This contrived combination is made credible by virtue of the fact that the landlord of the house has chosen this mixture of types and backgrounds as a kind of social experiment to symbolise the time of cultural and sexual revolution.

Jack and Charlotte

The landlord is Jack (played by Sam Clafin) who is one of the main protagonists throughout alongside proto-feminist Charlotte (Claire Foy).  Jack’s radical left-wing views are at odds with his privileged Tory background and it is soon clear that his views on sexual politics, worker’s rights and racial tolerance are swayed by self-interest and determined by a massive ego.

White Heat was written by Paula Milne whose previous credits include The Virgin Queen and Small Island. Born in 1947, she would be roughly the same generation as her characters, coming of age in the sixties and having her own life view transformed by this eventful decade.

Much of the pre-publicity surrounded this era where dreams of a classless society briefly seemed to be realizable and where the pill gave a vital impetus for a sexual liberation.

Every generation finds a reason to rebel against the ideals and attitudes of their parents but this was a time of such upheaval that the gulf between old and young went far beyond being just a state of mind – it was a decade of enormous optimism but great confusion too.  I was born too late to experience this first hand but I imagine it must have felt like there was a real possibility of starting society afresh with a new set of rules.

The title comes from a book by historian Dominic Sandbrook published in 2006 which was subtitled ‘A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties’. This covered the period 1964- 1970 and charted the rise and fall of Harold Wilson’s Labour government.

One thing that disappointed me about the series was that director John Alexander didn’t seize the opportunity to use music as a key soundtrack to the historic events.  Episode one (1965) features well-chosen tracks from The Who, The Yardbirds and Jimi Hendrix but after this, music is less central , despite the fact that the titles of 1967 and 1973 episodes are Eve Of Destruction and The Dark Side Of The Moon.  We get to  hear Bowie’s Jean Genie and The Clash’s London’ Calling but for all the impact on the lives of the seven characters, Glam Rock and Punk never happened.

As the series developed the focus became more and more on disillusionment with Socialist ideals. These were then all but completely buried by the sweeping effects of Thatcherism.  This accurately reflects the fact that, though the world has changed,  equal opportunities are still routinely denied on the grounds of race, gender and class.

The acting in White Heat is excellent throughout but I always felt that I was watching representatives of social types rather than the lives of’real people’.

If it had worked as it should have, the final episode would have been a real tear-jerker.  This was where the remaining six come to realise how their lives are irrevocably intertwined and where the words of the dead friend are remembered: “Hindsight is knowing where you’ve been – foresight is knowing where you’re going – insight is knowing when you have gone too far”.

But I was left unmoved by these closing scenes which seemed contrived and false.  I reflected that White Heat had succeeded in generating plenty of smoke but not enough fire.

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