White Heat episode 1: The Past Is A Foreign Country

Our friends in the South…


5 stars



Air date - UK: 8 March 2012, 9pm BBC Two


3 of the White Heat cast

The latest in the genre of historical drama focusing on the recent past, the first episode of Paula Milne's White Heat, about seven diverse friends sharing a flat in the mid-1960s, starts promisingly enough. Middle-aged Charlotte Pugh (the always watchable Juliet Stevenson) thinks back to 1965 when she started sharing the flat owned by Jack (Sam Claflin), the living embodiment of confrontational social change who wants an alternative to "the nuclear bloody family… a model of living based on equality." So far so good, but the first sign that things might be unravelling is when Alan (Lee Ingleby) comments that Jack's tenants are a typical "socio-economic mix" of the time: a political radical, a provincial girl discovering her sexuality in the big city, a (modern) art student, an educated, working-class young man with traditional values, a poor Irish girl, an immigrant black man studying law and an Asian student doctor who also happens to be gay.


Alan's rather self-conscious point highlights that such a mixture of characters is also very convenient for a TV drama, particularly when the narrative is restricted to six hour long episodes, rather than the 11 and half hours of Our Friends In The North, which told a similar story of young friends growing up from the 1960s onwards. White Heat clearly wants to be Our Friends (as the BBC publicity suggests), but, on the evidence of the first episode, its characters are restricted by each instalment concentrating on one year, and by making each protagonist symbolic of an issue of the period. It's also history writ large: it's the month of Winston Churchill's funeral, people quote Malcolm X and Lilly (MyAnna Buring) spontaneously invents body painting.


A girl having a glass of wine in White Heat

There's also no space for the protagonists to interact naturally with the developing, historical context. In a longer series, you could do that through having them, say, work for a business designed to exploit new, cultural trends (Mad Men), or by putting them and their families on the receiving end of post-war rebuilding and local government corruption (Our Friends again). The issue-led angle would be excusable if White Heat brought something new to an appraisal of the era, but Milne again covers well-worn ground. The main point of the first episode is that, despite the rhetoric of sexual equality, the young generation of British males is - surprise, surprise - just as selfish as the older one. Perhaps things will change in future episodes with the characters established, even if – so far – they are all stereotypes.


This is a shame, because as a BBC production White Heat is classy and well cast. Claire Foy, Lee Ingleby and, in particular, Tamzin Grieg, cast against type as Charlotte's bitter, alcoholic mother, are stands out performances, and the 1960s milieu is authentically and delightfully recreated. But you know something's gone wrong when you find yourself admiring the detail of the production and the actors are better than the material they're given to say.


Rob Fairclough



White Heat episode 1
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