Review: White Heat, BBC Two
Bernadette McNulty was disappointed by the opening episode of White Heat, a new BBC drama about seven people who meet as university students in 1965.
From The Young Ones to Fresh Meat, undergraduate life has more often been a source of comedy on TV than serious drama. Universities have become the modern dramatic equivalent of the forest, Shakespeare’s go-to setting for amusing misunderstandings and metamorphoses.
In reality, however, the nation’s campuses are now places of conflict and tumult, where students occupy buildings to protest against the price they must pay for an education that is, at a time of chronic youth unemployment, more desperately necessary than ever before.
It seems like a ripe time then for a dramatist to take a more serious view of university life. In BBC Two’s White Heat, acclaimed TV writer Paula Milne has set herself the ambitious task of creating a drama that follows seven young people across four decades, from meeting at the beginning of their degrees in London in the mid Sixties through to the present day.
Although this sets up expectations of a London-based version of the landmark Nineties drama Our Friends in the North, it is the fact that all the characters are at university, rather than come from the same town – as they did in Our Friends – that unites them in White Heat.
Milne is famous for her adaptations of novels, but White Heat is inspired instead by political ideas. Its title refers to both the 1963 Harold Wilson quote about the implications of technological change, how Britain was going to be “forged in the white heat of this revolution”, and Dominic Sandbrook’s history of the Wilson decade. The Sixties that Milne sets out to portray were not so much swinging as shaking British life right down to its foundations.
That’s the theory, of which there may be a little too much in White Heat. University is also the kind of place where you might develop an affectation for Brechtian drama, and in practice, the opening episode has unintentionally made a stab at this alienating style. The characters practically buckle under the weight of their social, sexual and racial distinctions.
There’s a rebellious posh boy, a proto-feminist middle-class girl, a Northern Irish overweight angel, a sexually liberated northern girl, a Midlands gay Asian, a Geordie working-class politico and a Caribbean law student. They don’t even study the same subjects let alone have the same hair colour.
The idea is that posh boy Jack is setting up a radical life experiment, but Milne turns each character into such a cipher it feels more like a game of Guess Who than a plausible dramatic conceit. One character says, “I feel like someone out there is living the life I should have led,” and you want to shout back, “No wonder! You’re not a character, you’re a social stereotype.”
Still, there might be hope for the show. Although a vision of teal and burnt orange walls and mini skirts, White Heat goes relatively light on the period eye candy and avoids lazy use of music to send us back in time. The story is also framed by a modern-day thriller element, where the friends in the present are gathered together in the same house, now Ikea-ed to within an inch of its life, because someone has died. Despite their cartoon pasts they seemed to have grown into enigmatic, interesting people, largely down to the acting talent of Lindsay Duncan and Juliet Stevenson. That might turn out to be the real revolution.