Thursday, 8 March 2012

White Heat gets warmed up

This feels weird, watching a show with no repetitive voiceover, a complete lack of fake tan, and sentences that don't begin with "I'm not being funny..." The BBC has come under fire lately for chasing ratings with tawdry reality shows, so I suppose we should all give thanks for a high profile new drama series from writer Paula Milne. Even better, White Heat is a period drama, but without the crinoline or endless scenes of servants stewing tea around a massive oak table.

Billed as a blend of This Life and Our Friends In The North, this epic six-parter follows the lives and loves of seven eclectic housemates, from the turbulent sixties right up to the present day. We open on a house in Tufnell Park where someone has recently died. Juliet Stevenson is waiting anxiously outside, wearing a familiar expression that suggests a combination of grief, confusion and irritable bowel syndrome. Last time I saw her mourning in an empty flat, I had to suffer an hour of Alan Rickman's paranormal jazz combo. So this doesn't bode well for the next hour.

The lawyer who shows her around the property helpfully explains that she's there because the deceased's will left the flat to his "former flatmates". "We lost touch over the years" Juliet adds, neatly setting up the format for the series, as we piece together how they all fell apart. We're not told who is dead, only that it was "two weeks before they found him." Better get those windows cracked open and rub some Vanish into the carpet.

This is going to be a flashback-heavy series, so Juliet gazes wistfully at a group photo to introduce us to the seven main characters. Taking a lead from Atonement, it's important that no matter how much societal change takes place over the next fifty years, the main characters will keep the exact same haircut so that it's easy for us to tell who's who.

It's 1967, and young Charlotte (now played by Claire Foy) is being shown around the flat by handsome proto-hippy Jack. After a bit of mild flirting with Charlotte, who's come dressed as the homicidal midget from Don't Look Now, he leans in the doorway and cheekily asks her if she likes what she sees. She nods accordingly, but the low camera angle prevents us from seeing whether he's doing the hilarious elephant impression with inside-out trouser pockets.

Poor old Alan has been given the thankless task of delivering all the expository dialogue, so he helpfully explains that Jack is conducting some kind of social experiment in the flat. He's selected a variety of diverse people to live with him, in the hope of testing their boundaries and seeing how a more egalitarian society might operate. Jack elaborates with a house rule that no-one's allowed to sleep with anyone else in the house for more than three nights in a row, in order to reject "the corrosive exclusivity of relationships." This is going to be a laugh-a-minute.

Charlotte's our main focus for this first episode, so we see her having an uncormfortable dinner with her parents, before retreating to her room to read Lady Chatterley's Lover and listen to The Who. Symbolism alert - there's a giant doll's house on the windowsill, to remind us that her parents still see her as a child who belongs at home. Later on, Charlotte hitchhikes back to Tufnell Park, and smokes a joint on the roof with Jack. She even manages to look unperturbed when he grabs her tit and asks if she feels anything yet. To be fair, it was a fairly thick sweater.

Back in the present day, and our second housemate arrives. If that sounds like I'm describing Big Brother's opening night, there's good reason. This may be a big budget scripted drama, but it clearly owes a considerable debt to Endemol's long-running reality show, with its eclectic housemates thrown together in an artificially antagonistic environment. As Charlotte and Lily embrace awkawrdly, the new arrival ominously announces, "There's not a day when I don't regret what I did to you" neatly foreshadowing the drama to come. Even so, Lily's not the sharpest tool in the box, as she asks whether "it happened upstairs", oblivious to the black and yellow police tape sealing the door immediately to her right.

The rest of the episode takes place back in 1967, as we're introduced to the rest of the main characters. There's Orla, who's supporting her family back in Ireland by working as a chambermaid, and trying to survive on other people's scraps. Given the way she fills out her clothes, I'd say she's squirreling away more than just the odd bread roll. Lily is an artist, who likes to strip naked and cover herself with paint. But she's Northern, so her parents come to visit in a flat cap and headscarf, to point out that such a lifestyle is "not for the likes of us". Victor is a Jamaican scholarship student who can't do the washing up without being accused of endorsing slavery, and Jay is a young Asian partial to helping other young men out of their chinos. All we're missing now is a page three model and a secret mission.

There's lots of social history to cover in 55 minutes, so Charlotte has to do most of the heavy lifting. She goes to the doctor to get a prescription for the pill, then gives herself a quick once over after listening to a feminist debate on the TV. Having witnessed her father indulging in a daytime dalliance with a random blonde, she attempts to tell her mother. Unfortunately, Mum's the kind of woman who drinks gin at midday in a housecoat, so Charlotte's forced to confront him herself with the painful truth. Standing on her doorstep in the shadow of a billboard advertising a Hoover steam iron, our minidress-wearing heroine accuses her father of double standards, before defiantly telling him that it's her right to dress as sluttily as she likes.

By the time we're introduced to Jack's Conservative MP father, it's clear that White Heat is going to be a whistle-stop social history tour, rather than a compelling or realistic drama. In the first episode we've had racism, Churchill's death, the Pill, homosexuality, clashing political ideologies, the generation gap, liberal guilt, communism, adultery, mid-life crises, the rise of feminism, sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. And that's before we've had a chance to learn all the character's names. Attention to detail is all well and good, but Milne needs to decide whether she wants to create an engrossing story, or try and compress fifty years of politics into a six-hour documentary. By attempting to do both, she's as doomed to failure as Jack's social experiment.

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