Paula Milne on writing White Heat | TV reviews, news & interviews
Paula Milne on writing White Heat
The author of the major new BBC Two drama explains how she revisited the past to make sense of the present
Each decade is a response to and reaction again the previous decade. I’m a child of the Sixties, which were clearly to some extent a response to the post-war austerity of the Fifties. You felt the presence of the war. It was the elephant in the room. My parents’ generation had fought or driven ambulances and been informed by its values. My father was blinded in the last week of the war. After the trauma of war, his generation seemed to seek contentment and stability. To us, their children, they seemed so staid - the heated trolley for the food in the dining room, the make-do-and-mend and the thrift as against the hedonistic world we were involved in. The two seemed like different planets – the war was the past, we were the future.
So it’s no coincidence that the first episode of White Heat, which tells the story of seven young people who begin house-sharing in 1965, is called “The Past is a Foreign Country”. They are part of the post-war reconstruction, when a youthful generation started to be empowered and have money in their pocket. A form of post-war capitalism came which was youth culture. There was money to be made in jeans and the record industry. It was very quick to seize on the rebellion. That wouldn’t have happened so quickly if the Fifties had not been a period of shoring up.
White Heat was relatively quick to get off the ground but contains a lifetime's worth of experience. In it I wanted to create characters you would want to see again over the years but who would also have a different response to the political and cultural things that would impact on them. We meet them again in 1968, 1972, 1979, 1982 and 1990, and we also flash forward to the present when they return to the house they once shared after one of them has died. I use the older characters (played by older actors) to trigger memories of the past and create a tension in the present which reflects the damage that the past has inflicted.
The political beating heart of the piece is Jack (Sam Claflin, pictured right), who undergoes the most fundamental change of all of the characters. His struggle is to find a legitimate cause. In one episode he says to his father (Jeremy Northam), a Conservative peer, “Maybe the problem was there were no causes to fight for any more. Your lot did all that for us.” When Mrs Thatcher walks into Downing Street the father says to him, “Just remember it was your lot that put them there.” Jack is, if you like, the prism through which we can see the political imperatives of the past which we are still living through today.
I was born in 1947 and have tried to write about things which I experienced or have seen and remembered as being a big cultural shift. For example, pre Time Out you would answer ads through the Evening Standard or flat agencies. Unfurnished flats were at an absolute premium and you would literally queue up to have an interview. There were some pretty interesting things that people were trying to pull off. As a young landlord Jack at one point says, “No sex with the same person on three consecutive nights.” That was actually put to me in one flat I went to. I blushed and ran away!
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