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White Heat, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

White Heat, BBC Two

White Heat, BBC Two

Paula Milne's decade-straddling drama succeeds more as the personal than the political

Jack (Sam Claflin) and Charlotte (Claire Foy) get radical

Everything that’s best about the opening episode of Paula Milne’s White Heat, a decade-straddling saga of seven friends who begin as flatmates in 1960s London, is encapsulated in its Hartley-quoting title, The Past Is a Foreign Country.

For estranged friends Charlotte (Juliet Stevenson) and Lily (Lindsay Duncan) it’s also a country fraught with unresolved tensions and deeply painful secrets, and one that they’re forced to revisit after a death brings the old group back together in the present day. 

So far, so The Big Chill. But the more commonly drawn comparison has been to the Beeb’s beloved flatmates drama This Life – it’s perhaps unsurprising that the marketing has focused on the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll young 'uns rather than the quiet devastation of their aged counterparts.

There’s an unfortunate tendency for characters to speak in polemic sound bites rather than sentences

After a brief foray into the present day which sees Stevenson’s Charlotte arrive at the house she shared four decades prior, we shift back into 1965 to see the day she moved in. The bright-eyed young Charlotte (Claire Foy), desperate to get away from her suburban parents and their on-the-rocks marriage, is interviewed by prospective landlord Jack (Sam Claflin), a self-styled rebellious liberal.

It’s something of a shrewd trick on Milne’s part to write the character as so overtly, self-consciously political. By having Jack “parade his radical credentials” to the point that he irritates just about everybody around him, the show’s own less-than-subtle political parading becomes that bit less obtrusive. Take his gambit to the newly assembled tenants, in which he outlines his vision for their modus operandi – which, in brief, involves “eliminating the exclusivity of couples”. You get the picture. Only Charlotte, impressionable enough to be smitten despite her obvious smarts and feminist streak, raises her hand in concurrence with the "free love" motion. The moment is tongue-in-cheek enough to offset some of the episode’s later, clunkier moments of social commentary – and make no mistake, there are plenty.

There’s an unfortunate tendency, in fact, for characters to speak in polemic sound bites rather than sentences. Following a tense slavery-based fracas, Jamaican law student Victor (David Gyasi) complains, “For all Jack’s talk of poverty and inequality, he knows nothing of them.” Anybody watching with more than one per cent of their brain cells engaged will have worked this much out for themselves, and it’s not clear why the line exists other than to hammer home a point already well made. 

Making up the rest of the group we have Lily (MyAnna Burning, pictured right), who’s studying art despite her working class parents’ protestations that it “won’t put food on the table”; Alan (Being Human’s Lee Ingleby), a Geordie lad determined to better himself who clashes with Jack even more ferociously than Victor; and finally medical student Jay (Reece Ritchie) and Belfast-born Catholic Orla (Jessica Gunning), both of whom are outsiders harbouring secrets. Within these first 60 minutes alliances have formed, rifts set in, and crushes – both requited and unrequited – made themselves plainly felt. It’s not difficult, especially given the tension between Charlotte and Lily in the present day, to make out the shape of things to come.

There’s not much here that’s genuinely novel, and for a show centred on twentysomethings discovering the pleasures of the Sixties there’s precious little joy to be found (though the soundtrack is a predictable treat with The Who, The Kinks and The Marvelettes all sticking an oar in). Given what we know about future episodes, which will span four decades with a rapidly changing Britain as their backdrop, things are unlikely to brighten up. The manifold horrors of the ‘80s are yet to come, but Churchill’s death (which occurs precisely at the midway point here) is a harbinger that also provokes one of the episode’s most compelling and tense character exchanges.

As well-played as the young dynamics are – Foy being a reliable standout – there’s far more intrigue in the notion of the estranged group being forced back together some 40 years on, not only because of the dramatic irony it lends the ill-fated Jack’s story. The balance here is heavily tipped towards the youthful past and it’s likely to remain so throughout the series, but as more and more of the group reassemble (we see only Charlotte, Lily and Victor this week), more time must surely be given over to the fraught dynamics of the reunion.

As it is, the episode’s most memorable scene comes in the present, as the older Lily stands silently in the room that used to be Jack’s. Duncan does wonders without a word, and the moment’s a subtly played and haunting reminder of the way spaces remain the same, even as their inhabitants change and wither beyond recognition. 


Claire Foy in Little DorritLittle Dorrit (2008). “Dickens did just see her as homely, angelic and giving. I looked on her as a sort of a carer whose parent or child is ill. That made her believable in my head.”

Upstairs Downstairs (2010-12). Lady Persephone, posh little brown shirt based on the Hitler-obsessed Unity Mitford, tops herself in a dramatic exit from the second series.

The Night Watch (2011). Foy plays a troubled lesbian toy girl in an adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel about heartache in the Blitz (pictured below with Anna Maxwell Martin)

Claire Foy and Anna Maxwell Martin in The Night WatchWreckers (2011). Foy is wife to Benedict Cumberbatch in fraught low-budget Fenland drama

The Promise (2011). In Peter Kosminsky’s epic historical drama, Foy plays Erin Matthews, an 18-year-old obsessed with investigating the story of the British soldiers serving in Palestine in the years before our ignominious exit.  “I just recognised quite a lot of things about me when I was her age.”

White Heat (2012). Foy is a feminist child of the Sixties who grows up to become Juliet Stevenson.

Hacks (2012). Guy Jenkin comedy inspired by the hacking scandal, in which Foy's feral tabloid editor Kate Loy is not remotely based on to Rebekah Brooks. A rare comic outing for an actress with natural funny bones.

Claire Foy and Victoria Hamilton in Love, Love, LoveLove, Love, Love (2012). In Mike Barlett’s played Foy played a child of a hippie baby boomer. “It’s the Philip Larkin thing: she really does believe her parents did fuck her up. I hope I’m not like she is when she’s 37." (Pictured, Foy with Victoria Hamilton)

Macbeth (2013). “Why does everyone think she’s so evil? My approach to every character is you essentially want to understand. They always have something they are fighting against. They have lost a baby and that’s the catalyst for everything.”

Wolf Hall (2015). Foy’s Anne Boleyn goes toe to toe with Mark Rylance and Damian Lewis.

The Crown (2016). Queen of all she surveys. Bring on series two.

Jack's gambit outlines his vision for 'eliminating the exclusivity of couples'

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I hate to sound like those old farts who complain that the buttons are wrongly grouped on WW1 uniforms, but I was actually around in 1965, and there were a lot of irritating anachronisms on parade in White Heat: they matter because they make the willing suspension of disbelief -- let's face it, already not easy in this drama -- that much harder. The first record the girl put on the record player was The Who's "My Generation" -- which was bound to appear sooner or later, but unfortunately it wasn't released until November 1965, about a year later. Similarly, at the student party we were treated to the McCoys' Hang on Sloopy (another one I had hoped never to hear again) which wasn't released until the autumn of 1965. Anyway, why were the students starting their academic year in January? And why was Churchill apparently dying through a balmy springtime (no one wearing coats) instead of the actual January? (At school we ran a book on who would die first, Churchil or his decrepit doctor, Lord Moran.) The landlord said he had "lost the plot", not an expression anyone used before the 1980s at least. And so on. Incidentally, "Needle In A Haystack", which was at least correctly from 1964, was by the Velvelettes, not the Marvelettes.

Oh, Barry, I just fell in love with you a little bit.

Thank you! Er, why exactly? :-)

Well, I'm not too hung up on WWI uniforms, but I *am* hung up on accuracy. Songs out of place detract from the possibility of immersion in the drama. (I haven't seen it yet; I'm in the USA). I always get a little disappointed when I'm watching 19th century drama and the dresses have zippers, or somebody uses some kind of slang term that won't be coined for another hundred years. You know, people get paid to research the accuracy of these films. Some folks just aren't earning their money. :)

To underline this:

  • the UK issue of the McCoys's Hang On Sloopy on Immediate was 19 August 1965
  • the Who's My Generation was issued 29 October 1965



There's a bit of overzealous nitpicking here, surely? To nitpick in return .. The comment made by Victor to Charlotte on the bus about Jack's lack of familiarity with real poverty, noted in the main review, is not clunky expository dialogue intended to explain anything about Jack to the audience, but is - fairly clearly one would have thought to those of us in the audience with their brain cells engaged - about Victor hinting at his own, currently more opaque, background; as well as him expressing his disdain for Jack to Charlotte. The drama does not depict the students starting their academic year in January. The events taking place are in their second term (as noted in the pub conversation between Charlotte and her father). I also saw plenty of coats. Finally, the point about the songs and timing may be technically true - but My Generation is used as external soundtrack rather than being depicted "within" the drama; and they're only a few months off anyway with both songs. Is that really such an awful inaccuracy?

@Nick Well, I'll have to take another look at it for the question of the academic year! I certainly wondered why all these kids were trying to get into this house at the same time if it wasn't at the start of a year? When the girl went out on to the roof to smoke a spliff with the landlord character, both were lightly clad as they sat in the sun. And yet Churchill was said to be in his death throes at the same time. I realise that information has to be imparted somehow, but there are ways and ways, and bits of this were confusing at best. On the question of chronological accuracy, I suppose it wouldn't matter much if they were talking about which month in 1865 certain books appeared, but in this case there are plenty of us who have pretty good recall of the heady days of the mid-sixties, and yes, it does matter quite a lot, because if you can't trust film-makers to get those simple and easily checkable facts right, you start wondering what you *can* trust them with and how much trouble they've bothered to take, and at the very least it's like hearing a familiar piece of music with glaringly wrong notes in it.

I watched the first two episodes of White Heat with interest.Particularly enjoyed Claire Foy and MyAnna Burning's performances,especially MyAnna's portrayal of the pregnant art student in the second episode.She showed real understanding of the part,and the termination of pregnancy scene was very well acted,in my opinion. The series strikes a large chord so far with those watchers who have lived through the decades shown... The music choices are accurate and suitable for the story.I'm looking forward to following the rest of the series...

Spotting anachronisms is part of the fun of the programme, in my opinion. To add to the music ones and the observations about Churchill's death (24/01/1965, if I remember rightly, my 12th birthday - certainly not spring or summer), "For your love" had not yet been released and the aphorism "the personal is political" had not yet been coined. I suspect the women's liberation symbol had not yet been invented either. And I don't think Jack would have said "realise your potential" even ironically - sounds more like Blair to me.

How sad that a drama of such human-depth, interest and complexity should receive comment such as these. Documentaries- and people on them who were, yes, "there" get their facts wrong, let me tell yo!. And THAT is irritating; it's a documentary. This is a fictional drama. Although I was born in the late-ish 60's, I don't give a damn about the 'inaccuracies'; in fact they add to the charm. I have only seen some episodes; pity the I-player does not put all the episodes up for longer (at least til the series is over). And another thing: perhaps it should be much longer?.. I know it's probably expensive, etc. but you could have made a long, long series, perhaps an episode from, say, every couple of years. As it is, isn't this a bit like repeating the admittedly wonderful 'Our Friends in the North'? Think it's far more similar to this than 'This Life'. But like the above comments, this is seemingly negative. I love it, and the characters are lovable and more, with the way it is done. This is something the BBC is good at, is it not!

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