Paula Milne on mining her past for White Heat

The new BBC2 drama tracks seven flatmates across six decades to paint a portrait of our times

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Long before I had the idea for writing White Heat, I often reflected on the fact that Harold Wilson’s quote from the 60s, about how Britain would be forged from the “white heat of technology” could equally apply to the social, political and cultural upheavals of that era. But focusing a drama on a single decade, even one as tumultuous as the 60s, seemed restrictive.

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I decided to start the journey of the seven flatmates from their initial meeting in the 60s and track them through to the present. This gave me the chance to explore their interwoven lives, loves and betrayals against the changing social and political backcloth of Wilson through Margaret Thatcher to the 21st century, via feminism, hedonism, union strife, the Falklands and HIV.

Arguably every decade is a reaction to the preceding one. After the 60s, the 70s continued to challenge the status quo via union unrest, the burgeoning peace movement and the hippy quest for self-discovery.

Individualism and greed later became synonymous with 80s yuppies. The 90s will ultimately be remembered for the end of the Cold War. But the stark separation of past and present was never more cogent than in the 60s.

First episode

The first episode The Past Is a Foreign Country is set it against the death of Winston Churchill to demonstrate how the new generation was railing against the values of the postwar generation. I was an art student at the time and protested against the authoritarian control over our education in a notorious sit-in at Hornsey Art College.

Defiance was the watch word. We were learning the vocabulary of revolutionary discussion as we groped our way out of the austere shadows. Debates at Hornsey, the London School of Economics and elsewhere lasted from dusk until dawn.

Contradictory, explosive and passionate, they infused us with a consciousness that we really were part of something radically new. We didn’t pretend to have the answers, but we were asking the right questions.

Liberation

Then there was the issue of sex, where the political became personal. The arrival of the contraceptive pill liberated us from the paralysing fear of unwanted pregnancy. Monogamy was abandoned as an anachronistic relic. As we girls found our voice and sexual freedom, the boys were quick to explore it along with us.

Legalising abortion, the emergent feminist gay and civil rights movements and drugs culture were also part of the 60s – and I wanted to explore how these too shaped people’s lives.

Characters

Charlotte, a middle-class English student from Gerrards Cross in Bucks, leads us into the story as she moves into a student flat in north London in 1965. There she meets Lilly, an art student from Bolton, Orla from Belfast, Jay, an Asian medical student, law student Victor from Jamaica, Alan from Newcastle studying computer technology and lastly Jack, a radical and rebel, their landlord and nemesis.

Their diverse class and racial mix means they personify the social mobility that further education provided back in the day, long before tuition fees and cuts.

White Heat is semi-autobiographical. I went to art college, the anti-Vietnam war demonstration at Grosvenor Square, women’s rights marches and, later, to Greenham Common. My relationships were forged in the white heat of a cultural and sexual resurgence.

In writing the serial I was able to draw on those experiences and see how they’d helped shape the person I’ve become. This is why I decided to start White Heat in the present so it connects with audiences now rather than being a nostalgic trip into the incense-laden, bell-bottomed past.

Repercussions

During the six episodes we see six of the seven flatmates, now in their 60s, arrive back at the flat to clear it after one of them dies. But the identity of who died isn’t revealed until the final episode. While they’re clearing the flat, we flash back to pivotal moments in their past to create a sense of mystery about what happened between them, what has so irrevocably altered their relationships in the present.

There are those who claim the culture shock of the 60s reverberates today, that it triggered a disintegration of moral standards. But the fruits of that rebellious decade still resonate. The workplace is transformed. Gay and equal rights are enshrined in law. Civil rights opened the way for a black US president.

It’s true there are still appalling social inequities, that the holy grail of the free market is still with us, that true equality between the sexes remains a work in progress, but that doesn’t negate the profound and subtle changes in the way we all think, feel and interact with each other.

Advice

Someone once asked what advice the Paula now would give the Paula back then? Like most of my generation, I tended not to listen to advice. But as Mel Brooks said, as long as the world keeps turning and spinning, we’re going to get dizzy and make mistakes. Those, too, have made me the person I am today.

This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 28 February 2012.

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White Heat begins tonight at 9pm on BBC2 and BBC HD