It was Orla’s retirement speech that made everything clear, the moment where she said of her career as a therapist: “We’re like compasses. People come to us in despair and we try and help them through it. Make peace with the past.”
Orla’s former flatmates had lost touch, but they’d gathered after her death and were watching those parting words on DVD, two years after she’d originally spoken them. On a laptop screen, a life seemingly spent on the sidelines was being given fresh meaning and those left behind were only just beginning to recognise Orla’s quiet, positive influence.
It’s not often that TV drama makes us feel complicit in the actions of its characters – we may feel empathy, sometimes revulsion, but rarely do we feel implicated. The death of Orla achieved something unusual in that we experienced the same guilt felt by those who’d outlived her.
Like them, we’d overlooked Orla’s friendship, choosing to think of her as a peripheral figure, a facilitator rather than a participant.
Paula Milne’s drama had charted the group’s development from 1965 until a rift drove them apart at the start of the 90s. The death of one of their number had brought them back together in the present day and while it hadn’t been made explicit, it seemed inevitable that the urn on the mantelpiece would contain the ashes of Jack, someone who’d lived fast before degenerating into a haze of heroin addiction.
But a neat trick was pulled off in tonight’s final hour, for here was Jack in his 60s and with the familiar crinkly half-smile of Michael Kitchen. We’d been hoodwinked all this time into believing that this was a man at the centre of events. We’d seen his rebellious youth, romantic entanglements and inevitable downfall. How were we to know that it was really altruistic Orla who’d be at the story’s nucleus?
The tragedy is that we – like her one-time friends – failed to realise her significance until after she’d died. But as her keepsakes were examined, the hits she’d taken for the team were finally unearthed. Top of the list was the fact that she’d been disowned by her family after opting not to give shelter to her brother for fear that his IRA links would endanger those she lived with.
Only when the series was considered in its entirety did the extent of Orla’s help become apparent. She aided Lilly with her unwanted pregnancy, was there for Jay as he came to terms with his homosexuality and called in reinforcements when Jack teetered on the brink of annihilation. But at the time of each development playing out, we and everyone else were too caught up in the melodrama for this to register.
Similarly distracting were the brushes with major events, those sequences when we witnessed re-creations of the Grosvenor Square riots or the Greenham Common peace camp. There were times when White Heat felt like a social history checklist, but again this proved to be sleight of hand.
By dramatising five decades’ worth of emotional upheaval, the series was able to slowly morph into a profound meditation on what friendship ought to be. Orla’s affinity with her flatmates was neither cloying nor possessive but free from agenda and expectation. What she also possessed was an innate wisdom that it took the others a lifetime to acquire, and she knew that the only way to solve what appeared to be an intractable problem was to force a reunion, even if it meant doing so after her own death.
By making her friends the joint legatees of her will, she instigated a meeting that ended up being part reconciliation, part expiation. On the surface, her legal stipulations seemed a small act of kindness – the chance to choose mementos and divide up an inheritance. The biggest gift, though, was hope for the future and the opportunity for forgiveness and healing.
We, like the characters, will never know whether Orla died lonely as well as alone. Did the decisions she made for the sake of others in her youth prevent future happiness? Was she fulfilled or left wanting? As in life, there are many unanswered questions, but what she belatedly received – from both her friends and us – was a previously unacknowledged appreciation.