Chip off the old block

Swinging Sixties? Heard it all before. But a new drama takes a grittier look at those groovy rock'n'roll days
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The Independent Culture
Our received opinion of the 1960s is not dissimilar to that of Austin Powers: a lot of people running around in extravagant floral clothing saying "Fab" and "Groovy" and indulging in more free love than a rabbit colony.

That impression is reinforced by the start of Sex, Chips and Rock'n'Roll, Debbie Horsfield's sparky new six-part drama set in Eccles in 1965. There, two attractive 18-year-old twins, Ellie (Gillian Kearney) and Arden (Emma Cooke), on the verge of leaving school, are rebelling against their repressive grandmother (Sue Johnston). They find themselves drawn to the hedonistic, liberated lifestyle personified by a new band in town, the Ice Cubes, fronted by the charismatic Dallas (Joseph McFadden).

Declaring that "everyone is at it", Arden lays out her plans to the careers teacher: "In six months' time, you'll see me walking down the King's Road in red PVC and black shiny boots, and this lad will pull up in a white E-type Jag and say to us, `Were you on the cover of last month's Vogue? Want to come for coffee at my flat in Carnaby Street?' And I'll go, `Sorry, love, not tonight. I'm meeting Georgie Best in Tramp'." Very The Spy Who Shagged Me.

But the reality is that few people actually experienced this stereotyped vision of what is invariably - and incorrectly - dubbed "the Swinging Sixties". Although they harbour rock'n'roll dreams, Ellie and Arden in fact come into contact with very little glamour during their working life at the local chip shop.

"Although the general view of the Sixties is of a time of tremendous freedom, when people flung off their clothes and jumped into bed with each other, that attitude to life didn't happen suddenly," says McFadden. "Most areas of society in 1965 were still very conservative. Things like abortion were still illegal, and single mothers were unheard of."

"The image of the Sixties is of great liberation, of swinging London with women on the Pill," Horsfield chips in. "But for many, it wasn't quite like that. Particularly in northern provincial towns, they were just coming out of the war. For many, they were just coming out of the Victorian era. So I wanted to write about the girls who were very much brought up with Victorian repression coming into contact with the new culture, as represented by the band. What happens when those cultures collide is what creates the dramatic tension."

Coming on the back of such acclaimed dramas as The Crow Road, Small Faces, Bumping the Odds and Dad Savage, the role of Dallas merely underlines McFadden's status as a leading figure in the much-hyped "Cool Caledonia" movement. While dismissing talk of a generation of "hot Scots" led by Ewan McGregor and Robert Carlyle, McFadden is pleased that actors from north of the border are no longer being asked to play parts involving only a kilt or a Claymore. "People now realise that you can have a regional accent and be a good actor," he says. "People are hungry for something different. They are sick of seeing costume dramas with plummy English accents. They want a more real picture of life."

One such is painted by Sex, Chips and Rock'n'Roll. Horsfield, herself a mother of four, and responsible for such dramas as Making Out, The Riff Raff Element and Born to Run, has made a speciality out of these family sagas. But her characters are never mere ciphers. Think, for example, of the marvellously plausible, weak-willed adulterer Byron (Keith Allen) in Born to Run. "I have to be able to see the redeeming side - even of an unsympathetic character. I have to get into everyone's head and see things from their point of view. You have to find people's vulnerability and humanity because that resonates with everyone."

But perhaps the thing Horsfield is most proud of is that during the making of Sex, Chips and Rock'n'Roll, she discovered a second career - as a rock lyricist. An original soundtrack album from the series is coming out soon. "That's given me great cred with my sons," she laughs. "Hey, have you heard about the record deal?"

`Sex, Chips and Rock'n'Roll' starts on BBC1 tomorrow.