White Heat: Talking about her generation

Paula Milne drew on her experiences of Swinging London for White Heat. But her drama series, and the impact of the Sixties, goes way beyond that

If you remember the Sixties, the old joke goes, then you weren't there. Writer Paula Milne was there and she has harnessed her powers of recollection for an epic new BBC2 drama that not only spans the Sixties, but the Seventies and Eighties as well. White Heat follows a group of students thrown together in a London flat-share in 1965, and it's already been dubbed "Our Friends in the South" – a comparison with Peter Flannery's 1996 series Our Friends in the North that Milne (The Politician's Wife, Small Island) believes is not quite on the mark.

"Our Friends in the North was absolutely seminal," she says when we meet. "But it didn't have a lot to do with women, and it didn't have a lot to do with race, and it didn't have a lot to do with sexual politics."

Needless to say, White Heat has all these matters in abundance, with a cast of characters – the proto-feminist, the black student, the gay Asian, the working-class Tory, the public-school leftie – primed to be thrown at every socio-political issue of the three decades spanning the death of Churchill and the fall of Thatcher. It would be absurdly schematic if it didn't have some grounding in the reality of the times.

"I didn't want it to be just a group of London students... I wanted to have this mix, but at the same time why would they be together?" asks Milne. Her solution was to turn this particular house-share into a deliberate social experiment engineered by student landlord Jack (Sam Claflin). A radicalised MP's son whose father bought the house, Jack gets to make up the house rules, including a ban on monogamy, that reflect the free love (or "contingent relationships" – Jack is keen on his Sartre and De Beauvoir) spirit of the time. "I went to art college and there was quite a lot of that," says Milne, "particularly the rule about not sleeping with anyone for more than three consecutive nights. There was a sense of 'let's run this differently'."

The six hour-long episodes are set respectively in 1965, 1967, 1972, 1979, 1982 and 1990, taking in anti-Vietnam War protests, IRA bombs, industrial unrest, the Falklands War, Aids and Thatcher. The mix of the personal and the political is framed by a flash-forward to the present day, in which their old house is being revisited by the former friends after one of their number dies and makes them the executors of his or her will.

The survivors haven't seen each other in 20 years ("something cataclysmic happens in 1990," says Milne), and the identity of the dead character is withheld until the final episode, although from the opening episode it clearly isn't the feminist Charlotte (played in the present day by Juliet Stevenson) or former art student Lilly (Lindsay Duncan), who are the first to arrive. The younger versions of Charlotte and Lilly are played by Claire Foy (Little Dorrit, The Promise) and MyAnna Buring (The Twilight Saga); they're joined by Claflin, Lee Ingleby (Being Human), David Gyasi, Reece Ritchie and Jessica Gunning.

"Getting the right cast was crucial," says Milne. "They must age from 18 to their early 40s and they have to have the maturity to actually get into the mind-set of somebody in their thirties facing childlessness, or whatever. We cover seven time frames... and they all say they are lucky to play such parts. Me, I think we are lucky to have them."

Milne claims to identify with all of her young characters, although her experience of both the Central School of Art and Design and the Royal College of Art in the mid-Sixties most closely tallies with that of Lilly. "People say, 'were you aware that you were part of a generation that knew it was different?'" she says. "I think probably not. At art college we knew we were trying to do something – I mean we refused to do life drawing (which I bitterly regret now), and Hockney and Warhol were showing the way. But when you really knew it was when you went home. We had more secrets from our parents than any other generation, especially with the pill coming in.

"If things didn't actually happen to me – and to spare the blushes of my children, I won't go into too many details – they certainly happened to others. I remember watching Enoch Powell's 'rivers of blood' speech – and being aware of the implications because there was a black guy at art college." And Milne is unapologetic about her metropolitan setting. "The heartland of all that was in London," she says. "I mean you could go further north to Solihull or somewhere and probably not a lot was going on. There might have been a few miniskirts or something."

Her series shares its title (taken from Harold Wilson's landmark 1963 speech extolling the technological revolution) with author Dominic Sandbrook's 2006 White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties – a book that was given to Milne by a producer at ITV. "It's a deconstruction of the period," she says, "and yet it seemed a bit reductive just to do one generation, because what was clear from my being part of that generation was that it was a kind of reaction to the previous generation, the post-war austerity generation. And so you start thinking about the Seventies, and the Eighties being a reaction to the Seventies..."

Had Milne discovered a theme during the writing? "Yes, although I didn't know when I started, but I think it is the disappointment of the Left. If you look at the Seventies and the endless industrial strife... Edward, Jack's father, says to Jack during the 1979 episode (when Margaret Thatcher is elected), that 'this is the end of consensus politics and it's you guys who opened the door and let her in. Just remember that'. Fucking right they did. Excuse my French."

'White Heat' begins in early March on BBC2

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam