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
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?