Roughly speaking, White Heat is The Big Chill without a body. There's no equivalent to Kevin Costner in an open casket, just hazard tape round a bedroom door and Charlotte looking a bit queasy as a solicitor explains that it was two weeks before anyone noticed that the room's last occupant was no longer breathing. Charlotte is there because she's been named as one of the deceased's legatees, along with the other surviving members of a Sixties flat-share. And they're all in the will, you suspect, because it's the best available excuse to get them all back together again so that Paula Milne can flick between the past and the present, between youthful hope and the melancholy knowledge of middle age (so far nobody appears very cheerful to have made it to 60).
Back in 1965, the same address is owned by Jack, an arrogant trust funder who proposes a lifestyle "based on the welfare of the group rather than the selfish needs of the individual... up to and including sex". Interviewing prospective tenants, Jack invites their views on a house rule banning anyone sleeping with the same person for three consecutive nights, a suggestion that gets a promising hands-up from Charlotte (played as her younger self by Claire Foy), but which everyone else sensibly declines to endorse. They have noticed that Jack's definition of the welfare of the group bears a distinct resemblance to the selfish needs of an individual, namely Jack himself. He's so obnoxious that I'm already hoping he's the one who left a big stain in the bedroom years later.
Jack's final selection is a pick'n'mix of socially useful types, including a Jamaican student (that's racism sorted), a gay Asian (homosexual liberation), Charlotte (the pill and feminism) and Alan, a strait-laced boffin who is presumably going to turn out to be Sir Clive Sinclair. And that one-of-each approach to the peopling of the drama is matched by a button-pressing approach to historical texture. Cue Charlotte moving towards her Dansette as her parents' bickering rises through the floorboards... and cue "talkin' 'bout my generation"... and cue the gleaming VW Combi that whisks her off to London... and cue a rabbit-ears telly aerial and a little clip of The Black and White Minstrel show as well.
The clunkiness of the scene-setting aside, John Alexander's direction is a stylish affair of pensive close-ups and occluded framing that makes it feel a lot less soapy than it actually is. And if you're in the market for a nostalgic soap it should do the trick, although there's a self-contradiction in the narrative structure. Milne is most interested in the women here, in their growing sense of sexual and intellectual possibilities. She shows you Charlotte's mother as a diagram of what they all hope to leave behind, a menopausal woman played by Tamsin Greig with a touching drabness: "Someone, somewhere, is out there living the life I should have had," she says, "because I gave mine away to the first man I met." But (in part because it's true to the time) all their advances end up being effectively defined by the men they resist. Odd too that Jack, loathsome as he is, should feel more complex and real as a character than Charlotte does. The personal is the political, as the poster on her wall tells us, but if that's true then Jack's still wielding as much power in 2012 as he did back in 1965.
Well, The Sarah Millican Television Programme made me laugh. Her delivery is a bit tele-prompter stiff for the straight-to-camera sections and the format is a bit woolly (bit of Harry Hill telly commentary, bit of Graham Norton tease-the-guest), but she's funny. "A four-foot child can fit in the mouth of a hippopotamus," she said, apropos of nothing. "I'm guessing that whoever found that out isn't allowed to baby-sit anymore."
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