From the opening shots of sexagenarian Charlotte Pugh (Juliet Stephenson) returning to the flat where she spent the great and terrible days of her youth to dispose of the personal effects of its recently deceased occupant, White Heat – part scrupulously-attentive-to-detail period piece, part wistful lament for time hopelessly and irretrievably lost – is immediately engrossing and deeply melancholy: an elegy for happiness shot through with dope, rock ‘n’ roll and shagging.
In 1965, the 19-year-old Charlotte (played by Claire Foy) moves from her suburban family home into a flat with five other students whom the property’s youthful landlord, Jack (Sam Claflin), has deliberately and painstakingly selected to provide as wide a sociological range as possible.
There’s Orla (Jessica Gunning), a fingers-to-the-bone Northern Irish catholic who sends all her hard-earned chambermaiding money back home; Jay (Reece Ritchie), who is quite at home strutting around in a pair of pristinely white y-fronts and nothing else; an arty mill-town escapee named Lilly (MyAnna Buring); diffident Jamaican émigré Victor (David Gyasi); and Alan (Lee Ingleby), a conservative Geordie who is so straitlaced his balls must be crushed up somewhere around his chin.
Most interesting to Charlotte, however, is Jack himself: a tit-grabbing, proto-revolutionary, Oxford dropout with an MP for a father and a favouring of weed smoke over fresh air. Although he makes an enemy of traditionalist Alan by dismissing Winston Churchill’s funeral as ‘bollocks’ (‘Jack, I have never met anyone as full of pre-digested crap as you!’) and alienates kindly Victor with an angry rant about slavery being over when he tries to clear the breakfast table, this parading of his radical credentials – as Victor succinctly describes it – makes Jack immediately fascinating to a wannabe liberal teenage girl from the suburbs.
But it’s clear that Charlotte isn’t the only member of the household impressed by the landlord’s smoky charms; back in 2012, an older Lilly (Lindsay Duncan) arrives at the flat to assist with the clearing and the atmosphere between her and her former flatmate is immediately strained.
‘There’s not been a day I haven’t regretted what I did to you,’ she says – but what exactly happened, back in the day, between the two girls and the aspiring militant who believes in free love with his tenants rather than a freehold tenancy?
How did the feelings of Victor and Alan (whose respective crushes on Charlotte and Lilly are about as well-concealed as their dislike of Jack) further complicate the mix? And, perhaps most pertinently of all, who took the time to label the shelves in the kitchen cupboard with the housemates’ names?
The answers to these questions will no doubt be found in the subsequent five episodes, along with – hopefully – more gems on the soundtrack from The Who, The Yardbirds, The Kinks and The Marvelettes (although one Roger Miller song is enough, thanks) and a further spattering of Adrian Johnston’s wonderfully atmospheric (albeit unmistakably Barrington Pheloung-influenced) score.
But while the music – along with the hat-tips to 1960s television and the way the flat looks like a spruced-up version of Withnail & I’s bachelor hovel – ups the period detail, the poignancy of White Heat comes from the contrasting scenes in the past and present.
There’s a genuine sense of time’s relentless passing in the way Claire Foy and Juliet Stephenson look simultaneously similar and different (it’s like comparing pictures of the young and old Marianne Faithfull) while the moment the older Lilly looks around Jack’s former quarters, the bare walls and unmade bed crying the silent tears of unfurnished rooms, is almost unbearably poignant. The distance between the thens and nows of a lifetime has rarely been more clearly delineated.
Despite the setting for the story – and try as it might, a few period clichés have crept into the dialogue: ‘It’s like Malcolm X says, man …’ and ‘From now on, I make my own rules!’ are the worst offenders – White Heat isn’t just a This Life for 1960s nostalgists rueing the disappearance of the optimism and flourishing counterculture of their favourite era. It’s a bittersweet delight for anyone who knows the persistent heartache of regret.
Airs at 9pm on Thursday 8th March 2012 on BBC Two.
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