Paula Milne's "White Heat": The series was dismissed for its high-mindedness
The BBC's White Heat was dominated by characters from a left-wing milieu. The central figure of Paula Milne's drama is Jack, the son of an upper-class father, who becomes in rapid succession a socialist journalist, Labour candidate and drug addict. Alongside him is his occasional feminist lover; a Belfast woman, who is so concerned about the homeless she takes them into her home; an Indian, who is terrified his traditional parents will find out he is gay; and a Jamaican immigrant, whose experience of racism turns him into a radical lawyer.
The cast have abortions and affairs, as they confront the changes brought by the cultural revolution of the 1960s, and recessions and conflicts of the 1970s and '80s. It wasn't the greatest drama I have seen, but the plot was moving on occasion, and the acting superb throughout.
Critics bred in the long bubble of 1992 to 2008 could barely say a good word about it. They damned White Heat for taking the central idea of Peter Flannery's Our Friends in the North, which also followed a group of friends from the 1960s on. Milne could not reproduce the success of one of the BBC's greatest dramas, they said, which was fair enough. But they went on to damn her for being too political and too humourless.
Conservatives might object that the Left did not set the terms of debate in the 1970s and '80s, and that both White Heat and Our Friends in the North take an unrepresentative section of the population and make it seem as if the arguments of the times raged around them. Milne's critics were not worried about political bias, however. Rather, they found her high-minded intent jarring. Not one noticed the most striking feature of White Heat and Our Friends in the North: in our strange culture it is easier to write a state-of-the-nation drama if you set it in the past.
Whether a dramatist could set one in the present is an open question. Both Our Friends in the North and White Heat stop in the early 1990s. Coincidentally or not, that is the moment when former leftists veered off into irony, nostalgia, kitsch and parody; when they all but disappeared in a fit of giggles and hid any message they might hope to convey with knowing winks and "playful" references. The shift is covered in Alwyn Turner's Things Can Only Get Bitter, the most interesting essay on British culture I have read since George Walden's New Elites. An observation by the underrated Dan Atkinson of the Mail on Sunday inspired Turner's polemic. All generations see their contemporaries achieve power, said Atkinson. But in the past 30 years, the leadership of Right and Left was handed from those born in the 1940s and '50s to those born in the late 60s and early 70s. The children of the early 1960s — my generation, as it happens — virtually disappeared. Shortage of numbers is no excuse. We were born at the peak of the baby boom. Yet on the Left our sole representative at the high table was Jacqui Smith. Admire her though I do, I can't help thinking we could have done better.