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White Heat: behind the scenes on the BBC2 drama

from The Guardian / by Emine Saner

Emine Saner meets the flatmates at the centre of White Heat, Paula Milne’s 1960s drama for BBC2

Everything on set is quiet except for a plink-plink-plink sound. “This is a carpet warehouse,” explains Elinor Day, the producer. “The rain comes in, but whenever they fix it, it finds somewhere else to come in.” It is one of those days when it doesn’t feel as if the rain will ever stop.

The actors are hurried from the vast warehouse, where the sets have been built, to their trailers in the car park under huge umbrellas. A great puddle has formed in front of the catering truck and members of the film crew and extras line up to take their turn leaping over it to get to the double decker bus where they eat their lunch behind the steamed-up windows.

The first episode of White Heat was broadcast last week and for all the hyped glossy advertising, anticipatory chatter and decent(ish) reviews much of it was created, unglamorously, last summer on this dreary industrial estate in north London. The six-part drama follows seven characters, who meet in a flatshare as students in the mid-Sixties, through to the present day.

Comparisons to Our Friends in the North, the 1996 series about four friends set over three decades, have already been made, but Paula Milne, the writer, sitting over a polystyrene cup of tea on the catering bus, says she doesn’t mind. “People are inevitably going to say that because of the nature of it, but it was a fantastic series so if it makes people interested in White Heat, that’s great,” she says. “I wanted to write something that referenced my experiences.”

The drama takes in the anti-Vietnam war protests at Grosvenor Square and the emergence of feminism; it tackles sexism, racism and homophobia; witnesses Thatcher and the unions, the Falklands, and the end of the Cold War (the name comes from Harold Wilson’s “white heat of this revolution” speech at the 1963 Labour party conference).

After the first episode, some viewers found the way the issues were noisily referenced a bit much. But they do paint a picture of the decade. “We are in an interesting time, politically,” says Milne. “Many people on the left are unrecognisable to how they were in the seventies and eighties; women have made advances in equality, but there is still a long way to go.”

An older cast, including Lindsay Duncan and Juliet Stevenson, play the characters in the present day, but for the period between 1965 and 1990, the characters are played by the same young actors, including Claire Foy, who plays budding feminist Charlotte, and Sam Claflin as Jack, the rich landlord who brings them all together. MyAnna Buring, who plays art student Lilly, is wearing is wearing a long multi-coloured dress and thick eyelashes as the actors prepare for scenes from the second episode, which airs tonight, and is set in 1967 and 1968. “We don’t film it chronologically, we jump around – we could be filming scenes for several episodes in one day – so pitching it right is a challenge,” she says.

Sitting next to her in her trailer, Lee Ingleby, whose character Alan, a working-class boy from Newcastle is the first of his family to go to university, says: “I’m finding it harder to play younger than I am playing older. The journey that a person goes on from 20 to 30 is huge because you’re finding who you are and where you want to be in the world. You either cringe at the way you were or you miss it.” In later scenes, the flatmates are all made to look older with wigs and make-up – and, in Ingleby’s case, a moustache. “You look in the mirror and go ‘I look like my dad’,” he says with a laugh. “I love my dad, but no.”

For David Gyasi, playing Victor, a law student from Jamaica, the drama prompted conversations with his father, who came to the UK in 1966 from west Africa: “And for that I am really grateful,” he says. “When I first read the script, I only had episode one and two and I thought ‘I don’t want to do this,’ because I found Victor weak. Every time he was confronted with a challenge or racial slur in the first two episodes, he backs down.

“I grew up in the nineties, I have a different perspective – we’re a lot more outspoken, we battle. I had mistaken Victor’s silence for weakness and thought he wasn’t feeling what I was feeling when I was reading it. My dad laughed and said, ‘We felt it. It burned in your belly but the only thing you had at that time was to maintain your dignity and in dignity there is strength.’ ”

The actors are called back to the set to film the new year’s eve party scene at the end of 1967. A dozen extras have appeared, some sitting on the brown floral sofas, and the living room has been decorated with paper chains and lights that project psychedelic swirls on the walls. “It’s really important for us to do things like get the dancing they did then right,” says Jessica Gunning, who plays Orla, the gentle Northern Irish psychology student. “John, the director, got us all a copy of 7 Up [the documentary series which followed 14 British children from 1964 every seven years], which was useful because it showed people in the sixties dancing.”

When they are ready to film, I’m allowed to stand in the kitchen area and watch. Any period drama is a pedant’s dream – I’m delighted to spot a scrap from Melody Maker from 1976, nearly a whole decade in the future, on the pinboard – but I love that simple things such as the old milk bottles can create a depth and history in a better, and quieter, way than things like the Che Guevara posters on the wall of Jack’s room next door.

Paolo, an extra in orange corduroys, is standing next to me. He’s a bit disappointed he wasn’t picked for the scene. “I just wanted to dance, you know, show my skills,” he says. It is smoky, and hot under all the lights. Make-up artists are on standby to blot shiny faces, and members of the crew have to keep an eye on the very modern bottles of water the actors have been drinking from to make sure they are removed before the cameras roll.

More extras are drafted in to fill holes in the crowd, and for what seems like ages the scene (“5-4-3-2-1 Happy New Year!” everyone shouts) is repeated again and again to get different camera angles. Finally, John Alexander, the director, watches the film on a monitor set up just outside the kitchen door. “Good,” he says. “It’s perfect.”

• White Heat returns tonight at 9pm on BBC2

– Photoshoots: The Guardian (2012)

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