Monday, 2 April 2012


The Our Friends in the North echoes in current BBC drama White Heat are so blatant, they probably don't need require much elucidation. To quote liberally from the Wikipedia page:

The series follows seven students who first meet in a London flat-share in 1965 and consists of 6 one-hour episodes, set in 1965, 1967, 1973, 1979, 1982 and 1990. 

Milne has said she thinks its theme is "the disappointment of the Left."

etc, etc ...

Nevertheless, the comparison is a necessary one.

Purely on the level of surface, it's striking how much the emphasis has shifted in the last two decades from dialogue to visuals. OFITN consisted largely of astonishingly intimate and psychologically realistic episodes set against the backdrop of a nuanced, multi-dimensional plot that anatomised police corruption, the sex industry, post-war housing, the miners' strike, and the evolution of British political culture over the course of thirty years of election campaigns.  

White Heat, on the other hand, is a tapestry of gratuitous period detail, languorous cigarette/spliff smoking, close-ups of the ridiculously good-looking and anachronistically hipster-ish leads looking tortured and moody, melodramatic snogging, Skins-esque parties, partner-swapping, unearned sequences built around the fashionable countercultural soundtrack, and general unapologetic attempts to build a narrative out of a gelatinous glazing of radical chic and highly stylised cinematography.

The Culinary Aesthetic. I should point out that this is from a promo photoshoot for White Heat, rather than a still from the actual series itself. I think the point stands though.

All this is par for the course. That otherwise decent Great Expectations adaptation over Christmas, for example, suffered from the same tendency to mistake the TV drama serial format for a sort of high-end Burberry underwear ad. (Do Burberry even do underwear? Fuck knows, but you get the gist).

But what makes White Heat a true travesty of the precedent set by OFITN is its emphatic rejection of the ostensible grounding in politics and history for an exaggerated pomo-liberal-humanist stress on the personal. The "personal is political" frame is also there in OFITN of course, and it's a worthwhile enough starting point for social realism (though actually titling episode 4 of WH, The Personal is Political is surely nudging the cliche a bit too far). But for all its glossy New Left references, White Heat has very little historical sense. Politics and history are alien presences that almost always get in the way of personal emancipation (sex, career, creative development) and interrupt the narrative in awkward, crudely obvious ways, like when a row breaks out over a radio announcement of Churchill's death, or when David Gyasi's Jamaican character is sus-ed driving away from a party (which means he can't return to get off with the female lead).

Personality trumps socio-political materiality every time. Everything positive in the narrative seems to arise from some ineffable propensity in the black-female-gay characters to do good in spite of the surrounding political context, without any counterbalancing sense that their emancipation might relate meaningfully in some way to the political struggles being fought outside of the Big Brother-style household. The "Left" whose disappointment is apparently the theme of the piece is reduced to a one-dimensional caricature in the form of the posturing vanity of the "left-wing radical" character, the serenely dislikeable slumming-it poshboy Jack (played by a guy who on many occasions clearly doesn't have a clue about the historical context of what he's saying).

Sexism, racism, and homophobia are not problems that are seen as having anything to do with a wider leftist egalitarian movement; rather, Jack's "precious class struggle", as one character puts it, is viewed as not only separate from but actively antagonistic to the individual identity struggles of the other leads, who are effectively compartmentalised stereotypes of marginal groups alternately quarreling and shagging each other in a sort of Darwinian soap opera, at the end of which hovers the reward of middle-aged middle-class respectability (though of course this will be mitigated by a mysterious tragedy experienced by the elderly characters in flash-forward sequences where they float winsomely around the domestic setting of their youthful sexual conquests and gaze nostalgically at impossibly cool-looking polaroids).

The writer of White Heat Paula Milne comments "Our Friends in the North was absolutely seminal. 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". There wasn't much about race in OFITN, but there was plenty about women and sexual politics. It's just that these things were treated subtly as part of a wider narrative of political injustice in Britain that ventured further than North London and delved deeper than depoliticised liberal lifestyle reductions of gender-sexuality-race.

And the writing and acting in OFITN were just so much better ...

... if not the accents.


carl said...

I have never seen Our FITN. that's probably a mistake, innit.

great takedown of White Heat, which i haven't see either, but hey, i just know you are right.

David K Wayne said...

OFITN? Pah! Got too distracted by all the wigs.

Days of Hope (Loach's best) and... When The Boat Comes In!

Alex Niven said...

When the Boat Comes In. Fuck, that is a curveball Kasper!

I'm a hardcore OFITN advocate. Nothing short of a Middlemarch for the late-twentieth century.

David K Wayne said...

James Bolam's WW1-General Strike tirades against the ruling class were cosy Sunday night TV once. But 'Play For Today' was full of that stuff too.

OFITN was good, but a bit too 'schematic' and rather miscast (not least for the accents).

Tom May said...

See also "Bill Brand", a Trevor Griffiths written mid-70s political drama for Thames - am watching the Network DVD at the moment. Fine performances and portrayal of the political culture in London and in Brand's North-West constituency.

Would agree with David that "When the Boat Comes In" is a very interesting series - an ambiguous central character, moving between classes. The final series covering the bleakness of the '30s and the Spanish Civil War.