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White Heat’ captures youthful contradictions of modern Britain

‘I’m a child of the Sixties,” says acclaimed British screenwriter Paula Milne (The Politician’s Wife, Night Watch), whose latest drama, White Heat, opens in that strange, turbulent, mythic decade. “There was between the 1950s and 1960s this huge, seismic change ... and I was a part of that,” says Milne, 64.

'I'm a child of the Sixties," says acclaimed British screenwriter Paula Milne (The Politician's Wife, Night Watch), whose latest drama, White Heat, opens in that strange, turbulent, mythic decade.

"There was between the 1950s and 1960s this huge, seismic change ... and I was a part of that," says Milne, 64.

A six-episode ensemble piece premiering Wednesday on BBC America, White Heat is a bold, fabulously written (if at times overbearing) chronicle of the political and social changes which sweep through Britain beginning in the mid-1960s and which shaped — and in some cases, radically misshaped — a generation.

Milne's ambitious project follows seven characters from 1965, when they share student digs, to Margaret Thatcher's election in 1979 through the end of her reign in 1990. The story is framed by a series of flashforwards which have the friends reunite in 2011 after one of them has died. It's The Big Chill but with actual ideas. If their relationships are intense, full of love, lust and hatred in 1965, by the time they are in their 60s, they are cautious, wary and tense. Love seems to have been sucked out of them. As has their idealism.

The show has the usual ingredients: plenty of period music, from the Yardbirds to Culture Club, lots of drug-taking and sexual experimentation, but Milne's focus is on the ideas and ideals her generation first imbibed in the Sixties and which they either abandoned, or more saliently, marketed as consumer goods once they reached middle age.

"I wanted to capture the cultural, social and political imperatives that can shape a generation, and mark and influence the individual choices they make through the years," says Milne.

The series opens in 1965 when Jack (Sam Claflin), a radical Marxist politics student — who hails from an aristocratic family — decides to stage a social experiment by renting rooms in his house to six undergraduates from different backgrounds: Lilly (MyAnna Buring) is an art student from a working-class family from northern England; Orla (Jessica Gunning), an obese Catholic from Northern Ireland; Jay (Reece Ritchie) a gay, Asian-British medical student; Victor (David Gyasi) the overly earnest law student from Jamaica; nerdy computer wizard Alan (Lee Ingleby); and the story's closest thing to a lead, Charlotte (Claire Foy), a middle-class girl from the London suburbs.

Jack tells his housemates he only has one rule: "No sex with the same person on three consecutive night," which immediately gets Charlotte's attention.

("This actually happened to me," says Milne recalling a distressing stop one day on her search for student housing. "I ran out of the room, blushing.")

Flawlessly played by Foy, Charlotte starts off as a naive, virginal schoolgirl who is rapidly transformed into a feminist activist. Sadly, she falls for Jack and remains faithful to him even as he sleeps his way around the phone book. Sex for him, she rationalizes, is simply a form of expressing his liberation.

Milne is brilliant at capturing her characters' inner contradictions. Yet sometimes they feel like concepts from a sociology text — ideas brought to life — rather than actual people.

Milne, who says she's a liberal, says the political excesses her generation experimented with in the 1960s, and which they implemented in the 1970s, led to the bankruptcy of liberalism.

"If I had an underlying political imperative of my own in telling this story," Milne says, "it would be that in the 1970s, the relentless industrial strife was hugely responsible for the ultimate failure of the left. The Left went too far and killed the hand that fed them. As Jack's father says to Jack when Thatcher is elected, 'This is the end of consensus politics and it's you guys who opened the door and let her in. Just remember that.'"

Contact Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or

Television White Heat 10 p.m. Wednesday on BBC America.