Sixteen years have passed since Our Friends In The North and that’s an awful lot of Lewis. OK, not all drama since the closing moments of Peter Flannery’s epic – the unbearably poignant 360 degree camera-pan round the funeral party, which suddenly seemed bearable next to the sight of Geordie trudging across the Tyne Bridge to the strains of Oasis’ Don’t Look Back In Anger – has been bad. But those who predicted we’d never see Our Friends In The North’s like again in terms of size, scope and ambition have been proved right. This hasn’t stopped White Heat being billed as “Our Friends In The South”, though. No pressure.
Paula Milne’s series will similarly follow a group of friends down the decades and through great social turbulence. Already we know it’s going to go from idealism and mini-skirts to some sort of betrayal and death. One by one, the former housemates are mustering at their old student digs in London. We don’t yet know who’s potted heid. Juliet Stevenson turns into Claire Foy and back again so we get two Charlottes for the price of one, as with the other characters. Our Friends stuck with the same actors throughout and used chalkdust to age them. Premium grade chalk-dust, though, thanks to an £8 million budget which allowed for 160 speaking parts. White Heat, as is the way now, must deal in smaller numbers, although the housewarming party was convincingly groovy for 1965, a good party scene being a sign of high promise in my book.
Throughout, everyone evesdropped on everyone else to learn more about their new co-habitees; that was clever. Most significantly in the opener, young Charlotte was heard discussing girls who’d done “it”. Then she watched Margaret Drabble on TV tell Joan Bakewell how the contraceptive pill would liberate women. Then she heard her unhappy mother regret stopping with her father, the first man she met, presumably in the Biblical sense. Then Charlotte did it with the MP’s rebel son who’s hand-picked the house’s occupants and agreed, more or less, with his credo that an uncomplicated shag should not be confused with “all the romantic crap about commitment of love”.
White Heat looks like it will concentrate on personal politics – the slogan “The personal is political” is in its place on a bedroom wall – rather than politics, full on (OFITN boldly replayed the Poulson Affair from the 1960s and the miners’ strike two decades later). But I do want to know what’s going to happen next. I don’t like Jack, although guess I’m not supposed to. I like Alan but reckon my feelings about all of them will change, and more than once. I like the atmosphere, mostly powered by three-bar electric fires. Lecherous art tutors are finely drawn and so far Tamsin Greig as Charlotte’s mum is stealing the show. The drama that White Heat most resembles is This Life and maybe Paula Milne has loftier aims but there’s a bit of Andrea Newman in it too (Newman prompts sneers but I’ve always been a fan). It’s not Our Friends, though. Nothing is or will be.
How do you transfer stand-up comedians from stage to screen? I can’t say it’s a question which pre-occupies me, but surely you just stick them in Moss Bros’ finest and wire up a microphone. After all, that worked for Frank Carson. Ah, but he was funny. Comics now aren’t, or at least not funny-funny. And viewers these days demand more than just gags which, as Eamon Holmes (not a comedian) clumsily put it after Carson’s funeral service, are every bit as rat-tat-tat as the gunfire which once echoed round Belfast’s streets. Thus, for our more sophisticated tastes, we get The Sarah Millican Television Programme. Oh dear.
The title sequence of spinning TV sets (“I absolutely love telly,” Millican will inform us) is itself a relic, though maybe this is irony (ha bloody ha). The canned laughter is too loud. There are interviews (the first one was stilted and went on too long) and there is acting. This should be covered by a warning, like strobe effects are, because apart from Jack Whitehall in Fresh Meat, comedians can’t act. Millican was trying to pick up men in a bar after coaching from a sexpert and it was awful. The thing is, she’s funny – and filthy. She should have just donned a dinner suit for some of the old rat-tat-tat.
Not enjoying the Dirk Gently pilot very much, I predicted this “comedy-drama” – another warning required for these – wouldn’t get a series. So here it is. I like Stephen Mangan, who plays the holistic private eye; I like Darren Boyd. But the most telling line was the latter’s “Wow, that’s… bollocks.”
• White Heat
BBC2, Thursday, 9pm
• The Sarah Millican Television Programme
BBC2, Thursday, 10pm
• Dirk Gently
BBC4, Monday, 9pm