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Cathy Come Home

November 20, 2016

cch50 years later and little has changed. Fifty years on, Campbell Robb of Shelter has said that while ‘the slums of 1966 are gone … a housing crisis is once again gripping the country’. The numbers of families living in temporary accommodation has risen by a quarter in the past five years. The numbers sleeping rough in London doubled from 3,673 to 7,500, as they have across England. While former Prime Minister David Cameron promised to knock-down 100 sink estates, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has accused the government of ‘social cleansing’ of communities through public housing sell-offs and benefit cuts.

The play tells the story of a young couple, Cathy and Reg, and their descent into poverty and homelessness. At the start of the film, Cathy leaves her parents’ overcrowded rural home and hitchhikes to the city, where she finds work and meets Reg, a well-paid lorry driver. They fall in love, marry, and rent a modern apartment in a building that does not allow children. Cathy soon becomes pregnant and must stop working, and Reg is injured on the job and becomes unemployed. The loss of income and birth of the baby force them to leave their apartment, and they are unable to find another affordable place to live that permits children.

They move in with Reg’s mother, until tensions develop between her and Cathy in the crowded flat. A kind elderly landlady, Mrs. Alley, rents to them for a while, during which time Cathy has two more children. Mrs. Alley even allows them to stay when they fall behind on the rent. However, she dies suddenly and her nephew and heir has the family evicted by bailiffs. The family then moves to a caravan parked in a camp where several other families are already living in caravans, but the local residents object to the camp and set it on fire, killing several children. Cathy, Reg and their children are forced to illegally squat in a wrecked, abandoned building. They repeatedly try to get decent housing through the local council, but are not helped because of their many moves and the long list of other people also seeking housing assistance.

Cathy and Reg decide to temporarily separate so that Cathy and the children can move into an emergency homeless shelter where husbands are not allowed to stay. Reg leaves the area to seek employment. Cathy’s loneliness and frustration finally boil over and she becomes belligerent with the shelter authorities, who are often cold and judgmental towards the women living in the shelter. Cathy’s allotted time at the shelter expires while Reg is away, and she and her two remaining children (one having been sent to live with Reg’s mother) have no place to go. They go to a railway station, where Cathy’s children are taken away from her by social services.

Cathy Come Home’s final scene remains one of the most memorable in television history, hitting viewers like a punch in the stomach with its shock and raw emotion. Cathy, standing on Liverpool Street station in London with two of her three children – one played by White’s son Stephen – is approached by social workers, who drag both the youngsters away, to be taken into care. Their cries are real, as is White’s own hysteria – this was one of the earliest examples of Loach’s talent for getting natural reactions from his performers.

The director positioned the camera well away from the action, creating a situation observed by rail travellers as genuine, not a piece of film-making. “While we were shooting, one woman dived out of the crowd, thinking the whole thing was real, and started freaking out, which made Carol start to do the same,” recalled cameraman Tony Imi.

Cathy Come Home finished with a caption that read: “All the events in this film took place in Britain within the last 18 months.” There followed other raw statistics that lay behind the human misery: 12,500 homeless in Britain and 4,000 children placed in care.

One commentator called it “an ice-pick in the brain of all who saw it”. The play produced a storm of phone calls to the BBC, and discussion in Parliament.

cch-2The charity for the homeless, Shelter, was launched a few days after the first broadcast. Though it was not connected to the programme, “the film alerted the public, the media, and the government to the scale of the housing crisis, and Shelter gained many new supporters.”

Public and political outrage led to a new national house building programme and the abandonment by local councils of their policies of separating husbands from their families and putting homeless children into care.

“It was a very dramatic story to make your toes curl,” said Loach, “but the original script was very rambling. Tony and I talked about it with Jeremy, then I did some research with him, visiting hostels and homeless people he knew, and the two of us worked on the shape of the script, which was changed many times. [The play was billed on screen as ‘a story by Jeremy Sandford’.] It became a horror story about the destruction of a whole set of family relationships and the string of events that brought it about.”

Jeremy Sandford wrote articles about homelessness for Sunday newspapers and a radio documentary, Homeless Families, before penning the script that was to become Cathy Come Home, but it was twice rejected by the BBC’s Wednesday Play bosses, one objecting to the series being used as “a political platform”. “Jeremy had submitted it with the awful title The Abyss,” Tony Garnett recalled. “Then it was brought to my attention by Nell Dunn. I got the play off the ground and, with BBC management, I was a little economical with the truth over what it was about.”

Cathy Ward: You don’t care. You only pretend to care.

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