Fifty years after it first traumatised the nation, we asked Hannah Dunleavy to watch Ken Loach’s groundbreaking BBC drama and report back. When she’d picked her jaw off the floor, obviously.
What and why: Screenwriter Jeremy Sandford and director Ken Loach’s contribution to anthology series The Wednesday Play was watched by a quarter of the country when it first aired in 1966. Its subject matter – homelessness – and its realistic approach were incendiary, with one critic calling it “an icepick to the brain”.
Complaints were made to the BBC, a charity – Crisis – was founded and Cathy Come Home won tenure in all lists of respected television drama, as well almost all baby boomers’ lists of ‘most upsetting thing I’ve ever watched’. My mother included. And she’s seen me do standup.
Rated or dated: No, but really, my mum was traumatised by Cathy Come Home. As a television drama fan, I’ve tried several times to get stuff out of her about why, but only ever managed to glean two facts:
One: They went to the pub, then they came back to the caravan and *high-pitched noises and ‘too much’ hands*.
Two: People used to go up to the actress who played Cathy – Carol White – and give her money because they couldn’t separate the two women in their minds.
“White and Brooks are both completely delightful, as a couple who stay hopelessly optimistic that their circumstances will change, almost to the final reel.”
I’m going to admit now that I raised my eyes to heaven at both of those ideas. Particularly the second, which conjured images of those people who took to the hills when Orson Welles read The War of the Worlds. And I’m now going to take the opportunity to take those eye rolls back. Sorry Mother. You were right.
The documentary style-shooting, improvised performances and narration-style (unseen) talking heads give it a level of realism rarely seen in TV dramas today, let alone when it was filmed. Even the amount of Cathy Come Home that is filmed outside – obviously in line with its subject matter – is remarkable, given the number of studio-bound dramas of its day.
It’s a style that works less in the first 10 minutes or so, when Cathy meets Reg (Ray Brooks). They snog in bushes, get married and Cathy falls pregnant. Combine this with a poptastic 60s soundtrack and images of children running under washing spread on lines across overcrowded streets and it starts to feel like Ken Loach doing Call The Midwife.
White and Brooks are both completely delightful, as a couple who stay hopelessly optimistic that their circumstances will change, almost to the final reel, as they are shunted from pillar to post, slipping further and further away from the rest of society and experiencing some genuinely horrific things en route.
Although the focus remains largely on Cathy, she’s not martyred like women in these circumstances so often are, and Reg is not blamed (by her, or the viewer) for his failure to provide for his growing family. They just have a run of back luck, making them merely symbolic of a failure of the system as a whole.
It’s easy to see why it was so shocking to a contemporary audience and not just in the circumstances in which these families are forced to live. It also takes you inside the nitty-gritty, including one remarkable voiceover in which a woman discusses the difficulties caused by all sleeping in the same room, one of which is perpetual rows about sex.
“The documentary style-shooting, improvised performances and narration-style (unseen) talking heads give it a level of realism rarely seen in TV dramas today, let alone when it was filmed.”
If there is any hope in Cathy Come Home it is in the solidarity that Reg and, in particular, his wife, finds with other families in the same situation. They are constantly warned about “the sort” you might find in their new accommodation, but every time they discover people much like themselves, who show more camaraderie than they get from almost anyone else.
So, it’s obviously RATED, right? Well yes, but that’s not the most extraordinary (and maybe upsetting) thing about Cathy Come Home. That is, that it’s not dated.
There’s a scene when Cathy and the kids are in a hostel and a woman discusses how, despite having lived in the area her whole life, she is now forced to live like a refugee. It was so strikingly sad, that I paused the iPlayer and wrote it down. Because I know many, many people who feel something (obviously less desperate but) similar about the places they grew up and were forced out of because of rising rent prices.
And then I remembered that it’s a sentiment often hijacked by the Right to argue against taking refugees, so I decided not to mention it and pressed play. And immediately, the film cuts to someone haranguing a Jamaican woman about how she is causing all the country’s problems. Then an official (again in voiceover) speaks of the need for immigration to fill vital jobs and reminds us that more people leave Britain every year than come into it.
Some things, it seems, never change.
Cathy Come Home is available on BBC iPlayer now.
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Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.