Cathy come home

The true story behind Britain's most famous TV drama

Deceit, subterfuge, outrage - and that was even before Ken Loach's explosive 1966 TV drama hit the screen. Anthony Hayward tells how 'Cathy' came home

If there truly was a golden age of British television, as opposed to a romanticised reflection on its formative years, Cathy Come Home represents its zenith in contemporary drama. It's 40th anniversary is about to be celebrated by the BBC. But no one should think that this shocking programme and its predecessor, Up the Junction - both groundbreaking productions made by the director Ken Loach for the Wednesday Play series - were the result of a benign BBC keen to expose social injustice and ignite political argument. BBC bosses had not wanted either television play to be broadcast, and both of them - perhaps the most important and controversial of the 1960s - came to the screen only through the deceit and furtive plotting of Loach and the rising producer Tony Garnett.

In 1965, a year before Cathy Come Home caused outrage with its story of a family torn apart by homelessness, Up the Junction featured scenes of factory women, coarse language and a backstreet abortion. There was uproar, and Mary Whitehouse accused the BBC of presenting "promiscuity as normal".

Garnett, then a story editor on the Wednesday Play, later admitted that he had planned Up the Junction while the producer James MacTaggart was on holiday. "It was a case of, 'If the cat's away, the mice will play,'" he explained. "I set it in motion knowing that, if we got quite a way down the line, we would have to be allowed to make it because it would be too late to stop it and, if they did, there would be a hole in the schedule."

The production began with the need to fill such a hole in six weeks. Influenced by Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop production of Sparrers Can't Sing and keen to dramatise a contemporary story, Loach came across Nell Dunn's 1963 book of vignettes about "factory girls" in Battersea who went to the pubs and clubs "up the Junction" - Clapham Junction. The characters, particularly Sylvie, Rube and Eileen, were so vivid and the dialogue so authentic that it needed little work to transform the book into a television play.

"The aim," Loach said, "was to create a sense of authenticity and find working-class voices in the drama and acknowledge that they were central to it - they weren't the peripheral figures of maids and taxi drivers."

Garnett had no doubt that MacTaggart would be unhappy with the result. "We got well under way and committed quite a lot of money and resources to it before Jim arrived back from his holiday," Garnett said. "I knew he would hate it, because of the controversial content, and would not have wanted to make it. For the BBC at that time, it was a bit close to the mark, with its language and general attitude to sex among these young women.

"When MacTaggart arrived back from his holiday, he hit the roof. He and I had a huge, apoplectic, stand-up row in his office that went on for days. But, in the end, Jim - who was a very decent human being and a tolerant, liberal man - said that we could do it if we felt that strongly about it. It was almost a fait accompli by then, really, because we had outmanoeuvred him. The play was then shot very quickly and it turned into quite a triumph for Ken."

It broke boundaries - and BBC conventions - with its documentary-style filming, a result of Loach's pioneering method of using hand-held 16mm cameras to give a look of gritty realism, influenced by his and Garnett's admiration for the French New Wave cinema. But it took more plotting to ensure that the look was uniform. Only two or three days was allowed for filming on location, which was intended to be just a small part of any drama production. Loach managed to stretch the allotted time to four days - and eventually shot half of the 72-minute play on the streets of south London.

When he then recorded the other half at Television Centre, to conform to BBC guidelines for the quota to be shot on videotape, the director was aware that the two would not match when edited together. Knowing that the BBC always "backed up" electronically recorded studio material with 16mm film as a safety measure, Loach made sure that he would end up with 16mm throughout.

"I shot it in the studio in such a way that it had to be edited a lot," he explained. "We did lots of takes and let scenes run much longer than in the finished play. I remember ructions in the gallery. Cutting tape was very difficult in those days and would have taken too long, so we said we would cut the 16mm film. The technical experts said it would not be of transmittable quality and we had an argument, but eventually we won because to do anything else would have sent us over budget. That devious route was the only way of achieving what we wanted and nobody could deny it was a success, despite outrage in The Daily Telegraph."

Clearly, it was not only entrenched attitudes at the BBC that had to be overcome. "The shit hit the fan," recalled Garnett of newspaper headlines such as "'Working girl' play upsets viewers" and "This must be just about THE LIMIT", which followed the screening of Up the Junction. "We did have huge battles in those days and Mary Whitehouse was on the prowl, which was an added frisson, but it was actually very good free publicity and helped the ratings."

Garnett, who became a fully fledged producer after Up the Junction was broadcast, found himself fighting opposition from inside and outside the BBC, but he and Loach eventually won what he described as "a very bloody battle" to allow most filming of television plays to take place on location. Even in the apparently liberal era of the director-general Hugh Greene, which produced innovative television such as the satirical show That Was the Week That Was, * * there were barriers that proved difficult to break down, but Loach regarded Garnett as being very good at "the corridor politics", adding: "They would give us an inch and we would try to take a mile."

With Cathy Come Home, screened in November 1966, the pair cemented their professional partnership and the working methods that had been so hard won with Up the Junction. Anyone who thought the first play had made as big an impact as television ever could must have been unprepared for the shock waves to come. Loach had shown that the new mode of small-screen drama could be relevant to the lives of people in Britain, with hotly debated, topical issues. Now, with Cathy Come Home, he proved that television could speed up change.

This new play originated in the same house as Up the Junction. Like his wife Nell Dunn, Eton- and Oxford-educated Jeremy Sandford had observed at first hand the lives of those in Battersea after moving from fashionable Chelsea. When a neighbour and her children were evicted and placed in Newington Lodge in Southwark, an accommodation centre for homeless families provided by the then London County Council, he started to investigate the issue.

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," 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."

The reaction of BBC establishment types to Up the Junction led Loach and Garnett to keep the exact content of Cathy Come Home from their bosses in advance of transmission. A few weeks beforehand, Garnett, in a memo to one of his superiors, described it as a "love story" and let executives see it only after the programme billing had gone to press in Radio Times, ensuring that any ban would be as public as possible.

In fact, the play was an uncompromising attack on council-house waiting lists and the policy of separating husbands from their homeless wives and children, and generally a plea to help those whom the system allowed to slip through the net of the welfare state.

It followed the story of Cathy, a young woman moving to London, meeting Reg and giving birth to two sons. Reg loses his job as a lorry driver after an accident and they live with his unfriendly mother in Islington, move to a squalid council house from which they are evicted (a scene in which fear is etched into the toddlers' eyes as the door is hammered down), before an arson attack drives them from a caravan site, leaving social services emergency accommodation, a rat-ridden hostel, as the only refuge. Reg is separated from his family, and Cathy, by then the mother of a baby daughter, eventually hands her elder son to a friend to look after, concerned about his welfare.

"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." Loach cast Carol White - who had played Sylvie in Up the Junction - as Cathy and Ray Brooks as Reg, and shot the drama in the documentary style that he had used for that previous play.

Tony Imi, the cameraman, found it an exhilarating experience. "Ken asked me what I thought we should do differently," he recalled. "I said, 'I don't know, but let's just see how it pans out.' Once again, we honed the work of not rehearsing. There would be a group of people, all chatting, and I was in the middle, trying to get sense out of what the scene was about - the energy there was incredible. At the same time, there were people on the film crew who had come up through the system and frowned upon it, saying, 'This is very amateurish.' I think, really, they felt out of it."

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 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.

It may seem astonishing now but, as with Up the Junction, BBC staff of the old school - and some newspapers - objected to the way Loach blurred the distinction between fact and fiction. The Sunday Telegraph's television critic, Philip Purser, slammed Cathy Come Home for "sailing under false colours" by employing documentary techniques.

Despite the criticisms, the tide of emotion that followed the play's screening resulted not just in bringing forward the launch of Shelter, the charity for the homeless, but public and political outrage that led to a new national housebuilding programme and the abandonment by local councils of their policies of separating husbands from their families and putting homeless children into care.

However, Loach reflected on it as a missed opportunity, realising that the drama raised a social issue in the context of a personal tragedy but failed to outline the political causes, allowing politicians of all persuasions to adopt it as a cause célèbre. "There was nothing in the film that suggested what ought to have been done," said the director, who subsequently trod a more directly political path.

Loach went on to become one of the world's great film directors, with social-realist dramas such as Kes, Land and Freedom and My Name Is Joe. This year, he again upset the Establishment with The Wind That Shakes the Barley, dealing with the exploits of the British in Ireland a century ago.

Garnett, after a decade in the United States, returned to Britain in the 1990s to further success in television as an independent producer, responsible for popular series such as Between the Lines, Cardiac Arrest, Ballykissangel, This Life and The Cops.

Sandford had only one other television success, Edna the Inebriate Woman, an award-winning play starring Patricia Hayes as a down-and-out. When he investigated homelessness 24 years after Cathy Come Home caused a national scandal, the problem had worsened as a result of cutbacks by both Labour and Conservative governments, and the eventual abandonment of a national housebuilding programme by Margaret Thatcher when she was prime minister.

In 1999, four years before the writer's death, Cathy Come Home topped a British Film Institute poll as the most important single play ever made for television. Sandford might have reflected that many battles had been fought to bring it to the screen, but many more were needed just to begin tackling the issue that had become his own cause célèbre.

Anthony Hayward is the author of 'Which Side Are You On? - Ken Loach and His Films', published by Bloomsbury in paperback (£8.99); 'Cathy Come Home' will be screened on BBC4 on 26 November as part of the BBC's 'No Home' week

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