Jeremy Sandford

Writer of 'Cathy Come Home'
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The Independent Online

Christopher Jeremy Sandford, writer: born London 5 December 1930; married 1956 Nell Dunn (marriage dissolved 1986; three sons), 1988 Philippa Finnis; died Hatfield, Herefordshire 12 May 2003.

Television has rarely created such shock waves and spurred on real change in society as when Cathy Come Home hit viewers like a punch in the stomach with its catalogue of misery for one homeless family in the so-called Swinging Sixties. The final scene in the legendary BBC "Wednesday Play" showed the actress Carol White breaking down as social workers dragged away her children from her at Liverpool Street station in London – the other side to the freedoms and fashions enjoyed by some in that decade.

There followed captions listing the awful statistics of homelessness and the fact that all the events in the play had taken place in Britain during the previous 18 months. The immediate effect of the play was to speed up the formation of Shelter, the charity launched by five church housing association trusts to tackle the issue.

All this resulted from the tenacity of the writer of Cathy Come Home, Jeremy Sandford, who was determined to expose the truth about homelessness and seek justice after one of his Battersea neighbours and her children were evicted and placed in Newington Lodge, Southwark, an accommodation centre provided by the London County Council. "Newington Lodge really did seem like a place that God had forgotten," he said.

Sandford campaigned by writing newspaper articles and a radio documentary, Homeless Families (1960), in which he interviewed dissenting social workers. Then came the script about the plight of Cathy, her husband Reg and their three children, originally titled The Abyss, but it was twice turned down by the BBC, which objected to television being used as "a political platform".

However, a new era was dawning and, when Tony Garnett became a producer of "The Wednesday Play", the script was brought to his attention by Sandford's first wife, Nell Dunn, who had written Up the Junction, another in the series. That slice of working-class life in south London brought sometimes unsavoury realities off the streets and into viewers' homes, thanks to the pioneering social-realist methods of the director Ken Loach. A hand-held camera followed the action as it was allowed to unfold naturally and critics were soon complaining that Loach and Garnett were blurring the distinction between fact and fiction, in effect an admission by those in power, and their supporters in the media, that what was being portrayed was a real threat to their authority.

Sandford could have found no greater allies than Loach and Garnett. Loach trod the streets with him to see for himself the hostels and talk to homeless people, then helped Sandford to "reshape" the script, which he regarded as a bit "rambling". Cathy Come Home (1966), starring Carol White as Cathy and Ray Brooks as Reg, was an uncompromising attack on council-house waiting lists and the policy of separating husbands from their homeless wives and children, and generally a cry to help those whom the system allowed to slip through the net of the welfare state.

Jeremy Sandford's own background could not have been more different. He was the son of Christopher Sandford, who with his wife Lettice (née Rate), the illustrator, owned and ran the Golden Cockerel Press – a leading publisher of illustrated books, as well as original manuscripts by authors such as H.E. Bates, A.E. Coppard and T.E. Lawrence. Jeremy Sandford was born in London in 1930 and was educated at Eton and New College, Oxford, where he read English.

He became a freelance writer for the BBC, as well as for various newspapers and journals. He drew on the experience of playing the clarinet in an RAF band during National Service to write Dreaming Bandsmen, a play broadcast on BBC radio (1956) and later staged at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry.

In 1956 he married Nell Dunn; the year before their marriage, her father had inherited £23m and their wedding reception, for 500 guests, was held at the Ritz. However, in 1959, the couple moved across the Thames from fashionable Chelsea, where they had lived in a flat owned by Dunn's father, to a workman's cottage in rundown Battersea, near Clapham Junction. Sandford said he was anxious to experience life "with real people", and Dunn took a job wrapping chocolates in a factory.

The initial broadcast of Cathy Come Home made such an impact that it was repeated just six weeks later. It won the prestigious Prix Italia award, and Sandford went on to write a novel based on it (published in 1967). He and Loach were also invited to meet Anthony Greenwood, the Minister for Housing and Local Government. Gradually, the practices of separating husbands from their families and taking children into care were abandoned.

Loach started treading a more directly political path in his film-making after Cathy Come Home, realising that the play highlighted a desperate social issue but did nothing to offer solutions – and politicians of all persuasions adopted it as a cause célèbre.

The founding director of Shelter, Des Wilson, estimated that the first two screenings of Cathy Come Home were worth £500,000 to Shelter, but incensed local authorities tried to discredit the play and accused it of being unjust to welfare officers. To criticism of the play's facts, Sandford responded:

They are true. Some of the things shown in the film happen more rarely than others. The taking of children from their parents, as shown at the end of the film, doesn't often happen by force, but it does happen sometimes that parents fight for their children. With 5,000 children in care for no other reason than that their parents can find no home for them, it would be surprising if it didn't.

In an attempt to repudiate the attacks, Sandford wrote another drama, Edna the Inebriate Woman (broadcast as a "Play for Today" in 1971), starring Patricia Hayes in an award-winning performance as a down-and-out. Such was the writer's reputation that the production was allocated twice the normal budget, although Sandford still faced battles with its producer, Irene Shubik, and director, Ted Kotcheff, when they attempted to cut down the length and number of characters.

Sandford returned to the subject of homelessness for the BBC documentary Cathy Where Are You Now? (1990). As a result of cutbacks by both Labour and Conservative governments, and the eventual abandonment of a national housebuilding programme during Margaret Thatcher's term as Prime Minister, the problem had worsened. One million families had officially been classified as homeless over the previous decade and those in emergency accommodation had risen from 4,400 to 38,000 in the years since Cathy Come Home was first broadcast.

For television, Sandford also wrote Don't Let Them Kill Me on Wednesday (1980), a drama in the "Lady Killers" series. He also made a video documentary, Spirit of the Gypsies (1999), about gypsy music and festivals. It was inspired by his interest in itinerancy; his paternal grandmother, the writer Mary Carbery, had been a member of the Gypsy Lore Society and he edited the gypsies' newspaper, Romano Drom.

In 1978, Sandford said: "I am becoming more interested in spiritual enlightenment as opposed to social engineering as a solution to the problems of the world." After parting from Nell Dunn, he spent many years with alternative communities at camps and folk festivals, before settling with his second wife, Philippa Finnis, in a large country house in Herefordshire, which he opened up as a study centre for New Age travellers.

He championed another misunderstood group in his book Prostitutes (1975) and acted as technical adviser on the feature film drama Prostitute, which marked Tony Garnett's directing début. Sandford's other books included Synthetic Fun (1967), Whelks and Chromium (1968), Down and Out in Britain (1971), In Search of the Magic Mushrooms (1972), Gypsies (1973), Tomorrow's People (1974) and Castle by the Sea (1998).

Although he is remembered chiefly for just one work, Cathy Come Home, it was a landmark in television history and, four years ago, topped a British Film Institute poll as the most important single play ever made.

Anthony Hayward