Carol White On Screen: Part 1

❉ Thirty years after her death, Nina Bea looks back at Carol White’s work to explore what defined her cinematic presence.

As a teenager in the early 1990s, I began to stay up late with my mother to share the joy of watching the films of her youth. As the 1960s nostalgia machine whirred into action, pictures from that era were being dusted down again for TV repeats (before the DVD boom or streaming came along). For us, catching a modern classic in the late-night schedules was event TV.

While I loved the films that depicted the aspirational lifestyles of the ‘Swinging’ London scene, my attention was mostly piqued by those that focused on realism. And for me, no figure I saw on screen epitomised realism quite as well as Carol White.

It was 30 years ago this autumn that Carol White died in her adopted home of the USA – and it was 30 years ago that I first saw the film that could arguably be described as both her career high and the role she was defined by: Cathy Come Home.

Some years passed before I watched Cathy Come Home a second time, but I could always vividly recall the scene that underscored the central characters’ descent into abject poverty: Cathy and Reg (Ray Brooks) barricading themselves inside a dilapidated terraced house, toddlers screaming, as the bailiffs broke down their door. The film started a lifelong interest for me in the fragile veneer of social mobility in Britain.

I avidly sought out the other work that White made with director Ken Loach: the 1965 Wednesday Play Up the Junction and 1967’s Poor Cow. But it wasn’t until I began my research for this piece, delving deeper into White’s filmography, that I realised the emotional weight that must have come with playing the particular kind of 20th century woman she became most closely associated with – the flipside of the Swinging ‘60s dream.

The juxtaposition in the picture

At first, I found it perplexing that White decamped to Hollywood at the height of her currency as a leading woman in the cinema of the British new wave. But perhaps, at least initially, the temptation to follow the glamour was hard to resist. Ken Loach observed that she was increasingly lured “by the film-star treatment” she experienced on the set of Michael Winner’s I’ll Never Forget What’s’isname starring Orson Welles and Oliver Reed, filmed at the same time as Poor Cow.

By this point, White had spent nearly 20 years on camera at a time when British films, no matter what the genre, had made an unofficial record of the nation’s post-war decay and decline. White was often the juxtaposition in the picture – a “Battersea Bardot” dressed in the fashion of the day, with blonde backcombed hair and kohl-framed eyes, pushing a pram along a street of soot-blackened houses.

The “Battersea Bardot” moniker came from Sylvie, her character in an adaptation of Nell Dunn’s short story collection, Up the Junction, which was set in that South London neighbourhood. In real life, White was born on the other side of the Thames, in Hammersmith, in 1943, where her dad had been a scrap merchant. She and her younger sister Jane had been introduced to acting through the Chiswick-based Corona Stage Academy, a part-time theatre school for children which also turned out several of White’s co-stars over the years. The sisters featured alongside Richard O’Sullivan (Man About the House, Robin’s Nest) in a band of fresh-faced but mischievous teenage saboteurs in the 1959 film Carry on Teacher. Her first role had been 10 years earlier as the young Sibella in Kind Hearts and Coronets.

White had appeared in at least 30 films by the time she was 21, all but a handful in minor, un-credited or non-speaking parts. But 1960 proved to be something of a career turning point, with White being just the right age to be cast in films that explored the phenomenon of teenage culture. This marked the start of her becoming part of a darker world of film, playing characters in unsafe situations or finding themselves unwittingly out of control.

In Beat Girl she had a minor role as part of an edgy crowd including Shirley Anne Field and Oliver Reed hanging out in a Soho coffee bar. They become the kindred spirits of schoolgirl Jennifer (Gillian Hills) in a rebellion against her father and new stepmother. White also appeared as the eponymous Linda, a B-picture shown in cinemas alongside Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. The role of Linda was described by one critic as a “tart type” though her purpose in the plot is as the respectable girl trying to persuade her new boyfriend to abandon gang life.

White came to further prominence in noir-ish Rank thriller Never Let Go as Jackie, the young mistress of Lionel Meadows (Peter Sellers) a garage owner and intimidating career criminal selling stolen vehicles. Jackie is his kept woman, but she lives in fear of him and plots to start a new life with Tommy (Adam Faith), a petty thief her own age stealing the cars to order. Sellers is chilling as the much older man dominating and leering over Jackie – at this point White still has a rounded, child-like face, and the scenes where he shoves her around are a difficult watch. Jackie and Tommy appear drawn together by a lack of any stable adult relationships or family – they have become vulnerable prey in the underbelly of London. White’s harrowed, nervous Jackie shows her talent for playing fragility emerging at the age of just 16.

1961’s The Man in the Back Seat saw White on screen with fellow Corona Academy graduates Keith Faulkner and Derren Nesbitt. She was Jean, a hardworking newlywed whose weak-willed husband Frank (Faulkner) is at the mercy of his cold, charismatic friend Tony (Nesbitt). Frank is persuaded against his judgment to take part in the robbery of a bookmaker. When it goes wrong they end up committing a series of violent acts to cover their tracks. All the while, Jean provides the morally upright, pleading voice of the film. But she proves ineffectual and her principal function becomes to show the fear and panic that foreshadow what will become of Frank.

The rise to fame

A variety of minor and mid-range roles came thick and fast for White in the early 1960s in both film and TV across low budget and mainstream, including A Matter of WHO, Village of Daughters, Gaolbreak, The Boys, Ladies who Do and A Hard Day’s Night. But next it was Up the Junction that drew close attention, such was the ground-breaking nature of its content: young dreams crushed by the brutal reality of back-street abortion.

Up the Junction was part of the Wednesday Play series, which showed a self-contained mid-week teleplay, penned, produced and directed in large part by an up-and-coming generation of creatives. Among them were director Ken Loach, writers Jeremy Sandford and Nell Dunn, and producer Tony Garnett.

As Sylvie, White is the unofficial head of a tight-knit social group with her sister Rube (Geraldine Sherman) and their friend Eileen (Vickery Turner). On the surface, they appear to be just as glamorous as the groovy crowds partying a few short miles away in Soho but, despite their cool clothes and well-styled hair, for these working-class girls a drudgery is already setting in.

Despite the care-free moments when the girls are out and about, underscored by pop music as if they’re in a pop video, there is contrast to hopeful youth: the mise en scène offers a diet of crumbling terraces loomed over by high-rise blocks, grubby children playing on post-war bomb sites, and a supporting cast of rotund middle-aged women – their colleagues at a chocolate packing factory – discussing the disappointing nature of life. Working-class realities are dealt with in a modern way, using close-up camera work and abrupt cuts. Characters break the fourth wall and deliver voiceovers – the dialogue is confessional and naturalistic, a style White came to be very much associated with during her time working with Loach.

The three young women take a different approach to love and are left vulnerable in vastly different ways – Eileen falls for the already married Dave (played by Tony Selby) – an average sort of bloke who can’t get over the fact his wife wasn’t a virgin when they met. Rube and Terry fall head over heels in love but that leads to pregnancy outside marriage. And while Rube wants to keep the child, her mother orders her to an abortionist. The scene where she grips Sylvie’s hand during her ordeal remains one of the most powerful scenes from British TV more than 55 years later.

White’s Sylvie, seemingly the most contained and mature of the three, finally lets rip her rage when she sees her ex in the street. All the laundry we’ve seen being carted down the street in prams belongs to her and her two children – left high and dry by the man she calls “a fifth-rate ponce” who then pushes her to the ground in a physical altercation. Her voice-over makes for depressing listening; Sylvie describes getting pregnant at 15, living “trapped” in one room in Brixton, then finding a sliver of excitement in a short-lived affair. The women comment on the “dangers of a good-looking man” – falling for one means the possibility of falling through society’s cracks.

Cathy Come Home took a close-up look at those cracks from the point of view of how society treats the poor, rather than dwelling on the lead couple’s personal power dynamics. It is only at the end that Cathy and Reg are no longer presenting as a united front, separated by the system so Reg can hunt for work while Cathy and the boys stay at a bleak mother and child hostel (a modern welfare arrangement that still smelt faintly of the workhouse).

Of White’s work, Cathy Come Home is the project that has been written about most extensively. As with Up the Junction, the makers pioneered documentary techniques within its fictional setting. For some critics this proved an unwelcome distortion of the facts – which part of it was true and which wasn’t? For me, the way that White was presented visually feeds directly into this innovative genre blurring and plays with the audience’s feelings about who exactly populated society’s ‘underclass’.

Ray Brooks and Carol White in a scene from ‘Cathy Come Home’, 1966. (Photo by Radio Times)

At the beginning, Cathy and Reg have the accoutrements of 20th century success lined up ready to be dismantled: a swishy pad with all mod cons paid for on the never-never, and a wardrobe of cool coats, narrow trousers and nicely styled hair. But as they are dragged into a series of ever-worsening living conditions, Cathy becomes a visual signifier of the state of the post-war British housing system. Her bright, blonde hair becomes darker and lank; her thin fashion overcoat is increasingly grubby and worn at all times of day; her face is sallow, tired and joyless, the only other moods crossing it being private misery in her cubicle room or blind fury in the face of ‘faceless’ officials. The close-up camerawork makes a voyeur of the viewer, one complicit in the breaking of Cathy. White’s demeanour captured the fall of a positive young woman into the depths of emotional hell.

However, it was suggested that White had been too pretty to play Cathy, and her casting therefore unrealistic: Irene Shubik, in her book Play for Today, reprinted a Granta critic’s claim that if Cathy had been “portrayed as a foul-mouthed, working-class scrubber[…] the sympathies of the good, honest, hard-working and decent British people would have remained dormant”.  In a somewhat ham-fisted riposte, scriptwriter Jeremy Sandford defended the choice of White, saying that many of the women he’d met in hostels during his research for the play were “on average[…] more attractive than those outside”. Although he too resorted to qualifying women by their looks, his overall point remains valid – any woman could end up vulnerable given the circumstances.

In part two, We Are Cult looks at how White’s career continued to be defined beyond Cathy Come Home.

 Nina Bea is a social historian and writer, still gigging around the outer edges of London. Instagram: @eeastlondonista

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  1. A great article Nina , also it may be of interest for you or readers that i have created and run a facebook page dedicated to Carol – CAROL WHITE BRITISH ACTRESS 1943 – 1991 If anyone would like to join , Carols relatives and children are members , and i share lots of rare photos and cuttings along with oters from my own collection , all welcome to join

  2. Hello and thanks – I’ve only just seen the comments section this evening. I’m not a Facebooker (I’m an infrequent guest poster to WeAreCult) so haven’t seen your FB page, but I’m sure those who are would take a look as it sounds interesting.

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