❉ In a second instalment, Nina Bea explores some of Carol White’s roles that followed Cathy Come Home.
After depicting the downfall of a mother in poverty through Cathy Come Home, Carol White was the go-to woman for vulnerability on British screens. In a second instalment looking back at her work, Nina Bea explores some of the roles that followed…
The way that Carol White acted female vulnerability during her purple patch of films in the 1960s became something of a blueprint for British cinema going forward. And the dangers inherent in that vulnerability were explored even more explicitly in her next picture after Cathy Come Home; Poor Cow. Another Nell Dunn adaptation filmed around working-class Battersea with a pop music score, it dealt with young women trying to end the dread cycle of their foremothers; of being a songbird captured inside the rusted cage of an oppressive relationship.
White plays Joy, a woman whose life becomes anything but a reflection of her name. She is knowingly attracted to men who are no good for her, her husband Tom (John Bindon) being the cruel, charismatic leader of a group of armed robbers. The audience is dropped straight into her nightmare: the trauma of childbirth, followed by a journey home from hospital alone to her slum accommodation, where Tom declares her a “ratbag” and shows no interest in his new son. Joy passively lives up to her admission of being “frightened of being on my own”, having convinced herself, to the contrary of what is happening, that in life “all you need is a man, a baby and a few nice rooms to live in”. It is a relief to see the end of their relationship when Tom is banged up for robbery – only for her to fall for his mate Dave (Terence Stamp). Their relationship, despite Dave’s criminal career, is at least an expression of genuine love.
But being true to films starring White, Joy’s joy is fleeting: Dave, too, ends up in prison. She finds it impossible – and unrealistic when asked – to remain faithful while he does a 10-stretch: “I need different men to satisfy my different moods,” Joy admits. But this comes at a price.
She and a friend end up modelling for a camera club putting out softcore snaps in Soho. The film camera switches from Joy’s and Beryl’s perspective to the photographers’ and back again; at first they appear to enjoy the dress-up elements, with White’s Bardot eyes adding a sense of glamour to the proceedings. But it is soon clear the women don’t wield any power here: the (much older) men direct them how to arrange their negligee straps while they leer and make suggestions for poses. One photographer declares that sometimes he doesn’t even put a roll of film in the camera. We are now watching the voyeurs from the women’s point of view and it is ugly.
Loach called Poor Cow “an impressionistic film”, which again leant heavily on improvisation to express the story inside a fragmented and episodic narrative. In an interview about the making of it, he described White as talented, terrific and the obvious choice for the lead part. He said that she had played vulnerability by being very present. “She felt it strongly,” he recalled.
A break out from burden?
At the time of I’ll Never Forget What’s’isname, there must have been considerable promise ahead of playing less misery and breaking out of a niche. Her character, Georgina Elben, is a rarity for White – an editorial assistant for a literary magazine, living independently on a Thames houseboat. A template for the educated modern woman in Swinging London, Georgina is shrewd in understanding some men’s motives – they are looking for an attractive, empty vessel to fill with their thoughts, someone to turn into a creative muse. Among them is the arrogant advertising executive Andrew Quint (Oliver Reed), who may have provided at least basic inspiration for Don Draper in Mad Men. Georgina cuts the over-indulged Andrew down in his attempt to fill her with his neuroses. “I don’t want to hear what you’re moaning about.” It doesn’t stop the trailer for the film setting up her role dishonestly; she is painted as ornamental, when in fact her character is a catalyst for Quint, asking questions and holding opinions.
The many women who have been caught in Quint’s charismatic web are cynical. His ex-wife (Wendy Craig) remarks that women “never get to be 19 again like men” – sharing her sense that during the new age of sexual liberty, the greatest freedoms came to men and that women still had to exercise caution or they could end up alone and holding the baby. This is a fate Georgina avoids only by becoming the one thing Quint can’t have – she is killed off in a car accident, unable to even try being his equal.
As a result of her work on Poor Cow and I’ll Never Forget What’s’isname, Hollywood came calling for White. Loach, in interview, said this was a pity. “I felt she would be recognised and understood better here and her talent protected. Whereas there she was just exploited.”
In his chapter on White in his book Fallen Stars, Julian Upton says that White made a “slate of worthless films” in her Hollywood period which ultimately, some believed, lost her her artistic credibility. Although she settled in Miami, for a time she kept up working on both sides of the pond.
In 1972, White appeared in Made as single mum Valerie Marshall, who by chance meets and falls for up-and-coming folk-rock star Mike (Roy Harper) on his promotional tour. Mike is clear about his intentions – he can only promise Valerie no-strings hook-ups. But this is a welcome diversion for Valerie: by day she works in a telephone exchange, by night she minds her baby and her mother, who has increasingly debilitating MS. Mike’s lack of demands and laid-back California nature are appealing, given Valerie’s difficult time with men around her community: she is followed in the street, mistaken for a prostitute and catcalled; she is pursued and patronised by the local vicar; and has a doomed fling with a naïve young colleague from India who misinterprets her intentions.
When in the trailer for Made, Valerie utters the line “All I ever wanted was to be happy. That’s not too much to ask, is it?”, and it could be from any number of characters embodied by White from Never Let Go onwards. And yet, Made is possibly the most depressing and most affecting of all her films (its key plot points I will not reveal, because that would truly ruin viewers’ experience of the film’s absolutely crushing ending).
The eyes have it
After a lifetime of watching White’s enigmatic characters struggle in the face of adversity, with Made it finally dawned on me that I’d never seen her play anyone happy. As not all working-class women have lives of eternal misery, it made me wonder why a more rounded life was never depicted by White. What was it that made executives want to cast her, and she herself want to take on downtrodden and haunted roles? Even in the lighter moments of many of the films discussed here, where White’s characters got to enjoy a joke, she always played them with a sadness behind their eyes, holding something of themselves back. How much of that was White herself?
After Made, White completed only three more films. Among them was 1977’s The Squeeze, where her character is again subject to the voyeur’s gaze, this time during a humiliating strip that Upton’s book describes as a “jarring parallel with her real life”. A smattering of TV work came White’s way, including appearances in the US sitcom Diffr’nt Strokes. She made a briefly triumphant move to the West End stage in the early 1980s in a production of Nell Dunn’s play Steaming. After initial rave reviews, White was asked to leave allegedly over erratic attendance and timekeeping. This coincided with the release of a candid ghost-written autobiography, Cathy Comes Home, and her tabloid kiss-and-tell of a life of affairs.
Extracts from various sources used to compile essays on her over the years speak of intermittent difficulties including with drink and drugs. Her sons, interviewed during a delay to the release of Cathy Come Home on DVD in the 1990s, alluded to her generous nature having been taken advantage of during her lifetime. She died, aged just 48, in 1991.
White’s acting star burned bright and briefly, a snapshot of life in a very specific time and place. Women of her generation were liberated by a relaxing of society’s attitudes towards sex that went beyond the confines of man/woman/marriage but could also be burned by their access (or lack of it) to the new contraceptive pill. Her characters told the cautionary tale of a million ‘Battersea Bardots’, embracing new freedoms and testing their limits to crashing point.
As with other actresses who died, like White, in early middle age (such as Diana Dors), there is always a sense of missed possibilities; meatier roles that would have lain ahead in the next innovative wave of British film and TV. Roles that might have imagined what White’s crumpled characters could become with age, the door to their rusted cage wide open allowing them to fly free at last.
❉ Nina Bea is a social historian and writer, still gigging around the outer edges of London. Instagram: @eeastlondonista