❉ An appreciation of the ground-breaking BBC television drama first broadcast 55 years ago.
On 16 November 1966, the BBC’s Wednesday Play strand ran a “docudrama” that shocked its 12 million viewers, launched two new charities and changed both the laws of England and Wales and operation of the social services safety net we all depend upon: Jeremy Sandford’s Cathy Come Home.
Television plays had first appeared with television itself in the 1930s. At first they were stagey, hammy farces and drawing room comedies, designed to appeal to the middle classes that made up the audience for the new medium. When ITV started in 1955, not much had changed – plays for television were multi-camera, studio-bound and had small casts. In 1956, the new ITV company for the midlands and north on weekends, ABC, had started a strand it called Armchair Theatre. The plays were still small cast, studio-bound and usually adaptations of relatively conservative stage plays.
But the management at ABC spotted something: when they showed a play that was a bit more avant garde or intended to challenge the viewer’s opinions or lifestyle, viewing figures went up. Against the conventional wisdom, it seemed that people in the late 1950s liked having television that took them on full in the face.
Armchair Theatre was soon switched from being a family affair into being a contemporary discussion of modern life. New plays were commissioned and a vogue for “kitchen sink drama”, families falling apart or failing at what was expected of them, children breaking out of society’s straitjacket, women refusing to take the word of men as the word of law, gripped the nation.
The trend spread to other ITV companies – Granada and Rediffusion both putting out plays by new writers – and eventually to the BBC. With a popular clamour for one-off plays on television, these programmes weren’t confined to the off-hours or, from 1964, the new BBC-2. They were put in peak viewing time on the popular channels – ABC’s Armchair Theatre on Saturday evenings on ITV, The Wednesday Play and its successor Play for Today also at around 9pm on weekdays on BBC-1.
The plays started to push subject matter further as the 1960s progressed. Abortion (Up The Junction, BBC-1, 1965), sexual assault (A Night Out, ABC, 1960), sex (The Lover, Associated-Rediffusion, 1963), the casting couch (Afternoon of a Nymph, ABC, 1962), capital punishment (3 Clear Sundays, BBC-1, 1965) and “the colour problem” (Fable, BBC-1, 1965) all appeared to challenge the views of the viewers – often heralding real change in their attitudes and opinions.
Into this mix came Cathy Come Home. For its time, the structure of the play is very unusual. It is shot by Ken Loach more like a Panorama or World in Action feature than a play, blurring the lines between documentary and drama. While tightly written and not improvised, Carol White and Ray Brooks play their parts with a startling naivety, looking and sounding for all the world like real people in a real situation. Additionally, the play was shot on film and so covered a longer period of time than usual studio plays, and gained a realism that video (or, ironically, live performance) didn’t quite provide.
The 1960s were a time when television was seen as disposable. For most of its history, it hadn’t been possible to record television’s output. When it did become possible, the cost of the tapes were so high that reuse was the only way to keep within a budget. For film, and when the cost of tapes fell, storage was an issue. Why keep something that most people had seen when doing so cost money and the audience preferred a poorer new production to a brilliant one they had seen before?
Cathy Come Home, however, was kept. Not only kept, but repeated by the BBC several times. In the Radio Times clipping above, the play is getting its first run out since its début and warrants a mention on the magazine cover as well as most of an inside page – most unusual.
But then the effect of the play was unusual too. A fortnight after it first aired, and largely by coincidence, the homelessness charity Shelter was launched – a very successful launch with the play still burnt into the minds of its 12 million viewers. A year later, and entirely because of Cathy Come Home‘s effect, the charity Crisis launched, again with a mandate to fight homelessness. The problem of homelessness came very much to the fore of British society’s conscience in the years after Cathy, with the launch of a further housing charity, Centrepoint, and the 1974 two-day takeover of the similarly named (and long empty) office building Centre Point in central London by the capital’s homeless.
The government of the day also reacted to Cathy, first with the ill-fated 1967 Housing Subsidies Act then the 1969 Housing Act – both heavily influenced by the play. At the same time, the policy of splitting families apart – wives from husbands, parents from children – when people became homeless was stopped: the play highlighted that this was more an act of punishment similar to the hated pre-welfare state workhouses than an attempt to help those without a home, and the public swung against such barbaric practices.
Much of the work done in the aftermath of Cathy Come Home was undone by the free market policies of the 1980s and by society forgetting the impact of the play and turning back to blaming the homeless for their plight. Homelessness for families and individuals is again a big problem in the United Kingdom and we face a housing shortage not seen since Cathy Come Home convinced a government that building more houses – quickly and for a low price – was something that a civilised society needed.
❉ The Wednesday Play: Cathy Come Home (1966) originally aired on the BBC, 16 November 1966. Screenplay: Ken Loach. Director: Ken Loach. Story: Jeremy Sandford.
❉ Historian Russ J Graham is Editor-in-Chief of the Transdiffusion Broadcasting System. This article originally appeared on Transdiffusion, 29 Dec 2014.
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