Cathy Come Home: 50 years on

On a cold night in 1966, a BBC television play about homelessness created a sense of outrage that led to questions in Parliament and the foundation of the charity Crisis. What is the legacy of the programme that should have changed Britain?

A still from the programme Cathy Come Home

Gary Smith, Investment Director, Rathbones

As years go, 1966 was rather a good one for television. In July, 32.3 million people watched England win the World Cup accompanied by Kenneth Wolstenholme’s iconic commentary. The match remains the most watched television event in UK history.

Yet on 16 November, the BBC broadcast a play that arguably rivalled the World Cup victory in cultural significance. Watched by 12 million people, a quarter of the British population at the time, Cathy Come Home hijacked the national consciousness. In 2000, in a British Film Institute poll, it was voted by industry professionals as one of the best television programmes ever made.

Landmark television

Cathy Come Home was shown in BBC One’s The Wednesday Play strand. It tells the story of a young woman, Cathy, who moves to the city to find work. She meets Reg, who is earning good money as a lorry driver: they fall in love, move in together and marry. He is a dreamer and, although Cathy is more down to earth, she is a little naïve. Nonetheless, their happiness augurs well.

She soon falls pregnant, however, and they have to move out of their flat as children aren’t allowed there. Reg is then injured in a lorry crash, but doesn’t get sick pay or compensation and the family’s seemingly inexorable slide from working-class comfort to homelessness begins. Even as the play progresses, such an ending seems unlikely. The family move in with Reg’s mother, but his brothers have just left the army and the flat is overcrowded.

They slip from one grotty place to another, until Cathy is forced into a shelter for homeless mothers and children — fathers are not allowed to stay and Reg is forced to move away to look for work. The increasingly desperate Cathy knows her marriage is breaking down under the strain, but focuses on protecting her children. They repeatedly seek help from the council, but are told they should have stayed within its boundaries to remain on the housing list. The involvement of social services inevitably leads to heartbreak.

Five decades on, even in black and white, the play remains harrowing. Unlike most BBC dramas at the time, which were filmed in a studio, director Ken Loach deliberately made it feel like a documentary, choosing to film on location using 16mm film and improvised scenes. A commentary of fictional vox pops saying the welfare state stops people from becoming homeless is set against Cathy’s desperate decline.

Impact in 1966

The reaction was mixed. Many viewers were outraged that families were being subjected to such appalling living conditions and contempt from those purporting to help them. The BBC was swamped by phone calls and the play led to questions in Parliament, prompting changes in the hostel rules that separated men from their families.

By chance, Shelter was launched a few days after the play was broadcast: in 2009, the charity acknowledged its debt to the film in alerting the public, media and government to the scale of the housing crisis. More directly, following a campaign by William Shearman and Iain Macleod, then shadow chancellor, the charity Crisis was set up in 1967.

Other viewers felt that ‘docudramas’ were intentionally misleading — purporting to be factual, yet rooted in fiction. That Cathy Come Home was so brilliantly made seemed more vexing still. The genre survived the criticism, however, and remains one of the most powerful ways to tell difficult stories. Equally, such films still draw complaints today from commentators who feel that there should be a clear divide between documentary and drama.

Legacy

Ken Loach dismissed the play’s impact, saying the public outcry changed little apart from the hostel rules that broke up families. This seems unduly harsh, given it led to the foundation of Crisis and helped Shelter’s profile.

However, it is true to say that homelessness and child poverty were not ended by Cathy Come Home: that Shelter and Crisis still have so much demand for their help speaks volumes.

Homelessness issues are still regularly raised in Parliament. In 2013-14, government statistics showed there were more than 81,000 homeless households in England. Of those, 33,960 had dependent children accepted as homeless and in priority need by local authorities.

Shelter says 1.24 million households were on housing waiting lists in England alone last year and nearly 54,000 families are living in temporary accommodation — 3,000 of them in bed & breakfast accommodation.

Fifty years on, politicians from both sides of the house cite Cathy Come Home to evoke victims of the UK’s affordable housing crisis. It is a touchstone for the plight of destitute, unfortunate and desperate families.

That night in 1966 was a There but for the grace of God go I moment for the entire nation. It elicited compassion, raised awareness and stirred politicians to action.

Wednesday evening television drama has rarely, if ever, achieved more.

This article first appeared in Rathbones Review, Winter 2016

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