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Monday, 26 May 2008

Cathy Come Home (1966)

Not a commercially distributed film, this was very early in Ken Loach's career, back when his only credits were for television. He wouldn't make a feature film for another three years, but Kes was more than enough to build a solid career, especially coming after this one. Cathy Come Home was an episode of a BBC series called The Wednesday Play, which was one of a few opportunities at the time for young filmmakers to make anything they wanted, for a TV audience, something very admirable indeed that the BBC, partly through being state funded, was very good at.

I'm watching now on TCM, where it was picked for broadcast by guest presenter Tim Roth, and Robert Osborne had never seen it or even heard of it. I'd never seen it either, but I'd certainly heard of it. The film comes up a lot in any discussion of social realism in British cinema, because it effectively started something new. It took the kitchen sink dramas of the fifties, which were focused on gritty reality but were written by educated writers and acted by educated actors. Cathy Come Home broke that trend in a number of ways: by filming on the street, by taking serious pot shots at the system and by using a documentary style with overlaid narration containing statistics and apparently real life stories.

There's interesting cinematography from the very beginning. We watch Cathy's face from the other side of the street even though cars rush by in front of her, there's a shot of her inside a truck that has us focus on her eyes by cutting off the bottom half of her head, we see a long shot of an old man's trembling face as he's consigned to a home even though he isn't the one talking. There's a lot of handheld filmmaking, which I'm sure helped on from a budgetary standpoint, and I'm also convinced that most of the people in the film, behind leads Carol White and Ray Brooks, aren't even actors, though I recognised a few of people taking real roles, like Geoffrey Palmer. It can't have been an expensive production, though, that's for sure.

The story is really basic: we watch a young couple fall through all the cracks of society into homelessness. They start out happy and full of prospects, but life doesn't quite work out how they expect. They lose the posh house they took a mortgage out on, then get evicted time and time again, moving to worse and worse accommodation: moving in with parents, sharing rooms with other families, council houses, caravans, hostels. Many places won't take families or kids, and the hostels Cathy ends up in won't even take husbands, thus putting even greater strain on relationships and causing more trouble. It's easy to sympathise with the situation that Cathy and Reg find themselves stuck in, because Loach's adaptation of Jeremy Sandford's story is very cleverly done indeed. It succeeded in its goals too, because a lot of official policies in England changed after its release, but it's pure propaganda and very manipulative.

There are seemingly two lessons to take from the film and both are highly suspect: people in trouble are never to blame and authorities don't care. The latter of these is truly bizarre because from a socialist standpoint the state is everything. I'm sure Loach really meant the lesson as being authorities don't care right now, but with change that situation can be resolved. It's that change he calls for, but he has no suggestions as to how that can happen beyond misleading closing notes like 'West Germany has built twice as many houses as Britain since the war'. Naturally: they had a lot more to rebuild.

I'm English and what would be termed middle class but I live at present in the US which is generally far less socialist in outlook, looking more at personal responsibility than state intervention. My views on things rarely change, but while in England I felt I was right wing, here I feel much more left wing, purely on a relative basis. I'm not a socialist so don't buy into Loach's propaganda but I do see a solid role for the state in a number of things that to Americans seem socialist: universal healthcare and some state regulation, especially when done to keep competition alive in industries that rely on shared infrastructure.

What was striking to me here was how the many authorities were unable to help for many different reasons, but were always full of threats and condecension when relaying their inability. Their responses were much more 'we have the power to do much worse but' rather than 'we'd love to help you but'. They never offered change or a way out and Cathy and Reg either couldn't see or couldn't accept the ways out that were there. Many places wouldn't take kids but Cathy kept having them anyway because it's what she felt life was for, even though she couldn't take care of them. Money was always tight but that didn't stop Cathy and Reg spending it on cigarettes or alcohol. They made very little attempt to get on with Reg's mother who put them up for a while. It was perfectly acceptable for them to strike out at those they deem oppressive, even stooping on occasion to violence.

It's well known that bureaucracy lives in a world of its own and I'm sure that there were and are serious social issues in urgent need of attention in England, but I just couldn't buy most of what I saw here. I know from personal experience that it's amazing how easily many problems can be avoided. I worked for years in a very low paid job but found ways to supplement it to cover the bills. When work was short and we were forced onto part time hours, I refused to sign up on the dole and helped a friend of the family build a conservatory for a little bit of extra money. When I worked as a contractor and had periods without work, I found that honesty went a long way with landlords. I'm sure I was lucky in many respects, especially in that I had family who were more than willing to provide food for the odd week that I couldn't, but I had common sense on my side too. I didn't run a car because I didn't need to. I lived very nicely out of charity shops and handmedowns. If I didn't have money, I didn't go to the pub. Loach's propaganda doesn't seem to allow for that sort of thing.

Whatever I feel about the message, the film is powerfully made and still has an impact today, if not the stunning impact it had on release in 1966. Cathy Comes Home was watched by 12 million people, one in four of the British population at that time, so had an audience well above most movies. It may be coincidence that Reverend Bruce Kenrick founded Shelter, a charity aimed at relieving homelessness by providing advice and campaigning for reform, in December 1966, but I'm sure that he was one of those 12 million. When the BFI compiled a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes in 2000, Cathy Comes Home came second, behind only Fawlty Towers. The closest similar entry, as to type and age, was another entry in The Wednesday Play from a year earlier: The War Game. While it wasn't shown on the BBC at the time because of its controversial nature, it was widely viewed and I wonder if it wasn't a key influence on the way Loach made his film.

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