The film Cathy Come Home, directed by Ken Loach and written by Jeremy Sandford, can be seen in full here. It is highly recommended if you have never seen it. The credits track was ‘500 miles from my home’ by Sonny & Cher, hence the title of this piece.
I would also like to draw attention to another blog remembering Cathy, by Tom Murtha on Inside Housing, which can be found here. Inside Housing has launched a campaign to mark this week’s 50th anniversary of the landmark film – campaign logo below and more information here. It is also carrying an interview with the Director on his feelings about what has happened since he made Cathy. (IH’s Cathy anniversary stories are free to read and not behind the paywall).
Much to their credit, a group of housing associations has also been organising ‘Homes for Cathy’ events and activities around the anniversary. Many associations were founded at this time as concern for the homeless grew, one being Shepherds Bush HA, who held an anniversary event this week.
More links and reflections can be found by using the hashtags #CathyComeHome and #Cathyat50
Below are my thoughts.
50 years ago today the BBC screened ‘Cathy Come Home’ as one of its series of Wednesday Plays.
I remember it as if it was yesterday. I was 16 and I have more memories of 1966 than of any other year of my childhood or youth – the World Cup, ‘O’ Levels, Aberfan, the escalation in Vietnam, the first General Election I paid attention to, the Moors murder trial, the Rhodesia crisis, Revolver by the Beatles (Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde was also released but I wasn’t aware of it at the time). And Cathy……..
I have seen the film dozens of times (it was a regular feature when I used to give talks while working for Shelter in the 1980s) but it is hard to explain the impact the first showing had. Years later it was voted the ‘best single television drama’ and ‘the UK’s most influential TV programme of all time’. Twelve million people watched it that first night, about a quarter of the population. No-one had ever seen anything like it, it was so realistic. And genuinely shocking. It felt like everyone had watched that Wednesday Play, and everyone talked about it the next day. No single TV programme could have that kind of impact today, with hundreds of channels and many other distractions.
My Dad was a plasterer, in work nearly all the time, my Mam a part-time cleaner, and we could hardly be described as well off. We lived in a council house – a Bevan house – on the large Montagu estate near what was then the northern city boundary of Newcastle. The house was of an amazingly high standard, front and back gardens that were my Dad’s pride and joy, and at the top of the road the Kenton Bar was the last building before open countryside stretching all the way to Cheviot. It could be tough but it was a great place to grow up. Until I saw the film it was unimaginable to me that people like Cathy could exist or that stories like hers were possible. All she ever needed was the one thing we had – an affordable council house, a secure and comfortable base on which to build a life.
There was little public consciousness of homelessness prior to the film, and the revelation that homelessness could lead to children being taken away from their family was shocking. It is so shaming that the number of homeless people is vastly bigger now. Ken Loach’s latest film, ‘I, Daniel Blake’, is also having a serious impact and shows how little some things have changed. Its theme has echoes of Cathy. The circumstances are different, but the core story is the same: a decline from a contented and stable life into poverty, caused by ill health (Daniel’s heart attack and Reg’s accident at work), the experience of state institutions that punish rather than support, ending in destitution and total break-down.
I met Ken Loach when I worked at Shelter in the 1980s, I think introduced by Des Wilson, the founding Shelter Director. I tried to interest him in doing another film on housing and showed him around the sights of Paddington, the dozens of bed and brekfast hotels housing homeless families in Bayswater, the huge and squalid multi-occupation terraces of Sutherland Avenue and the rapidly deteriorating Mozart Estate, then only 10 years old but already neglected by Westminster Council. He didn’t bite but proved to be both charming and quite hostile to the very idea of soggy liberal housing charities (something that made more sense as his own political position became better known). There ended my career as the second Jeremy Sandford.
50 years since Cathy means that the 50th anniversary of Shelter is imminent. The two were widely assumed to be linked but in fact it was just a remarkable coincidence that Shelter was launched a few days after the film was shown. It still gave Shelter huge impetus. Now a large organisation providing vital advice services, it seems to have lost some of its campaigning edge and punches below its weight in terms of influencing public attitudes and Government policy.
Cathy was the start of my political awakening, an event in my teens only matched by reading Robert Tressell’s ‘The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists’ and being exposed to ‘ideas’ at University that converted my working class chip into a vague leftish philosophy. I have suffered periods of optimism since – 1974 especially, and 1997. But the 50th anniversary of Cathy, the resurgence of homelessness matched by the apparent indifference of much of UK Housing, Labour’s divisions and ineffectuality, all in the context of a global resurgence in nationalism and intolerance, make me feel that I have been deluded for fifty years in thinking that, as day follows night, each generation will do better than the last.