Home was screened by BBC1 on 16 December 1966, within the regular
Wednesday Play slot. The program is a "drama-documentary"
concerning homelessness and its effect upon families. Written by
Jeremy Sandford, produced by Tony Garnett and directed by Ken Loach,
the programme has become a British TV "classic," regularly referred
to by critics and researchers as well as by programme-makers themselves.
Part of the status accorded to Cathy is undoubtedly due to
its particular qualities of scripting, direction and acting, but
part follows from the way in which has been seen to focus and exemplify
questions about the mixing of dramatic with documentary material
and, more generally, about the public power of television in highlighting
social problems. After the screening, the issue of homelessness
and of various measures adopted by local authorities to deal with
it, became more prominent in public and political discussion and
the housing action charity "Shelter" was formed. The more long-term
consequences, in terms of changes to the kinds of conditions depicted
in the film, remain much more doubtful, of course.
Cathy is organised
as a narrative about a young woman who marries, has children and
who then, following an accident to her husband which results in
his loss of job and the following family poverty, suffers various
states of homelessness in poor or temporary accomodation until her
children are taken into care by the social services. The programme
adopts an episodic structure, depicting the stages in the decline
of Cathy and her family across a number of years. Both as a play
and as a kind of documentary, it is held together by the commentary
of Cathy herself, a commentary which is given in a self-reflective
past-tense and which not only introduces and ends the programme
but is heard regularly throughout it, providing a bridge between
episodes and a source of additional explanation to that obtained
by watching the dramatic action.
element of Cathy is partly a matter of depictive style. But
is also partly a matter both of the large amount of research on
the problem of homelessness which went into the writing of the script
and then the amount of time which the script gives to depicting
aspects of this problem as it advances the storyline concerning
Cathy and her family.
the programme has a number of scenes which are shot in the documentary
mode of action-led camera, with events appearing to develop spontaneously
and to be "caught" by the filming. The resultant effect is one of
high immediacy values, providing the viewer with a strong sense
of "witness." Where the script broadens its scope to situate Cathy's
story in the context of the more general problem, camerawork and
sound-recording produce a scopic field and address to the viewer
which is that of conventional reportage. So, for instance, in a
scene in a crowed tenement block, we hear the anonymous voices of
occupants on the soundtrack whilst various shots are combined to
produce a montage of "place," of "environment." Similarly, when
towards the end of the film Cathy and her children enter the lowest
class of Hostel accomodation, the camera not only situates them
in the crowded dormitory they have entered but offers "snapshot"
case-histories of some of the other women who are living there.
Some of this information comes through voice-over, some in speech
to camera, as if addressed to Cathy herself. The documentarist element
is more directly present in the use of commentary and brief "viewpoint"
voice-over at several points in the film. These moments offer statistics
on the housing situation and allow various perspectives on it to
be heard in a manner which directly follows conventional documentary
plays with the codes of reportage and merges them with those of
realist drama. The developing story, however, often shown through
an exploration of private, intimate space, requires that the film
be organised principally as narrative fiction, moving outwards to
establish a documentary framing of context at a number of points
and then closing back in on "story." Since the story is a particularization
of the general problem, however, movement between "story" and "report"
often involves no sharp disjunctions, substantive or stylistic.
critical response to the programme was generally positive but public
discussion tended to circulate around two issues--the possibility
of the audience being deceived into according a greater "truth"
to it than was warranted by its fictional status, and the way in
which the account was a "biased" one, depicting officials as uncaring
and often hostile in a way which would have been unacceptable in
a conventional documentary.
Cathy Come Home
Photo courtesy of BBC
is hard to imagine a viewer so unskilled in the conventions of television
as to believe that Cathy was "actuality" footage, so extensively
is it conceived of in terms of narrative fiction. However, doubt
clearly existed in some viewers' minds as to whether it was a story
based directly on a real incident, or whether (as was actually the
case) Cathy's tale was a construction developed from a range of
research materials. The legitimacy of combining the dramatic license
to articulate a viewpoint through character and action with the
documentary requirement to be "impartial" was queried by several
commentators, often with a certain amount of naivety about the veracity
of "straight documentary."
these complaints, other critics defended the programme-makers' right
to use dramatic emotional devices in order to engage the viewer
with public issues and pointed to the way in which the programme's
view of officialdom was essentially the view of Cathy herself--in
their eyes, a perfectly proper use of character viewpoint from which
audience members could measure their own empathetic distance. In
British television history, then, Cathy Come Home remains
an important marker in the long-running debate about television
and truth. This should not be allowed to overshadow its own qualities
as a work of social imagination however, and as an exploration in
"hybridized" forms which sometimes brilliantly prefigures much later
shifts in the modes of address of factual television.
Carol White Ray.......................................................
16 December 1966
Brandt, George, editor. British Television Drama. London:
Cambridge University Press, 1981.
Julian. "Why Cathy Will Never Come Home Again." New Statesman
and Society (London), 2 April 1993.
Jeremy. Cathy Come Home. London: Boyars, 1976.