The BBCTV Drama Documentary ‘Cathy Come Home’ has always attracted controversy. Now, once again, it is at the centre of uproar.
Cathy Come Home - a ‘fraud’
BBC cover up after revelation of ‘boobs’ in
‘Cathy Come Home’ - allegation
‘Cathy Come Home’, the most famous and influential TV programme ever, was a fraud. It contained so many inaccuracies that it had to be drastically - and clandestinely - ‘cleaned up’ before re-transmission. What’s more, the public were never informed.
Such are the implications of a claim by Professor John Corner, Head of Media Studies at the University of Manchester, in his new book ‘The Art of Record’.
Jeremy Sandford, author and researcher of ‘Cathy’ decided to investigate. What he discovered, he claims, was a story of sabotage and skulduggery almost as strange as anything in the film itself. His report follows.
It was late at night one evening in February 1967. Shaun Sutton, Head of Drama at BBCTV, had asked me to give a televised report on how the predicament of homeless people had altered since the first transmission of ‘Cathy’ and about any changes there might have been in the current housing ‘famine’.
That first transmission had been only three months before. The BBC had ordered a repeat unprecedentedly soon because of the public controversy and uproar following the first transmission.
I had only a minute. Nonetheless it was a poignant experience. I was speaking directly to camera or, in other words, directly to eleven million viewers - a huge proportion of the population. One minute was long enough to announce that ‘Cathy’ had effected improvement in the way homeless families were treated in local authority hostels. Husbands were no longer to be forcibly separated from their wives. Indeed, in Birmingham at least, hundreds had already been returned to be with their families in time for Christmas - an inspiring and poignant event.
The government pledged more new homes. ‘Shelter’ was founded. But, from a wider perspective, there was as yet no improvement whatever in the housing ‘famine’. Council waiting lists and the number of families in ‘Part III’ emergency accommodation had increased since the first showing of ‘Cathy’. Letters to me and depth research in newspapers had overwhelmingly endorsed the accuracy of ‘Cathy’.
And, so claims the professor, it was all a sham. Behind the public display of probity, and concern on the part of the BBC, so he claims, there lay a tale of skulduggery and deception.
The BBC clandestinely re-edited ‘Cathy’, Corner claims. The implication is that, subsequent to the discovery of serious faults in ‘Cathy’, the BBC connived in secretly re-editing the film, thus moving the goal posts in an attempt to deceive their public as to the true content of the original transmission.
On hearing the professor’s claim, I was dumbfounded. Although my public statement accompanied the second transmission, I had not in fact watched more than the start and finish of the film, which of course was very familiar to me, on that occasion.
But, since I have always worked in the exacting worlds of newspaper journalism and television documentary as well as drama, meticulous research and accuracy are things I pride myself on. In the decade of ‘Cathy’, I had also been extensively employed as researcher, interviewer and presenter of factual programmes for both BBC and ITV. The allegation that there were inaccuracies in ‘Cathy’ was not only hurtful to me emotionally, but also, I realised, would almost certainly do me harm professionally. A reputation for accuracy is the most crucial asset of any journalist or documentary maker.
I had no memory of any change being made to ‘Cathy’ as originally transmitted, or even being mooted. The Writers Guild has now and then had a clear written agreement with the BBC that changes would not be made in drama without discussion with the author.
Further, I had seen the film many times since, as the result of campaigning with Shelter to whom I and the director, Ken Loach, had given copies for campaigning purposes, and it was at that time frequently shown publicly as part of the Shelter campaign. At a number of the Shelter showings, I was guest speaker and the film was exactly as I had written it.
But, I had to admit, all those were copies of the original film. I had not in fact seen any of the three later transmissions on television. Was it possible that changes had been made without me being informed? And, if so, what changes? The first transmission had received extensive professional support for its accuracy. What inaccuracies could anyone have spotted?
I contacted Ken Loach, director of the film, and Tony Garnettt, the producer, to see what they felt about it. ‘No way,’ said Ken. Tony’s reply was longer; ‘There were changes.’
I hardly had time to recover from my sense of shock before Tony modified this. There had been one change. It was in no way because of inaccuracy. The change concerned a member of the public who had been filmed as part of one of the scenes and had objected to being shown unexpectedly on television.
I next contacted Shaun Sutton, who was BBC Head of Drama at that time. ‘Not at all,’ said Shaun, ‘I’d have hardly arranged for you to talk authoritatively to viewers on the night of the showing if there had been any question of inaccuracy.’
I was becoming more puzzled, not less. I recalled that ‘Cathy Come Home’ had been the trail blazer for a new type of socially concerned documentary drama. I wondered what sort of person would wish to discredit it by peddling lies about it.
Returning to the book, I saw that the professor did, in fact, give a source for his statement. The reader is referred to a little known publication called ‘Play for Today; the Evolution of Television Drama’.
This information gave a certain substantiality to the allegations but also seemed very odd. The study in question is by a Canadian (X), Irene Shubik, and Shubik was a close colleague of Tony Garnett’s at the BBC at the time that he was the producer of ‘Cathy’, one of the handful of producers of the Wednesday Play Strand of which ‘Cathy’ had formed a part. Her office was just down the passage from Tony’s. Could Shubik really have made this claim?
Even if every word of it had been true, it seemed to me unlikely that Shubik would wish to betray a close colleague.
To my surprise, I found the allegation made in full of page 126; ‘On its [i.e. ‘Cathy Come Home’s] second transmission, most of the background comments giving statistics were in fact omitted because of doubts about accuracy.’
It occurred to me then that someone among my friends might have made a video copy of the most recent transmission of the film, in 1991(X) on Channel Four. I was right. I borrowed the video and watched it. Every single background statistic, as scripted by me, was still in the film.
Yet a person in Shubik’s position is unlikely to invent, especially as she would have been aware that the allegation would undoubtedly be harmful to a colleague to whom the BBC would expect her to be loyal. Had changes indeed been made to the film, and the old material then reinserted? And if so, why?
Tracking down Irene Shubik did not prove difficult, even though she no longer works for the BBC. I asked her what was her evidence for saying that the background comments giving statistics were omitted from the second showing of ‘Cathy’. Shubik’s response was unexpected. ‘I copied it out of a quality daily whose name I have now forgotten.’
Was this her only source? Yes. Could she check up on which newspaper it was? No, because all her documents concerning that period had either been given to the BFI or destroyed. When pressed, she expressed annoyance and indicated that she wished to bring my enquiry to an end.
I was surprised by Shubik’s response. Surely it was naive to copy out a newspaper story containing such important (and libellous) information, without making further checks, or at the least keeping a record of it. It would have been easy for Shubik to go down the passage to ask Tony Garnett whether the story was true or not. She had not.
Such naiveté might be understandable in the author of, say, a sixth form thesis. Shubik is not a sixth form student. Shubik is a university graduate, with a London degree in English Literature.
Leafing through ‘Play for Today, the Evolution of Television Drama’, I discovered that she also worked for some time herself as what she describes as a ‘professional historical researcher’. She must therefore be familiar with the academic conventions. Yet she appears to have ‘lost’ the source of an allegation that, she must have known, would be deeply wounding to her colleagues.
Whether the original article in the ‘quality daily’ exists or not, how is it possible that Shubik did not check its accuracy by telephoning Tony Garnett?
The answer to this question may possibly lie in Shubik’s ambivalent feelings about Garnett, whose position at the BBC she envied, resented and coveted. It may be instructive to look at a more recent occasion when Shubik was again at the centre of a controversy.
On this occasion, too, she felt able to stand alone in a controversial situation for which there was little objective factual justification. The scene was the headquarters of BAFTA (The British Academy for Film and Television) in Piccadilly, London. Early in 1992 eight members of a BAFTA jury were considering their verdict for their award for best drama serial of the previous year.
Irene Shubik was the non-voting chairperson. When the votes had been cast, Shubik looked through the ballot papers briefly and then announced, ‘We have a decision. It’s four to three.’
As a result, the prize for best drama serial went to Granada’s ‘Prime Suspect’, a police thriller. Granada’s pleasure was short lived, because four of the judges broke the academy’s confidentiality rule by claiming that they all had voted for ‘GBH’, Channel Four’s drama about a corrupt city. It was, they claimed, this drama which should have won.
The real life drama that followed gripped the imaginations of those in the world of television. Had one of the voter’s memory been at fault? Or had some hidden hand tampered with the voting papers? The plot thickened with the disclosure that a feud had been raging for some years between Irene Shubik and Verity Lambert, executive producer of ‘GBH’.
Shubik, who had produced ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’ as a play for the BBC, took a second series to Verity Lambert, who was at that point controller of drama at Thames. After a disagreement between the two women, Shubik was replaced as producer, and was further annoyed when Lambert refused to give her a programme credit. ‘Irene felt Rumpole was her baby, and was very irked,’ said one source.
Whether Shubik made a mistake or not, she allegedly was not on speaking terms with Verity Lambert and may well have secretly hoped that the voting would go against her.
While the truth of what actually happened at what the press dubbed ‘Baftagate’ will probably never be established for certain, there can be no doubt that in the case of what she claimed about ‘Cathy Come Home’, she actually was mistaken.
In this case too, one of those professional feuds that are such an intriguing characteristic of the world of television may have some significance.
Shubik was jealous of her colleague Tony Garnett. She felt he received an unfair amount of available funds. And that he received an unfair amount of the cudos. In this case, too, a personal vendetta seems to have been one of the principal reasons. Shubik was jealous of Tony Garnett. As she puts it in ‘Play for Today, the Evolution of Television Drama’;
There was a time when I personally saw quite a lot of Irene Shubik. Through my agent she had bought the rights to no less than four of my television screeplays. Of these, one was put into production.
In the course of making this programme, I noticed that her feelings towards Tony Garnett were extremely ambivalent. Sometimes this surfaced in letters;
Although most people would probably claim that Tony Garnett’s productions were more important in the evolution of television drama than were Shubik’s, she has conspicuously little to say about Garnett’s plays in her study while devoting a comparatively very large space to her own productions.
Are Shubik’s feelings about Tony Garnett, and the fact that she would not be averse to taking over his job, sufficient motivation to explain her actions?
In fact, they probably are sufficient. There are, however, other pieces in the jigsaw of her motivation which may be worth consideration and are certainly extremely interesting in terms of the illumination they throw on the television establishment of the time.
Such an analysis might look at the nature of the BBC in general, and the circumstances surrounding the making and transmission of ‘Cathy’ in particular.
Next; BBC Television in the 60s and 70s; monolithic, entrenched, complacent.
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