Later, and most unexpectedly, Ken Loach who directed ‘Cathy’ so powerfully, made an unexpected attack on the film that he had himself directed in an interview with John Hill in a book called ‘Agent of Challenge and Defiance; the Films of Ken Loach’.
I felt that many of the things said by Ken in this interview were so wide of the mark that I wrote to him about them;
You are quoted as saying, ‘the film ... helped to form a charity but nothing else,’ I have to confess that I feel (perhaps unfairly) that what you say is handing the many people who would like to see responsible films like ‘Cathy’ discredited an axe to smash us, and it also disempowers and takes away the dignity, self respect and achievement of your fellow workers – and yourself.
I suppose I would feel this even if it were true that the film ‘helped to found a charity but nothing else’. In my reading of history this is, however, not true.
It is surely due to our film that a government circular went out soon after it urging councils not to separate children from their families for reasons of homelessness. That was happening to more than 4,500 children every year at the time of ‘Cathy’ and has sunk to a very small number now. People in the social services tell me that the outrage following ‘Cathy’ was the primary reason for this. If it is ‘nothing’, it is a very big nothing.
Then, as you know because you and I were involved with events in Birmingham at the time, hundreds of husbands were returned to their homeless families as a direct result of ‘Cathy’ and later thousands in the rest of the country, and I think it can be shown that the first was entirely and the second almost entirely because of ‘Cathy’. And since then the practice of separating husbands and partners from their families has been stopped. If it is ‘nothing’, it is again a very big nothing.
Again, in the slipstream of ‘Cathy’, pledges to build more homes were made by government and, before the great cutback began, probably as many as a million new homes were built, which I think it can be shown would not have been built without ‘Cathy’. So, again, I don’t feel this was ‘nothing’.
You know about the recent polls which have voted ‘Cathy’ as the best one-shot TV play ever, and I think its popularity is reflected in its being re-transmitted more than any other BBC TV single drama programme. Again, I find myself asking, is this ‘nothing’?
I know that one has to think and talk fast in an interview situation and the interview as printed may not be truly accurate of your views. At the same time, I fear that many will read it as sending out a negative message about the film and I personally feel that that is disempowering both to ‘Cathy’, to its author, and to a colleague and fellow worker, and to your team, and to those ideals of social justice that you and I both hold dear.
Obviously we did some things wrong. ‘Cathy’ was an early work for most of us but, did we not get a great deal right?
Much of what I have reservations about in the interview springs from the, I think, confusing way you are quoted as using the word ‘we’ in that interview and, if nothing else, this letter might suggest, in the area of positive suggestion, more clarity in your use of the word ‘we’?
You are quoted as saying, ‘we felt that one of the problems with ‘Cathy Come Home’ was that it wasn’t political enough.’ The interview does not make clear who that ‘we’ was. I have to say that I don’t feel that ‘it wasn’t political enough’, and I don’t remember Carol White feeling that, so maybe that could be clarified in later editions of the book, as to who that ‘we’ was. Was it you and Tony Garnett? ‘We do improvise’ suggests that ‘we’ includes the actors in the drama.
You claim that the film has ‘dreadful captions’ about the West German house building programme compared to the British. It is true that one of the closing captions covers this. The others contextualised Cathy’s tragedy by stating the number of homeless people in emergency accommodation and the number of children taken into care for reasons of homelessness, and by saying that ‘all the events in this film happened in Britain in the last eighteen months’. One of these we decided to cut at the last minute and I wish that we’d cut the West German one rather than one of the others. But, still, it is only one of three. The others, surely, encourage our viewers to experience Cathy’s tragedy in a political rather than an anecdotal way because they show that Cathy’s experience is not an isolated one but was happening to lots of people all of the time.
My own view is that I believe ‘Cathy’ was as political as one can make a film without beginning to lose one’s audience and that one of its strengths is the constant reference back, in the captions and the voice overs, to the wider social scene of which Cathy’s tragedy is an example. It is surely much more political than most
of the other films directed by you?
At another point you say, ‘It didn’t deal with the ownership of land, where you get land to build buildings on,’ but my intention in writing the section showing Gypsies and landsquatters was intended to raise the question of ownership of land. I could have scripted a more explicit scene in which Reg and Cathy discuss the ownership of land and how unfairly it is distributed, but my feeling is that if we had larded the film more with political content we might have overloaded it and made it too didactic and begun to lose viewers.
Equally, I feel that if we’d put in references to the location of employment, which you also mention as being missing from the film, that would have overloaded it (and has become much less relevant in these days of mass unemployment and the hippy movement).
At another point you say ‘we very quickly tumbled to the fact of all the issues left out’, and once again I ask, who were the ‘we’ who ‘tumbled’ to this ‘fact’? You are quoted as saying that we didn’t ‘deal with the question of who decides where houses are built, what price they are and all the rest of it,’ and that we didn’t ‘challenge[d] the Wimpeys and the McAlpines’, but I can’t really include myself as one of the ‘we’ who ‘quickly tumbled’ to these facts. The actions of the Wimpeys and McAlpines may be one of the reasons why people become homeless but they are only a small part of the reasons and ‘the whole structure’ of society is surely challenged passim in that Reg and Cathy’s natural ability to solve their own problems, which again and again they demonstrate in the film, are crushed by an overplanned overcentralised Nanny state which again and again destroys their dignity and their initiative.
My view is that it is impressive how many issues were got into this film without overloading it.
On another page you are quoted as saying, ‘we do improvise ...’ but I wonder how fair this unqualified statement is on your fellow workers who are writers, who are presumably included, along with actors, in this ‘we’. Writers, under the copyright laws and W.G. of G.B. agreements, do have the right to insist that their work goes out as written and I wonder whether saying it as you do does not disempower writers in the same way that saying ‘we get the musicians to improvise on the music provided by the composer’ would?
Of course it’s often a good idea to get one’s performers to improvise round a scene to get the feel of it, but my experience is that if a writer has done the job properly, the team will end up with the words as scripted. It’s a small point, perhaps; I recently checked out the relationship of what the actors said in ‘Cathy Come Home’ to what I wrote, and my view was that in about 95% they follow the film as scripted.
Actors and actresses, including Carol White, have often said to me how speakable my lines are and that I think is because much of my apprenticeship was the recording of the spoken word in radio documentary. Do you not feel there is a danger of dishonouring and disempowering a fellow worker whose contribution was the script as the phrase might be misinterpreted by a reader to mean ‘we had to take liberties with the text because it was not good enough’?
I accept that some scenes in ‘Cathy’ were improvised and I would actually say that at least one of the improvised scenes in ‘Cathy’ is of less good quality than the scripted scenes, and it was a pity I did not script it.
I do appreciate that in some other films of yours, and with writers with a different way of working, improvisation may have constituted a larger part of the pudding. I still feel that to say it without qualification may be disempowering to a fellow worker. But I also appreciate that I may be allowing myself to be over sensitive on this one.
I have reservations about the quote on another page, ‘[In] Cathy Come Home ... various things which happened to homeless families were condensed into a narrative.’ I scripted ‘Cathy’ to be a typical worst case scenario for a homeless family. As we know, thousands of children were being separated from their parents each year for reasons of homelessness, and Cathy’s story was only really non-typical in that she fought to keep her children with her while most mothers let their children go without a fight. Also she showed more ingenuity than many mums in her situation but her story is, for example, not unlike that outlined in Audrey Harvey’s Fabian Society pamphlet ‘Casualties of the Welfare State’ which, together with the many records I had made of homeless families myself, was a source for ‘Cathy’. It seems to me it is best described as a typical worst case scenario or narrative rather than various things being condensed, though this is also, possibly, not a very large or important point.
I’d love to say all this to you in person but our profession (unlike so many others; even those who drop atom
bombs have their Megaton club which meets once a year) is
one where colleagues and fellow workers seldom meet to discuss and analyse what they have done after the event, to learn from experience and renew social contact!
Jeremy Sandford FanClub Archives
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