Jeremy Sandford‘s drama about a young family’s slide into homelessness and poverty was a defining moment in 1960s television, demonstrating how far drama could influence the political agenda. The controversy generated by Cathy Come Home led to public outrage at the state of housing in Britain, and gave a welcome boost to the (coincidental) launch of the homelessness charity Shelter a few days after the play was first broadcast, as part of the BBC’s The Wednesday Play strand.
The play follows young lovers Cathy and Reg from the optimism of their early married days through a spiral of misfortune that follows Reg’s work accident, leading to eviction and separation, and culminating, in what remains one of TV’s most memorable scenes, in a hysterical Cathy having her children forcibly taken away by Social Services.
The success of Cathy established director Ken Loach as a politically committed filmmaker standing apart from the commercial mainstream, and demonstrated again his sensitivity to his usually working-class characters.
With its abandonment of the confines of the studio in favour of location filming, and its innovative use of documentary techniques – owing something to the Free Cinema movement associated with filmmakers like Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz – Cathy played an important part in the development of television drama at a time when writers were attempting to take the form into a new territory, distinct from its theatrical origins. Loach himself had been attempting to break free of the usual restrictions of TV drama since the early ’60s, notably with the series Diary of a Young Man (BBC, 1963) and an earlier Wednesday Play, ‘Up the Junction’ (BBC, tx. 3/11/1965), which also starred Carol White (as did his first cinema release, Poor Cow (1967)).
While some critics remained uncomfortable about the blurring of the distinction between drama and documentary, there was little argument about the play’s power. If anything, its reputation has grown in the years since it first appeared