Cathy’s Not Come Home
by Jeremy Sandford
‘Cathy Come Home’, which I wrote and researched, was arguably the best known and most influential single programme ever transmitted by television.
Changes in legislation, the foundation of ‘Shelter’, the lifting of curfews and return of thousands of husbands to their families in emergency accommodation for the homeless and, above all, an end to children being taken away from their parents because they were homeless, were some of the outcomes.
Even thirty years later, its recent anniversary was celebrated with two television documentaries and a dozen newspaper articles - an accolade which no other single television programme has ever come near to.
Despite its immense popularity with viewers - the programme has been transmitted four times so far - it is now becoming clear that an official decision was made that its particularly powerful techniques must not be used again. These techniques were the fusion of a dramatised version of an actual story with voice overs giving the wider view and actual statistics relating the individual story to the thousands of others like it, the anecdotal situation to the general; given added verisimilitude by news style camera work. The decision was conveyed to myself and Tony Garnett by Sydney Newman and Huw Weldon.
I’d like to return to the theme of ‘Cathy’, the theme of a young mother’s attempts to keep her family together against the institutionalised violence of the powers that be when confronted with homelessness.
Despite government pledges in the years following ‘Cathy’ to bring an end to the scandal of homelessness, ten times as many families each year are declared homeless now as were in the time of Cathy, amounting to no less than a million families over the last ten years - an astonishing figure.
Many of the old workhouses where homeless families were dumped have been replaced by bed and breakfast in two star hotels. The screams are now drowned by musak.
Now half the number of homeless families are black. One parent families now amount to a huge proportion of the total.
Increasingly thousands of families squat or live in tents or caravans or vehicles rather than go through the official accommodation for homeless people.
There have been other changes. Feminism has come. Many women are no longer prepared to lie down and accept their fate in the way that Cathy did.
The nature of homelessness has changed profoundly but none of the documentaries or newspaper articles which accompanied the thirtieth anniversary really appreciated this.
And the nation has, to an extent, forgotten. The high profile of homeless families in the post-Cathy years has been usurped by the single homeless, who are now visible on the streets of all our great cities.
It is time for a new film, using the same techniques of the original ‘Cathy’, to stir the conscience of the nation again. A film about homelessness as it is today, not thirty years ago. Whose protagonist is a typical young woman of today, someone who’s aware of her rights. Someone who’s a fighter.
A film that will use the adventurous documentary drama techniques of Cathy, whose unique fusion of dramatic and documentary techniques was new to the screen then and since that day have, to my knowledge, never been used in that particular form again.
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