Cathy's Not Come Home
(Working Title Only)
Some Notes for a New Film
The original Cathy Come Home was transmitted in late 1966 and, together with the second transmission three months later, attracted over 22 million viewers.
A further 10 million have watched two further transmissions of 'Cathy', of which the most recent was more than ten years ago.
It's been called 'the most successful television screenplay of all time' and probably was, both in terms of the number of viewers, awards received, newspaper coverage, and the actual social changes which it inspired.
The phenomenon of Cathy, together with the special place she holds in the hearts of British people, is brought home to me in the invitations to speak on this subject I still regularly receive, and that it is regularly shown as part of student and social worker training schemes, and is still widely distributed by Shelter. Two frequent responses after lectures are 'My wife cried herself to sleep after seeing Cathy', and 'I decided on a career in social work as a result of seeing Cathy'.
At the time of its original transmission, teamed with Ken Loach's superb direction, and backed by a supportive BBC, I felt I had achieved success in everything I'd planned for the film, whether in terms of aesthetic excellence or for its effect on the society I was living in.
That was twenty four years ago and, with the twenty fifth anniversary now less than a year away, that confidence has to be qualified.
As a landmark in televisual story telling, Cathy's reputation stands as high as ever. And many of the important changes in the treatment of homeless adults and children which 'Cathy' provoked are still with us now.
But, in the widest context, when we actually count up the number of homeless people today and the number of homes available, it is a different story.
For example: The research for my recent documentary programme 'Cathy Where Are You Now?' revealed a shocking situation. The programme, transmitted in the Panorama slot as part of the Byline series in July 1990 and attracting 7« million viewers, told how;
In the years after 'Cathy' there were some 200,000 council homes started each year.
The number now is less than a tenth of that figure.
At the time of 'Cathy' 1,500 officially homeless households seemed a shocking figure.
Last year 150,000 households were officially accepted as homeless. Almost incredibly, that is a hundredfold increase.
Another statistic brings the tragedy home even more disturbingly. Over the last decade one million households have been accepted by local authorities as being officially homeless.
I have had to accept the bitter truth that I actually did not achieve what I set out to do, which was to ensure that the right to a decent home for everyone would be a must on any party's political agenda.
Now, as the 25th anniversary approaches, it's time for another 'Cathy'.
Another story based on actual cases, powerful as the original, but of course different, which will put the flesh and humanity to one of those thousands of tragic predicaments which lie behind the impersonal statistics.
Style of the Film
We may use many of the techniques originally pioneered in 'Cathy', such as the use of statistics and disembodied voices on the soundtrack, and a current affairs type filmic technique (i.e. when the cameraman is running to get his shot). They haven't really been used as much as one might have expected since then. Or we might need to forge a new filmic style.
We may have captions flashing real statistics on the screen, thus placing the particular events we show in their wider context.
As in the original film, our new mother may occasionally take up the story herself, in wildtrack - useful for being able to move fast at some points, through 'telling' rather than 'showing'. And useful as a distancing device.
Just as in the original Cathy, what we see on the screen will largely be new territory, showing aspects of homelessness not previously seen on our television screens. We will show nothing which cannot be justified as having happened recently.
We may make some use, however minimal, of those media commercials and advertisements which, with some unkindness it seems to me, give the impression that it is easy financially for any one of us to own our own home.
We may tell the story consecutively, starting at the beginning and travelling to the tragic (or bittersweet) end. Or we may use one or more flashbacks or flash forwards. I am against flashbacks as a general rule, but in this case there may or may not be arguments for having them. The arguments in favour are;
It makes the film less predictable to those who saw the original Cathy, could add to the nightmare dynamic and, most important, mean that we could begin with a dramatic moment which will grip our viewers instantly.
Although these decisions are of great importance they do not have to be taken yet.
I would like the feel of the film to be less clear cut than the previous one, having more of the nightmare circular movement of my other homeless film, Edna the Inebriate Woman.
As in the original 'Cathy', we will be filming in real locations, and many real people will appear alongside our actors.
In each case where I have specified a major location I have a specific place in mind which corresponds to how I have described it, usually both as regards the physical qualities and the type of people to be found there.
A crucial strategy may be to choose as our protagonist an actress who already has her own young children, who will appear in the film. This vastly simplifies all sorts of logistical problems, and is what we did in the original Cathy.
From the moment of decision to go ahead it should take some six weeks of intensive research and writing to produce a first draft structure, preliminary list of locations and cast list, and first draft script.
I will, of course, hope to be in close communication with the director and producer during this period, as soon as those persons are chosen. Preproduction work could also begin straight away, going simultaneously and to a degree in tandem with the script writing.
Dynamics of the Film;
Odessey of a Young Woman of the 90s
Like the original 'Cathy', this will be another powerful drama documentary entirely based on things which have actually occurred within the last year or so.
It is the odessey of a contemporary young woman as she struggles to find a decent home for herself and children, amidst a world of diminishing provision of housing and escalating homelessness.
And, like 'Cathy', this is the story of a woman trying to keep her children with her against enormous odds.
The split up of our new mother from her children happens more than once in the film and what keeps our viewers on the side of their seats will be the poignant agony of wondering whether they will get back together, and having got back together will they be able to stay together.
To a large degree because of the original 'Cathy', the idea that a family may be broken up with institutionalised violence is something that every parent now knows. These adults and these children, and our audience, are aware of what may lie ahead.
As in the original 'Cathy', our young mother will find herself on a journey which embraces the various types of home, and of homelessness, currently available to a typical family who are not well off, and not that good at coping.
Our new 'Cathy' comes from the modern equivalent of the background of the original 'Cathy'. But, partly because like all of us she's lived through more than a decade of feminism, she shows more initiative in solving her own problems. As a result of feminism, a wimp is not the only thing a woman is allowed to be. And this one, much more than the original Cathy, is a fighter.
Despite what may be a tragic ending, this tough quality will mean this is, much of it, an offbeat film in which the tragedy may be shot through with comedy.
Another important change; a stable family structure whether for themselves or the older generation can no longer be assumed for these youngsters of the nineties. Now a third of all households containing children are one parent households, and a far higher proportion among homeless households. It's alright in many sections of society to change husbands or boyfriends.
This is a story of the criminalisation of poverty. The story of how a person drops a few rungs down the social ladder, and then falls off it altogether.
This is the sort of life, lived by a significant number of British people, that results from planning regulations that have gone berserk. For the housing famine is a man made famine. It is the artificial product of policies and rules which are irresponsible and absurd.
Huge numbers of black families now find themselves homeless and this is something that we must not ignore. Black people are now part of the homeless picture in a way they absolutely were not 25 years ago. Why is this?
Our new mother has entered adulthood with a fairly stereotyped world view. I would say her household takes the Star or the Express rather than the Mirror or the Guardian. Most of the situations and people she has to adjust to as a result of becoming homeless are very difficult for her.
This is particularly so when she finds herself with the squatters and hippies, or black people or gay families.
Also, she has grown up with the assumption that the state will provide its citizens with a minimum standard below which they will not be allowed to fall. It is a shock for her to discover that the state can no longer provide, and she is on her own.
The original Cathy implicitly asked our viewers, on the evidence we presented, to accept a fundamental proposition that homeless people are not in the main feckless ne'er-do-wells who have only themselves to blame (as they were at that time presented). They are not problem people. They are ordinary folk whose only problem is that they can't find a home.
This time, once again, we are asking viewers to accept a fundamental proposition, which is; Homelessness often overtakes people to whom sociaty gives the labels 'hippies, Gypsies, gays, blacks, problem families'. But the labels are not the crucial thing about them. They're not homeless because they've chosen to be like that. Nor are they necessarily like that because they're homeless. They are human beings primarily and only secondly those other things. They are not problem families but are families with the problem that they can find no home. They are not unworthy of help.
Rather than offer that help, society at the moment chooses to criminalise them or eccentricise them, thus depriving them of the respect and fair play which surely must be due to them as ordinary members of the human race.
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