Over the next year or two I was still haunted by the dreadful plight of those people in Newington Lodge and the knowledge that things had not got better. Neither the radio programme or the Observer article had provoked the public outcry that I felt was needed.
Meanwhile the success of the Savoy Hotel film had caused me to realise what a powerful medium a television film can be. I resolved to try to write another film, a documentary drama about homeless families. The film would use many of the techniques of documentary, but would have a story line and have its principal parts played by actors.
The reason for doing it as a documentary drama rather than a documentary was that I had already tried documentary, in the radio programme, and the public had remained untouched. ‘Real’ people, as opposed to actors, are often inarticulate, especially when disaster hits them. There can be flashes of emotion in a true-life documentary, but ‘real’ people cannot sustain these flashes through a film. An actor with an actual script avoids that problem.
Also, film cameras were not allowed in the hostels for the homeless and were still too big to be taken in clandestinely. So that even if we had been able to get in with cameras to make a television documentary, as I had done with the radio programme, I wouldn't have been able to do justice to the emotional reality of the condition of these homeless people.
I began to draft a play. I had always been intrigued by Shelley’s line about writers as, ‘the unacknowledged legislators of their time’. How arrogant. Yet any worthwhile writer, so I was beginning to feel, must have a sense of social responsibility, and the public as a whole was still ignorant of the plight of these homeless people, and I realised it was a subject whose injustice I wanted to communicate to the world.
Therefore I decided to try to write a full length story film about a young woman who becomes homeless and what happened to her. Ted Kotcheff, who had previously directed a stage play of mine called ‘Dreaming Bandsmen’, was keen to direct it for me.
I find it hard to work at home, and I had discovered a petite attic room, very high up at the back of a house in Oakley Street, Chelsea, with peeling white walls and ceiling and a little fireplace. It was tatty, small, and not unattractive, and easy to keep warm. I scattered papers everywhere in deep piles like snow, and sometimes I felt I was enjoying myself. But, in fact, writing ‘Cathy’ was a gruelling experience.
I wanted to show the housing famine as a whole, as well as the phenomenon of homelessness which was its most extreme symptom; so, to help with research, I got myself commissioned to write newspaper articles and series.
In Liverpool, while researching one of these, I found families living in basements and in houses without windows, electric light, gas, beds, or any amenities except a few sodden mattresses on the floor. I remember water dripping down the walls, from which the women would fill kettles in order to boil up their cups of tea. Later, I did further research in Birmingham. This research provided material for that part of ‘Cathy Come Home’ where she lives in a slum and then camps out in a derelict building.
The caravan section, in which Cathy goes to live on a run-down caravan site, I researched in a radio documentary called ‘Living On Wheels’. The tapes that I used in this radio documentary formed the voice overs for the equivalent part of the ‘Cathy’ film, supplemented with others I made on location while the film was being shot.
It was while doing research for this radio programme that I learned of the number of children who died as a result of fires in caravans, and came upon the case on which the fatal fire in ‘Cathy’ was based. I discovered a newspaper account of the proceedings in the coroner’s court and transferred what occurred to the script of ‘Cathy’; a girl described how the caravan was filled with smoke, and how she escaped with ‘little Gary’ in her arms. ‘And what happened to the others?’ the coroner asked. ‘They all got burned up.’
I was also researching the wider aspects of homelessness. I read Audrey Harvey’s Fabian pamphlet ‘Casualties of the Welfare State’, and a careful reading of the Registrar General’s Annual Report brought home to me that the number of children separated from their parents each year for no reason other than homelessness was in the thousands.
Mainly, however, I didn’t go to those in authority for information. Instead, I spoke to those directly involved. When I met a woman in Liverpool or Birmingham who had been many years on the housing list, with no chance of getting a home, I didn’t need to consult statistics to know that her situation was a grave one. Later, I got the figures which were used in wild track in ‘Cathy’. I also had good friends in official positions, childcare officers, social workers, people working for the Social Security, and under a cover of secrecy, they told me what they knew.
In ‘Cathy’, this story of a girl who came down to London full of hope, built up a family, and then lost that family because of the housing famine, I realised that it was essential from the point of view of audience identification that she should be blameless, and one of the things which had struck me in Newington Lodge was the blamelessness of most of the women there. It would have been a different sort of film if I had presented, in ‘Cathy’ the story of a girl of whom people could say, ‘Well, she was inadequate and a hopeless sort of person. It’s a pity, but it could never happen to me.’
Cathy, however, does have a certain feckless quality. For instance, she and Reg take on an expensive flat without working out how much it’s going to cost. They then start a family without working out how they are going to be able to continue to pay for it when Cathy has to stop work because of her pregnancy. This sort of thing was intentional, because it is a sort of fecklessness I have myself and yet I don’t think of myself as basically inadequate. Cathy’s decision to have kids, without having considered where she was going to live with them, might also be thought of as feckless, but in my experience this is a common habit. Having children seems something so natural that most people have the children first and worry afterwards. I don’t personally blame them for this. I feel that a civilised society should be able to take this into account and not punish.
So, although Cathy was to be a little feckless, I also wanted her to be basically blameless. She was to be a girl that any girl could identify with and any boy accept as a possible girlfriend.
I scripted Cathy coming down from the country to London, courting and winning her dream boyfriend, and setting up home with him, almost like a television commercial. I intended that as far as possible it should correspond to a perfect dream romance and marriage as envisioned by many people. I didn’t want Cathy to have too strong a character, I wanted her to be the kind of person that the maximum number of people could identify with. Having created the very typical situation of a young woman in a smart flat, married and in love, and starting her first child, I got to the point where the story got interesting for me and, from then on, the structure fell into the unusual pattern of a series of disasters, without any let-up.
There are five sections, each ending in a worse disaster than the previous one. Cathy and Reg are turned out from their luxury flat because children aren’t allowed, and anyway it is too expensive for them. They run into debt and are shocked to find that it is so difficult, on a low income, to find accommodation that will accept children. Then Reg has an accident, so that his earning power is now a fraction of what it was. After trying many places and meeting many rebuttals, Cathy at last finds an unhygienic couple of rooms in a Birmingham slum. She and Reg and the children are happy here, but are finally evicted from it when their landlady dies and the new owner, who wants to relet it at a far higher rent, tricks them. Once again they search for a home, and step down another rung on the social ladder when Reg rents a caravan for them on a local site.
Although the conditions here are muddy and filthy, they’re contented. They get in with a group of people who are free and happy-go-lucky. But then there is a caravan fire in which children die and neighbours who want to get the site closed see their chance. The caravan dwellers are evicted, and Cathy and Reg’s odyssey continues.
But Cathy has suffered from so many moves. She is becoming demoralised. She and Reg and the children sleep rough in a ruined building while they make a few final discouraged attempts to find somewhere legal to live. In the end there’s nowhere else to go. Cathy and Reg, with the children, apply to be taken into a hostel for the homeless. Reg, dispirited and demoralised, is not allowed into the hostel and disappears, and Cathy is eventually evicted even from this hostel for the homeless. When she puts up a fight, officialdom uses violence to take them from her.
I designed Reg to be an attractive man, who is ultimately not strong enough to stay with his family when they are hit by misfortune. I wanted viewers to identify with his dilemma; after a certain point, he is too ashamed to continue. I didn’t want to present him as thoughtless or helpless because viewers then could have blamed the tragedy on him, rather than on the housing famine.
Everything in the film was founded on something which had actually happened. An incident, like the fight in the home for the homeless in which Cathy strikes one of the staff, was an amalgamation of two real incidents. One concerned the principal of one of the homes I’d visited who alleged that an inmate had talked to the press, and in consequence threw her out. The other incident involved the death of a baby as a result of dysentery. The staff claimed that it was due to the mother’s neglect, and angry parents attacked the staff.
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