‘Cathy Come Home is thirty years old today’
‘Many (possibly most) of the finest things seen on television reach their audiences despite, rather than because of, the BBC hierarchy.’
‘Far from fostering talent the role of the BBC (middle men, as well as the top brass) has, in my experience, been far more often obstructive rather than enabling.’
- So says screenplay writer Jeremy Sandford, whose famous TV play, ‘Cathy Come Home’ was first transmitted (on 16th November 1966) thirty years ago.
The torrent of wonderful one-shot television films and dramas of the sixties and early seventies has shrunk to a trickle. It’s fashionable to look back to a golden age of television drama in the days of Armchair Theatre, The Wednesday Play, Play for Today, and to blame their demise on a new breed of overlord accountants.
But, says screenplay writer Jeremy Sandford (Cathy Come Home; Edna, the Inebriate Woman), it’s never been quite as simple as that.
There has always been one weak link in the hierarchy that takes a television play from its writer to its audience. That weak link is not to be found among the soldiers - the writers, directors, actors, camerapersons, technicians, or any of those directly involved in making the programmes. Unexpectedly, it all too often lies amid the seried ranks of the officer class; the producers, script editors, commissioning editors.
The soldiers have reached a high standard of professionalism. Too many of the officer class, even now, have not achieved a professional level in the way they do their jobs. If the soldiers fight like lions (to adapt the famous adage used first of our 1914-18 army), they are, sadly, too often led by donkeys; the ranks of the middle men at the BBC must shoulder a share of the blame for the fact that homegrown one-shot television drama (whether on film or in the studio) is perceived to have lost its audience.
Lions led by donkeys. While (I must stress) there are exceptions, my own experiences have helped me to arrive at an axiom; many (possibly most) of the finest things seen on television have reached their audience despite, rather than because of, the BBC hierarchy.
There has been a betrayal, and it is not only at Overlord Accountant level. An army can have the finest soldiers in the world but it will come to naught if the officer class, at top brass or middle level, is stupid, vain or timid.
My ‘Cathy Come Home’, the story of a young mother whose family experience institutionalised decimation at the hands of officialdom in the time of housing famine, was based on two or three years of part time research by me, mostly financed by newspapers, for whom I then wrote articles and series on the subject.
I’d transmitted a number of radio plays and features and decided to cast the story of a homeless young mother in dramatic form. I sent the story line out to a number of producers. Ten or twelve times the answer came back ‘No’, including from that fine radio producer Terrence Tiller, and that fine film maker Dennis Mitchell. ‘Powerful subject, but it should be done as a documentary’ was the usual response. Michael Cuke had a different reason; ‘One admires your campaigning zeal but Wednesday Play is not a political platform.’
Tony Garnett, my saviour, discovered ‘Cathy’ in someone else’s filing cabinet and immediately told me he’d like to make it, with Ken Loach directing. One of the liveliest producers in television, in temperament and outlook much more a soldier than an officer, he insisted on one important proviso; the film’s subject must remain a secret, not one word of the real subject matter must leak out. In his view the BBC establishment would instantly block it if they got an inkling of what the film was really about.
It didn’t take me long to write the story line into a screenplay, since I’d already turned a lot of it into a novel. We casted and made the film. The BBC establishment were deceived about its true contents. To cover our tracks we described it as a knockabout family comedy, which was roughly true, except for the comedy bit.
The secrecy continued in the run up period to transmission. It was the custom for superiors in the hierarchy (which at that time included Sydney Newman as Head of Drama) to vet programmes a few weeks before they went out. Tony and Ken arranged that the film was always away being processed or worked on or having its titles or sound track added, so that nobody above Tony in the hierarchy got to see it before it was actually transmitted.
The film caused a sensation. From that moment it was established as the most famous and far reaching television drama of all time. Sydney Newman was furious, had Tony on the carpet and accused him of ‘patronising the proles’. Later that day, when the BBC top brass decided to stand by the programme, he changed his tune and decided that he too would support it.
The BBC gave ‘Cathy’ a second transmission three months later and the combined audience for both showings was twenty two million - more than half the adult population.
The phenomenal success of Cathy had entirely been achieved despite, rather than because of, the BBC hierarchy.
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