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The Trashing of Cathy

by Jeremy Sandford

who researched and wrote the screenplay

November 15th will see the thirtieth anniversary of ‘Cathy Come Home’, probably the most influential and powerful TV drama ever, closely followed by a similar anniversary for the housing charity ‘Shelter’. No stranger to uproar, the play is once again at the centre of controversy.

Cathy Come Home - a ‘fraud’

BBC cover up after revelation of ‘boobs’ in

Cathy Come Home’ - allegation

I wonder how many more times I’ll sit through yet another anniversary of ‘Cathy’ and be subjected to the same old tired and vindictive myths?

My ‘Cathy Come Home’, the TV film which tells the story of a young woman who loses home, husband and children, everything, because of Britain’s housing famine, was probably the most famous and influential TV programme ever. And, it has recently been alleged, it was a fraud. It contained so many inaccuracies that it had to be drastically - and clandestinely - ‘cleaned up’ before re-transmission. What’s more, the public were never informed.

The claim is made by John Corner, Professor of Politics and Communication at the University of Liverpool, in his new book ‘The Art of the Record’, published by the Manchester University Press.

It is completely untrue - a myth. To be doubly certain I checked with Tony Garnett, the producer of ‘Cathy’. He agreed with me. No changes were ever made to ‘Cathy’ for reasons of inaccuracy. (One change was made to edit out a member of the public who had inadvertently been caught up in the slipstream and objected.)

The professor claims as his source an apparently authoritative study published in 197? called ‘Play for Today, the Evolution of Television Drama’. The book’s author, Irene Shubik, was a top producer at the BBC at the time of the original transmission of ‘Cathy’. Why would she wish to make this claim?

In trying to find an answer to this question, I have surfaced an intriguing glimpse into the hothouse world of BBC TV drama in the sixties and early seventies; a hothouse of strong passions, amongst them arse licking, sabotage and envy; inhabited by folk alternately exhiliarated and terrified by the ever increasing power of television they in theory controlled. The terror was palpable.

It was apparent to me from my first meeting with Tony Garnett and Ken Loach, who were to become producer and director of ‘Cathy’. ‘There is one condition,’ Tony Garnett had said as we sat in Bertorelli’s restaurant in the romantic environment of Shepherds Bush Green, ‘attached to our making this film. That you do not speak a word about its content, not a word, until the morning after its transmission. On that condition,’ said Tony, ‘I’ll be happy to send you a contract.’

I’d worked previously for newspapers and radio. It hadn’t occurred to me that television might be different. Why Garnett’s proviso? He explained that there was no way this screenplay would ever be made, let alone transmitted, if the powers that be got to hear of its content.

‘But it’s about something that’s happening in Britain today, something that is shocking and is immensely important,’ I said. ‘It’s also powerful and dramatic.’ ‘It’s because it’s all those things that the establishment would try to block it,’ said Tony. ‘It’s too strong for them. It’s not the sort of thing they want to see on television.’

In the course of the next few weeks I met Ken Loach a few times for script conference and general discussion. Soon the screenplay was ready. We casted and made the film and the BBC establishment were deceived, through all those months between conception and transmission, 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 Plays) 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, summoned Tony to his office and accused him of ‘patronising the proles’. Later that day, when the BBC top brass decided to stand by the programme, he had second thoughts and decided that he too would support it.

‘Shelter’ was started. The government despatched a circular to all local authorities urging them not to split up families for reasons of homelessness. Many more homes were promised. Hundreds of husbands were allowed to join their wives and children in emergency accommodation and never again were to be separated.

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.

It must have caused a degree of soul searching for a number of people in executive positions. ‘Cathy’, the most successful and influential television one shot drama of all time had come into existence despite, rather than because of, them. This called into question whether they were doing their well-paid jobs adequately. Were they a creative part of the process? Or merely obstructive?

The truth is, they were often the latter. There has always been, in my experience, one weak link in the chain of authority that brings television scripts to their public. That weak link is not among the writers, actors, directors, camera and other technicians. It is among many of those ostensibly in control, the middle men and executives, the heads of this and that, the script editors and commissioning editors.

‘You know, we can’t make any more [‘Cathy Come Home’s]’, Huw Weldon explained to me a year or so later. The reason he gave was that the public had not been clear enough about whether what was being shown was real or not.

The real reason, I believe, is that ‘Cathy’ was too strong for the typical BBC employee of that date to stomach and that Huw, an exceptional man in many respects, was closer to a typical BBC employee in this one. The campaigning social message of ‘Cathy’ was deeply disturbing to many of those in authority at the BBC. While paying it public lip service, many of them felt threatened by the rawness and energy of ‘Cathy’ and did not wish it well. Many believed, like Huw Weldon, that it should never be allowed to happen again.


‘Cathy’ had other enemies. The Institute of Social Workers was reported in the press as having asked its two million members to watch the second showing and report back any ‘blunders, omissions and inaccuracies’, which it would then use in a ‘protest to the BBC’. A spokesman for that organisation tells me it is not something they would ever do, though it could perhaps have appeared as a rhetorical question in one of their briefing sheets, which town halls are encouraged to put on their notice boards, though he did not recall this. Their small organisation would be quite incapable, he tells me, then or now, of dealing with two million replies. Whatever the exact nature of the request, various newspapers reported, a day or so later, that it did not prove possible to spot any ‘blunders, omissions or inaccuracies’. The BBC had already made an announcement in which it stood by the accuracy of the play. The proposed protest was never made to the BBC.

The counter attack against ‘Cathy’, however, continued. There is a most revealing sentence in ‘Play for Today, the Evolution of Television Drama’, the book which appears to be the earliest source for the myth of inaccuracy in ‘Cathy’. ‘If Cathy had been more realistically portrayed as a foul-mouthed working class scrubber and her pretty appealing children had been replaced by appropriately snotty-nosed delinquents, then the sympathies of the good, honest, hard-working and decent British people would have remained dormant.’

This is classist, snobbish, prejudiced, quite untrue, and unfortunately typical of the attitude towards ‘Cathy’ of many BBC employees at the time. The branding of a typical homeless mother as a ‘foul mouthed working class scrubber’ and her children as ‘snotty nosed delinquents’ is a deeply prejudiced comment from someone who has not really understood our culture. It is through this type of disempowerment that some privileged people have always dodged acknowledgement of any responsibility they might have towards those less fortunate than them.

My portrait of Cathy, a typical homeless mother, had been carefully researched, and in the eight years between ‘Cathy’ and Shubik’s book, had been many times endorsed. Some of the research I was drawing on can, for example, be found in the BBC radio programme ‘Homeless Families’ in the BBC Sound Library and devised, recorded and introduced by Heather Sutton and myself; in my ‘Down and Out in Britain’ (Sphere), which is quoted from elsewhere by Irene, and in the essay attached to the novelisation of ‘Cathy Come Home’ (Pan), and also in a series of reports by myself in ‘The Observer’, ‘The New Statesman’ and ‘The People’ newspapers.

A serious historian would surely not claim our homeless mothers are typically ‘foul mouthed scrubbers’ without mentioning the research on which she is drawing. Yet Shubik does not quote a single piece of research to support her claim.

There was a more recent occasion when Shubik stuck her neck out. On this occasion, too, she committed herself to a controversial position for which there appeared to be no factual justification. At the headquarters of BAFTA (The British Academy for Film and Television) in Piccadilly, London, in 1992, eight members of a jury voted for their award for best drama serial of the previous year. Irene Shubik was the non-voting chairperson. When the votes had been cast, Shubik looked through the ballot papers briefly and then announced, ‘We have a decision. It’s four to three.’

As a result, the prize for best drama serial went to Granada’s ‘Prime Suspect’, a police thriller. Granada’s pleasure was short lived, because four of the judges broke the academy’s confidentiality rule by claiming that they all had voted for ‘GBH’, Channel Four’s drama about a corrupt city. It was, they claimed, this drama which should have won.

The real life drama that followed gripped the imaginations of those in the world of television. Had one of the voter’s memory been at fault? Or had some hidden hand tampered with the voting papers? The plot thickened with the disclosure that a feud had been raging for some years between Irene Shubik and Verity Lambert, executive producer of ‘GBH’.

Shubik, who had produced ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’ as a play for the BBC, took a second series to Verity Lambert, who was at that point controller of drama at Thames. After a disagreement between the two women, Shubik was replaced as producer, and was further annoyed when Lambert refused to give her a programme credit. ‘Irene felt Rumpole was her baby, and was very irked,’ said one source.

Whether Shubik made a mistake or not, she allegedly was not on speaking terms with Verity Lambert. While the truth of what actually happened at what the press dubbed ‘Baftagate’ will probably never be established for certain, there can be no doubt that what Shubik claimed about ‘Cathy Come Home’, actually was not true. In this case too, one of those professional feuds that are such an intriguing characteristic of the world of television may have some significance.

Shubik was jealous of her colleague Tony Garnett. She felt he received an unfair amount of available funds. And that he received an unfair amount of the cudos. In this case, too, a personal vendetta seems to have been one of the principal reasons. Shubik was jealous of Tony Garnett and coveted his position.

Although most people would probably claim that Tony Garnett’s productions were more important in the evolution of television drama than were Shubik’s, she has conspicuously little to say about Garnett’s plays in her study while devoting a comparatively very large space to her own productions.

Whatever her exact motives, the incident gives an intriguing behind the scenes glimpse into the hothouse world of BBC TV employees of that time, who all too often lived a mandarin life remote from the real world; who, in their passionate servicing of their own whims, prejudices and vendettas, lost sight of their employer’s commitment to provide a serious, truthful, responsible service to viewers.


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