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The Warp

Aftermath of Cathy (2)

Every now and again some new T.V. documentary drama is billed as hard hitting, no holds barred, controversial, firmly in the outspoken tradition of ‘Cathy’. Its makers promise that it will provoke the same furore as ‘Cathy’. It doesn’t. There may be a few newspaper articles, a few references on chat shows, that’s all. Nothing is changed. The show is, almost invariably, not repeated, soon forgotten. None of these shows goes on rumbling on for ever, as it now seems ‘Cathy’ will. ‘Cathy’ has been transmitted many times, more than any other made for television programme. The name ‘Cathy’ has passed into our language, a shorthand reference to a homeless mother with young children. None of the others have added a brand name to our language.

The difference in impact is not ultimately to be explained in terms of quality, of acting, direction, script or camerawork. Even though Carol White and the other cast did superbly, Ken Loach’s direction was very fine, and I like to think that my script was spare and powerful. The difference lies in the cocktail of techniques we used and what they led to, the feeling of strong immediacy and, above all, contextualisation.

Contextualisation is presenting our viewers with two things at once, in counterpoint. There is the particular story of Cathy and the series of misfortunes that led to her so tragically losing her children. This is presented in traditional film makers story telling mode with a succession of scenes and synch dialogue.

Running simultaneously is the contextualisation. This uses the voices of real people caught in the same predicament, the sort of material one would use in a documentary. Most of the actuality voices used as wildtrack or voice overs in ‘Cathy’ had been originally used in BBC radio documentaries that I had recorded and made myself.

These voices underpin and endorse the particular story of ‘Cathy’ with generalised comments. Who are they talking to? Originally they were talking to me as I recorded them, but they also knew that I would be using them in a documentary which would be addressed to the public. Therefore I think these voices reflect their owner’s awareness that they are talking to society as a whole about their predicament.

The contextualisation also used statistics, both spoken verbally and on screen, the voices of professional type people commenting, and even the voice of Cathy herself telling her story and musing on her predicament.

The effect of all these voices used as voice overs is to widen out the unique picture of Cathy’s predicament and put it in the context of all these other British people who were suffering the effects of a man-made housing famine, all those people who were suffering in hostels for the homeless, needlessly having their children taken from them.

Other documentary dramas may add a caption at start or finish to acquaint the viewer with how the individual story being shown relates to the wider picture. Only ‘Cathy’, in the constant reference to the wider reality provided by its voice overs, gives a consistent reminder that this is not the story of one family which has fallen foul of the welfare state, but the story of hundreds or thousands of people. By placing Cathy’s story in context, it invites and elicits a response that is political as well as personal.

It was a new idea in television inspired, in part, by a visit I’d made with Nell to Joan Littlewood’s theatre production of ‘Oh What a Lovely War’. Her use of ticker tape captions going across the stage, carrying crucial general information, underpinning the particular scenes we were being shown, had impressed me. Other ingredients in our cocktail (though not in Joan Littlewood’s) were the shooting in the actual real locations in which the story we were showing took place, and the use of many ‘real’ non-thespian people as extras.

There was one final further ingredient, one more explosive plum in the unrepeatable pudding. ‘Cathy’ had a powerful message; ‘this sort of thing, this humiliation and break up of families as a result of homelessness, done in our society, in our name, must stop.’ To have a strong message you must have a strong author, someone who will stand up and be accountable, will be there to reply to questions about what is being shown, to fire back at the inevitable posse of traditionalist snipers. ‘Cathy’ had strong authorship.

And so this unique cocktail of techniques used in ‘Cathy’, the presentation of a representative or actual story which viewers could strongly relate to, contextualised by the constant presentation on screen and in voice over of the general situation of which this individual story was an example, coupled with very fast newsreel type camera work shot on location, was never repeated. And, in part at any rate for this reason, the many later attempts to repeat the success of ‘Cathy’ failed. Even now, many years later, that particular cocktail of ingredients has never been remixed. Nor is this something that happened by chance. The decision not to do it again was deliberate. It was made by fat cats high in the media hierarchy.

‘A writer should not appear on television, warts and all’ in support of his play, claimed Irene Shubik, a more traditionalist producer, in her book ‘Play for Today: the Evolution of Television Drama’, giving what must be the cautious official line of most media mandarins. She must have been aware that much of the credibility of ‘Cathy’ came from newspaper interviews and my appearance, face to face with local government workers, on the David Frost show, a few days later, on television. She didn’t like it.

Drama which is less drastically engaged in the stuff of actual reality is more to the taste of most media mandarins, and Shubik claims elsewhere that a ‘certain reticence’ is the best mode for an author to adopt. But in my view, and I think it is the view of our public, the strong presence of the author was one of the things that impressed them and led them to ‘believe’ in ‘Cathy’. Occasionally there comes a docudrama, a drama, a documentary, that speaks with authority. As, so the Bible tells us, the young Jesus did. He spoke the truth as he saw it and did not think it necessary to make the customary ritual bow to the received wisdom of the mandarin priestly cast of his day. It caused no end of freak out to those, like the Scribes and Pharisees, whose welfare was linked to not rocking the boat.

Television is our national village green, our forum, our speaker’s corner. Now I suppose there are too many competing voices on the green for any one drama to achieve the impact that ‘Cathy Come Home’ did when there were only two channels, in 1966. Nonetheless, it is these fully authored programmes that speak their author’s own truth from the heart, with authority and without compromise, that our audience love and that strike terror into the hearts of the TV mandarins.

Such a programme was Peter Watkins ‘The War Game’, about nuclear weapons, which used documentary techniques to show the likely outcome of nuclear war. It was banned. ‘Death of a Princess’, which showed the stoning to death of an Arab princess who had committed adultery, would have been banned if it could have been foreseen what a furore it would cause. Such a programme was ‘Cathy Come Home’ which would have been banned if it has not been smuggled onto our screens through subterfuge.

The early Dennis Potter plays spoke with authority about our society. Potter knew what lay ahead so that later he came increasingly to speak in allegory. If he had not, I believe his plays would no longer have been transmitted.

It is in these moments when an eloquent citizen raises his or her head above the parapet, raises his or her voice and addresses his or her fellow citizens, in all seriousness and sincerity, in those moments when television does momentarily become a national speakers corner, that it can achieve great excellence; and high viewing figures.

And, despite these high viewing figures, it is these moments of inspiration and challenge which media management most fears and will put much energy into preventing, taking the view that despite our audience’s clearly articulated wishes, such speakers are dangerous and must be watched carefully.

The ultimate instinct of the television hierarchy is to lackey the status quo, not challenge it. They were given the jitters by ‘Cathy’. There have been a number of documentary dramas since whose makers claimed they would cause as much stir as ‘Cathy’. They didn’t. None of them use the full cocktail of techniques that made ‘Cathy’ so effective. None of them was ever allowed to.

I, in my script of ‘Cathy’, spoke with authority about an outrage. Its facts stood up and could not be overturned. Social action, or the promise of social action, was the only possible pay-off. It followed soon after.


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