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The Warp

Cathy a Fraud (2)

Professional jealousy may be enough to account for Irene Shubik’s inaccurate attack on ‘Cathy Come Home’; she was envious of Tony’s success as a producer. There may also be other reasons. There was a highly conservative side to Shubik, often kept hidden from left wing colleagues. She was suspicious of what she saw as the fashionable liberalism of the sixties and early seventies. ‘Cathy Come Home’ was, of course, a trail blazer in this area. Shubik was covertly hostile to the film and everything it stood for, even though in public she often believed it important to give the reverse impression.

She was suspicious of plays which were firmly rooted in the lives of ordinary folk, as opposed to more thespian products. It was not made easier for her in that, as a Canadian, she did not entirely understand the workings of British society.

I first met Irene Shubik in an Italian restaurant in South Kensington. It was a business lunch and she had come to discuss the acquisition of a trilogy of television screenplays of mine. My agent Nick Thompson and I were there to talk over the contract.

Smartly turned out in one of the fashionable high street outfits of the time, Irene did not at first sight strike me as a typical BBC TV producer. This was in part because there were at that time few women in managerial positions anywhere and television drama especially was still almost entirely a male preserve.

I remember speaking of how important accuracy was to me, and how I did not like to write anything for television which I could not support in a current affairs programme afterwards, as I had done in a programme called ‘Late Night Line Up’ and also on the David Frost Programme, after ‘Cathy’. There was a brief pause, followed by Shubik appearing to be impressed. In fact, as I realised later, she had decided to stay silent for fear that a statement of her real views might jeopardise her acquisition of the screenplays. Her real views, as I learned when I finally came to read ‘Play for Today; the Evolution of Television Drama’, were in fact the opposite. Writers, so she claims in the passage I’ve already quoted, should at all costs avoid ‘revealing themselves, warts and all, to an audience of millions ... justifying or explaining their own work ... a little remoteness is, in my view, a very good thing.’

Much of what I was writing at that time came from a position of social concern. ‘Cathy Come Home’ as a young man’s work had been written to change the world, or at least one bit of it, and I had succeeded.

At that time it really did seem that I had become one of those who Shelley called, speaking of writers, the ‘unacknowledged legislators of their time’. It had been one of those times when television, normally content to reflect the times it finds itself in, instead takes a part in the action. People’s attitudes were changed by ‘Cathy’, and government and local authority policy was changed. Television, I felt, was a medium through which, in an electronic democratic forum, a writer could address fellow citizens and incite them to action.

To Shubik, however, as was to become apparent later but was not clear then, there was not that blazing concern for the society she lived in which, for example, I had found in Tony Garnett and Ken Loach. Nor had she thought much about the role of television in society. Television, in so far as I could judge her position, is something that is there, in which she was lucky to get a job, and is a river in whose waters she swims, and swims contentedly enough, though sometimes with moments of trauma, without ever attempting that intellectual leap which might make it possible to take a more lofty view of the countryside through which the river flows.

So, in her book, as in so many showbiz memoirs, the play’s the thing, rather than that wider world which forms its context. Shubik’s book is a fairly typical showbiz memoir. The big names are there; there are a few droll anecdotes; very little in the way of objective analysis, of what is ostensibly her subject.

Deep in Shubik’s psyche there seems to be a distrust of ‘ordinary’ people, based I think on nothing more unusual than prejudice and snobbery.

Shubik was not alone in these feelings. It is important to realise that the degree to which, while paying lip service to the success of ‘Cathy Come Home’, there were many at the BBC establishment who did not wish the play well. It was not the sort of drama they wanted to see. In her attempt to trash ‘Cathy’, Shubik was acting out the secret wishes of many in the television establishment.

BBC television in the 60s and 70s was monolithic, deeply entrenched and complacent. In acting as she did, Shubik believed she was doing the television establishment a favour. Claiming that ‘Cathy’ was ‘inaccurate’ was an obvious way to rob the play of its esteem and power.

Cathy’ was too strong for the typical BBC employee of that date to stomach, and 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 something they would never 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 ultimate comment came from a cartoonist for the Evening Standard who showed two officials of the Institute of Social Workers confiding to each other, ‘The only boobs we could spot were our own!’


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