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The Warp



One day, a family living a few doors down the street were evicted. Their furniture was thrown into the street, and they disappeared, apparently without trace. I wondered what had become of them. Because, as I understood it, they had nowhere else to go. A few nights later, a friend came to tell me that this neighbouring family had arrived in a terrible place. This was Newington Lodge, an old workhouse to which all homeless families in London were at that time sent. I went to see for myself. What I found angered and saddened me.

It was a scene of horror, all the worse for the fact that no one knew about it. Stacked into an old workhouse were hundreds of mothers and children who had been separated from their husbands and fathers. Some families were in single rooms. In other cases, four, five, or more families had all been shoved into the same room. There were far too few toilets, the ones there were were filthy, and dysentery had broken out. Ambulances called every day, often more than once a day. There was great demoralisation. Husbands were only allowed to visit their wives and children for a couple of hours each night. In the afternoons, even when it was raining, mothers and children were forced out into the streets. They were told they must go out and look for somewhere to live, but it was well known that finding somewhere would be almost impossible. The availability of reasonably priced rented accommodation was far short of the demand. Obviously, they would hardly be in these horrible conditions if they hadn’t tried to the end of their ability to find accommodation before they ever arrived here.

The families were not allowed to cook for themselves, but instead were fed basic food in a huge communal dining room. Some of the mothers, fearing their children would catch dysentery, forbade them to eat. Ultimately, however, hunger would prevail. They would go down to the dining room and many became diseased.

For the privilege of living here these families had to pay the sort of rent that a flat outside would have cost them and this aggravated their difficulties. Since the money of the husband’s wages was being used up in this way and also used up in travel by the husbands coming to see their families, there was no money left over to put down a deposit on outside accommodation, even if they were able to find it.

At that time, there were a few thousand British people in this situation. The heartbreak of mothers and children unwillingly separated from their husbands and fathers was a terrible thing to see. Added to the heartbreak of disease, and the shame of being in these places, was a yet further humiliation. On arrival, all families were made to sign a document saying that they clearly understood that the accommodation was only emergency accommodation and they would not be allowed to stay there for more than three months. In practice, this rule was not strictly adhered to. Many people were still in emergency accommodation after a year or even two years, either here at Newington Lodge or in other such places. Wherever they were, there came the time when they were told that they could not stay any longer.

At this point, the mother, knowing what lay ahead, would often become frantic. Often by now the husbands, ashamed, humiliated, and unable to cope with the situation, would have abandoned their families. This is no slur, I think, on the husbands, but it is a slur on the situation into which a relatively affluent society had forced them. The women would redouble their efforts to find accommodation, but in their demoralised state, they were in no fit condition to search efficiently.

I remember one institutional building at that time in which thirty homeless families were housed in a vast chamber, along whose sides were stalls like stables with wooden walls about five feet high with flimsy curtains across the front. There was a family in each of these stalls. I was with one mother when she received the curt letter telling her she had to leave. She knew what this letter meant; that, unless she could miraculously find a home somewhere in these last few days, the children would be taken away from her and put into care. At that time, this was happening to something like twenty-one children a week in the London area.

I felt that conditions so vile should immediately be brought to the attention of the public. To my surprise, I was told by a number of people here that they had written letters to newspapers, but these letters had been ignored. The homeless were not news at that time. My friend Heather Sutton suggested we do a BBC radio programme together, to draw attention to the plight of these homeless families. The BBC agreed.

I also went back surreptitiously to Newington Lodge and made some secret recordings there, and also to the place with the stable-like stalls. In both places there was an atmosphere of fear. People were frightened to talk to us for fear that the authorities might hear about it and that it would be held against them, and they would be evicted. The fear of these pathetic women was a horrible thing to see, and realising that I was an embarrassment to them, I only talked to those who were really anxious to talk, and didn’t choose to stay long.

The reaction to the radio programme, which we called ‘Homeless Families’ was not overwhelming. I had the impression, as so often when working for radio, of shouting important things down a deep well.

Some time passed and my friend in Newington Lodge was past the time that she was officially allowed to be there. She had received a ‘letter of eviction’ whose implications were that she would be thrown out and her children taken into care. Through the success of the film about the Savoy I had come to realise what a powerful medium the television film can be, so I resolved to write a film about the tragedy of homelessness which would use many of the techniques of documentary but would have a story line and be performed by actors.

Real people are often inarticulate, especially when disaster hits them. There can be flashes of emotion in a true-life documentary, but these flashes cannot be sustained through a film. An actor with an actual script avoids that problem. Also, at this time, cameras were not allowed in the homes for the homeless. Even had I been able to get in and make a 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 human beings who were in there. Instead I saw it all in the form of a play. I had written plays both for radio and for the stage and had always been intrigued by Shelley’s line about writers as ‘the unacknowledged legislators of their time’. Any writer worth his salt seems to me to have a social responsibility, and the situation of the homeless was exactly the kind of situation I wanted to write about.

Therefore, enthused with the success of the Savoy Hotel film, I decided to try to write a full length story film about a girl called Cathy. Ted Kotcheff, who had previously directed by play ‘Dreaming Bandsmen’ at Coventry, said he would like to direct it as a film, either on television or for the commercial cinema.

The actual process of writing was as follows: I filled a hard-backed spring binder with bits of quarto paper which had the headings of the various sections of the film on them, such as caravan, slum, luxury flat, courting, mothers-in-law, the first home for the homeless, and so on. I then worked from a large number of newspaper clippings that I had accumulated through the years, transcripts of tape recordings, actual tape recordings, notes of people I had met, and places I had been to. I went through all this material, picking facts and incidents out at random, seeing if they fitted what I wanted to do or not. Most of the selection I ultimately rejected, but those incidents which seemed to fit I would put in, sometimes in an altered form, sometimes almost verbatim. This all went on for a couple of months.

Having written a large number of little scenes like this for each section, I juggled them around into the best order, then I had the whole thing typed. The story went to the typist two or three times after that. Each time I would work it through, trying to see the development with objective eyes, excluding some scenes, altering the position of others, amplifying incidents, and writing in a few new scenes out of my head. I’d add touches to Cathy’s character, and so on. It was the general drudge which I expect many writers go through till they consider the script is right.

In all, this took three or four months. I try to avoid working at home, and I had found a delightful, very small attic room, very high up at the back of a house in Oakley Street, Chelsea, with white walls and ceiling and a little fireplace. It was a bit tatty, but small, and therefore 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 and although I had a feeling of satisfaction and fulfilment, I often finished the day feeling absolutely exhausted since I had never tackled so large or serious a subject before.

I had already done much of the research for ‘Cathy’. The caravan section, where Cathy goes to live on a run-down caravan site, was basically researched in a radio interview programme called ‘Living On Wheels’. The tapes that I used in this radio documentary in fact formed the wild track for the equivalent part of the ‘Cathy’ film, supplemented with others I made on the actual location while the film was being shot.

It was while doing research for a series in another newspaper that I learned of the number of children who died as a result of fires in caravans, and while working on this newspaper series I came upon the actual case on which the fatal fire in ‘Cathy’ was based. I followed the proceedings in the coroner’s court and transferred what occurred to the script of ‘Cathy’. In coroner’s court, 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.’

In Liverpool, while compiling another newspaper series, I found families living in basements and houses without windows, electric lights, gas, beds, or any conceivable amenities except a few sodden mattresses on the floor. I remember water dripping down the walls, from which the women would fill kettles and boil up their cups of tea. Later, I did further research in the Birmingham slums. The research in Birmingham and Liverpool was the genesis for the part of the story where Cathy lives in a slum and then camps out in a derelict building.

The most important influence of all in the writing of ‘Cathy’ was my involvement with a particular young woman. It was through getting to know her that I was able to experience the human tragedy and suffering behind this, and the destruction of the human creature.

I was also researching the larger questions concerned in the predicament of homelessness. I read Audrey Harvey’s pamphlet ‘Casualties of the Welfare State’ and a careful reading of the Registrar General’s Annual Report also made me realise that the number of children separated from their parents each year for no reason other than homelessness was in the thousands.

After my experience in Newington Lodge, 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 house, 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 some good friends in official positions in the bureaucracy, childcare officers, other 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 through a tragic chain of events, I realised it was essential from the point of view of audience identification that Cathy 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.’ In Cathy, there is a certain feckless quality, which is good because I was anxious that she not be too perfect. 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 the flat when Cathy has to stop work because of the 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 dreamy-eyed decision to have kids, without ever 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 of most people. 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 many of them as ours does.

So, although Cathy was to be 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 to be almost like a commercial. I intended that as far as possible it should correspond to the perfect dream romance and marriage as envisioned by a great number of 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 girl in a beautiful 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 an unusual pattern of a series of disasters, without any let-up.

There were five sections, each ending in a worse disaster than the previous one. Cathy is turned out from her luxury flat because children aren’t allowed, and anyway it is too expensive for them. She and her husband Reg 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. They and the children are happy here, but are finally evicted from it when their landlady dies and the new owner tricks them. Again a hopeless search, till they sink another rung when Reg finds a place for them on a caravan site.

Although the conditions here are terrible, they achieve more happiness than perhaps at any other time in their lives. They get in with a group of people who are free, happy-go-lucky, and don’t care too much about anything. But then a fire in which children die awakens public interest in the site. The local authorities move in, the caravans are towed away, and the odyssey continues. But Cathy has suffered too many moves and is demoralised. She tries to sleep out in a ruined building and makes a few more discouraging attempts to find accommodation. Finally, she, Reg and the children arrive at the doors of the home for the homeless. So the story continues. Reg disappears, and Cathy is eventually evicted from the house and her kids taken from her.

I designed Cathy’s husband Reg to be an attractive man, who is ultimately not strong enough to keep the family together. I wanted viewers to identify with his dilemma where, after a certain point, he is too ashamed to continue with his family. I didn’t want to show him as a thoughtless bastard because, then again, this would have given viewers a case of special pleading, special inadequacy, and the tragedy would become a particular one rather than a general one, which was what I wanted to show.

Nearly everything in the film was founded on something which had actually happened. An incident, like the fight in the home for the homeless where Cathy strikes one of the staff, was an amalgamation of two real incidents. One concerned the principal of one of the homes who alleged that an inmate had talked to the press, and in consequence they threw her out. The other incident involved the death of a baby - something which I’m sorry to say happened more than once in homes for the homeless - and the belief of the inmates that this was due to dysentery. The staff claimed that it was due to the mother’s neglect. I combined these cases into a cameo where an inmate writes to a paper about a baby’s death.

In earlier versions of the script, I had myself in as journalist who appears at various intervals in the script. The journalist watches over Cathy’s plight, grieves at her deterioration, and tries in vain to do something to help her. Later, I realised that to have myself in the script was purely self-indulgence, and that it detracted from the simplicity which I wanted to achieve in the story.

When we first discussed the script, the director, Ken Loach, felt that we should cut out the caravan sequence. He thought it would seem too way out for viewers to be able to identify with. However, a stay in a caravan is so frequent an occurrence in the story of the average homeless person. The incident also provides a moment of lightness in an otherwise grim story, so we left it in.

I had done the writing on speculation, as I did most things at that time. As it shaped up, I became aware of its power and came to believe that there would be no problem in getting the money to make it. Ted felt the same, but we were wrong.

I tried to raise cash from many areas, including various charities, foundations, film companies, and television companies, but was not able to do so. ‘The television play should not be a political forum,’ was the sort of reason given. One producer referred to it, even after its first showing, as ‘patronising the proles’.

What I had conceived was, I think, something new. It was a new idea, halfway between drama and documentary, and its newness may have caused a flutter in the courts of television.

The general feeling was that the subject was too gloomy. The charities we approached also reacted negatively, although since then many have grasped the possibility of using film in order to popularise their causes. Some have since approached me to do films for them, including Christian Action, who didn’t even reply when I wrote to them about ‘Cathy’.

I had thought there would be buyers for ‘Cathy’, but there were none. I had a first-rate director wanting to do it. I thought it was a powerful script, but there were no buyers. So, for a year and a half, I worked at other things, periodically pushing ‘Cathy’ in all sorts of directions. In the end, I became doubtful that anybody would buy it and I decided to turn the script into a book, so that Cathy could have some kind of a life. About halfway through the transformation into a novel, a BBC producer named Tony Garnett, whom I had never met, rang me to say that he had found my synopsis in the BBC Wednesday TV Play filing cabinets, wanted Ken Loach to direct it, and was very enthusiastic about it.

We met for lunch in the BBC canteen, and I explained to Garnett about the play’s previous history of refusals, thinking that this would put him off. But it didn’t. We did resolve, however, to keep the subject of the play a secret and for the moment to give it a different title. We also agreed that if anybody asked us about the play we would refer to it as a knock-about family comedy, which it was in a way, except for the comedy bit.

The director, Ken Loach, has a gift for simplification and made many suggestions at this point, the effect of which was to give the story a simpler shape. In the opening section of the film, and in the novelisation, I went into greater detail about Cathy’s arrival in the city. I showed her getting a room for herself, and her relationship with the people who were living in the street and her reactions as a country girl finding herself in town. I also gave more detail about her courtship with Reg. Ken suggested we prune these scenes, and also pointed out that Reg veered a little towards being wet, and that it would help things if we could make him stronger.

I was very pleased with the way the script was finally translated to the screen. I don’t think that any writer could feel that his ideas had been translated more accurately or with more compassion. I already had ideas for most of the locations we used. But it was the production assistant, John McKenzie, who audaciously rang Newington Lodge, the most infamous of all homes for the homeless, and asked whether we could shoot there. To our amazement we were allowed to, so that when the team moved in to shoot the final scenes of ‘Cathy’, it was amidst the situation of children still being carried off with dysentery and husbands still pleading with staff to be allowed to stay a little longer with their wives and families.

This atmosphere of hopelessness and helplessness which hung around the home for the homeless had affected the cast deeply and enabled them to live out the scenes with conviction. We shot nearly all of the film on location, which enabled Carol White, who played Cathy, to identify very closely with, for instance, the caravan site. Ken shot very freely, often vision and words run separately, so that while the camera is exploring one thing the words continue to carry the sense along.

The film is fantastically closely packed. This was my original intention, and Ken adhered to it. One gets the feeling often that there are three or four strands going contrapuntally. An official voice quotes statistics. In the background we hear somebody else talking about the inadequacies of the toilet. And on the screen we see, perhaps, the face of one of the protagonists talking, against a background of life in the homes. I think the compactness is important, and I find that different people often remember different things about some specific sequence in the film. The reason for this is that often much more is happening at any given moment than the average person can take in, so that, like existence itself, one subconsciously makes a selection.

The film was shot in three weeks. Given all these locations and something like a hundred speaking parts, it was a miracle of organisation. I can never speak too highly of Ken’s direction. I feel that he gave life to something that in the hands of another director could perhaps have not lived so vibrantly. His craftsmanship was consummate, and without him ‘Cathy’ could not have been the film it was.

I feel some regret at the success ‘Cathy’ has had, because it’s so much better known than anything else I have done, thus labelling me the ‘Cathy’ author. But as regards its effect on the country and the housing situation, I can only be glad. It is good to know that I have altered, if only slightly for the better, the condition of life in my own society.

As a result of the film and certain meetings which we held afterwards, Birmingham and various other towns ceased their practice of separating three or four hundred husbands per year from their wives and children. The husbands were allowed to return to their families in a great gushing stream. It was intensely moving. I was lucky enough to be present on this jubilant occasion and that moment, if no other, justified not only my writing of ‘Cathy’, but also my own existence.

‘Cathy’ made me famous overnight. Life was all television and newspaper interviews. The response to it was terrific. And various things happened as a result of it. Subsequent to articles I wrote in Birmingham newspapers and to a public meeting which Ken Loach and I called in Birmingham in the wake of the excitement caused by the film, the city of Birmingham announced that they were going to discontinue their policy of separating between three and four hundred husbands a year from their families. This was perhaps the most important of all the results of ‘Cathy’. A month or so later ‘Shelter’, a campaign which aimed to draw public attention to the position of homeless people in Britain today and provide accommodation for them, was launched. The effect of ‘Cathy’, according to Shelter’s director Des Wilson, was that it immensely strengthened their hand in that they were able to point to ‘Cathy’ and specifically refer to the social problems that they were talking about. I remember Des saying, ‘Cathy was worth half a million to us.’

It was only later that I learned that quite strong pressure had been put on the BBC to not stand firm by the film but instead ‘admit’ that it was a fabrication and this sort of thing was not going on in Britain. It’s greatly to the credit of three men in particular that they stood by the film: Sydney Newman, head of drama group, Kenneth Adam, director of television, and Hugh Greene, director general.

Q. Do you think the establishment of the BBC today would stand so whole-heartedly behind the facts which were so controversial and unpalatable?

A. Certainly what happened to Roy Minton’s film ‘Scum’, about conditions in borstals (correction centres for juvenile offenders in England), suggests that the BBC establishment today might be less courageous about putting on a film that bears the same sort of relationship to reality that ‘Cathy’ did. ‘Scum’ was made but not transmitted.

Q. How much did ‘Cathy’ help change the situation of the homeless?

A. When I first realised that despite all the hullabaloo surrounding altogether four television transmissions of ‘Cathy’, there were still more homeless families, I lost some of my faith in the power of the media to change anything. There is one thing that can be said, though. Certainly ‘Cathy’ alerted social workers and the public to a grave injustice in this country - one of which most of them had so far, largely, been ignorant. Perhaps without ‘Cathy’, the situation might even be worse than it is. This at any rate is what people in the caring professions tell me, and I’d like to believe it.

After the radio broadcast I was commissioned by the BBC to script a film on life in a luxury hotel. Treading the flashy corridors of the Savoy, then passing through the green baize doors and entering the squalor of the stark quarters inhabited by the staff, gave me the opportunity to think about our society, which provides so much for some and so little for others. This stately, cynical, somewhat irreverent film was well directed by Tony de Lotbinière. Later he went on to make films about the royal palaces.


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