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Cathy Come Home

It was 1966 and I was a carefree teenager with a boyfriend, a job in an art gallery, long hair and short skirts.  I’d taken a good few steps into the world of politics and culture, all of them fun and enjoyable (the swinging ‘sixties made sure of that) and art and pleasure and the overturning of society seemed to be a unity then – because we – youth – were changing the world just by being.  (Actually we were changing the world just by being serious economic contributors towards it… but I don’t think we thought of ourselves as useful tools of capitalism with our open purses then).  And of course, along with my crowd of friends, I knew everything.

But then came those BBC wonderful, shocking Wednesday plays (1964-1970) which showed the darker, less pretty side of our Brave New World of Youth.  And out of those plays, along came the trio of Jeremy Sandford, Ken Loach and Tony Garnett who took them to a new level – backed by the independent and brave BBC.  Cathy Come Home changed my world forever.  It frightened me, it shocked me, it made me realise how close I had become in my own life to being a child in care.  No wonder my mother worked her socks off in a filing systems factory to keep paying the rent, no wonder she put up with her demanding mother moving in with her so that her daughters had childcare, and no wonder she was unhappy and died poor and far too young – the chill of the social meant she was on a treadmill and could never get off.  I remember very clearly how stunned my boyfriend (who would one day be my husband) and I were at the end of the Sandford/Loach/Garnett play.  He said it made him see our vulnerability in the world – especially mine – I just saw what I had always taken as the ultimate goal – marriage and babies – as being something other than glistering gold.  Things could go wrong – circumstances could topple your world – Cathy’s story might be fiction but it happened to people every day.

Eventually – and like so many visionaries who make changes in society – Ken Loach was shunned by the world of film making for staying true to his director’s eye and wanting Truth without creative compromise – no glossy, pretty, rose-tinted camera for him.  The late and unlamented (by anyone who cares for social responsibility in film or TV) Mary Whitehouse called such plays as Cathy Come Home an outrage – simply showing ‘Dirt, Doubt and Disbelief’ – such critics – for some weird reason – did not like the fact that those plays certainly shook up the accepted order of things.  And the accepted view of social history.   I wonder why?
 
Cathy Come Home was watched by 12 million viewers, a quarter of the British population, and it changed the Victorian workhouse philosophy of Social Services which said that fathers had to be separated from their wives and children when they were given temporary accommodation.  The charity ‘Crisis’ was formed out of that play and is still needed, alas, and still going strong – and shortly afterwards my chosen charity, Shelter was founded.  I chose Shelter to support from that time on because it seemed to me that nothing was more divisive and painful than not having a home where you could feel secure, warm and safe.   It’s a charity that is still desperately needed because successive governments of whatever colour shun the responsibility of providing social housing.  Shame on them.
As a writer, it is daunting to be reminded – in this fiftieth anniversary year of such an achievement as Cathy… – how writing can change the world.  I may not be up to the task, most of us who earn their living by writing fiction may not be up to the task, but I am awfully glad that there are people out there who are up the task – and that there are visionaries like Ken Loach who, at eighty years old, can still take their ideas up and visualise them and spread the word.
 
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