Cathy Come Home is arguably the most important piece of drama ever shown on British television. It was first broadcast 40 years ago on 16 November 1966 in the Wednesday Play primetime slot.
Twelve million people – 24 percent of the population – watched it.
It tells the story of a young couple caught in a poverty trap. It led to the formation of the homeless charity Shelter, and it also helped invent an entirely new kind of television drama.
Director Ken Loach and producer Tony Garnett were keen to get their plays out of the studio, and to harness documentary and newsreel techniques.
Jeremy Sandford, who had been educated at Eton and Oxford, wrote Cathy Come Home. He wanted drama where “the upper classes are completely written out”. It is a deliberately provocative film.
A young woman makes her way to London, meets and marries Reg, and soon finds herself the mother of three children. An accident at work leads to Reg becoming unemployed.
The family is torn apart because they have no permanent roof over their heads. They are forced apart and the children are taken into care.
Ken Loach told a BBC documentary on the drama, “Our aims were modest. We were saying ‘this happens and it shouldn’t’.”
Filmed largely with real people in real places, it was the first docudrama. Real bailiffs carried out the eviction. Ray Brooks, who played Reg, described to the Guardian how the actors and directors would respond to genuine ads for flats and seek lodgings there:
“When Cathy and Reg are looking for a place we’d turn up in Camden Town and answer real flat to let adverts. I would ring the bell, we would say we were looking for a room, the woman would take one look at Carol’s bump – which was a pillow up her coat – and say oh no, we can’t have children.”
The immediate impact of Cathy Come Home on government policy was slight, but it radically changed the nature of the debate about homelessness. It challenged the notion that Britain in the 1960s was easing towards total prosperity and that poverty was the fault of the poor.
Before the end of 1966, councils stopped the practice of splitting up families at housing hostels. Two years later, the Seebohm report on the future of the social services recommended that housing departments should be made responsible for tackling homelessness.
But it wasn’t until 1977 that the government passed the Homeless Persons Act, creating a statutory responsibility for local authorities to provide for the homeless.
Paying lip service to the problems of poor people’s housing became central to a generation of Labour politicians’ propaganda, including both Jack Straw and Gordon Brown.
As Ken Loach has pointed out, “The film portrayed an injustice but, of course, homelessness is worse now then when that film was made. With Cathy Come Home, we were adopted by people we really didn’t feel we had much in common with.
“I think that was influential in pushing our little group to the left. We were social democrats when we made that film and would-be Marxists when we finished it. We realised the inability of social democrats to do anything constructive.”
The child left sleeping in a car seat
Disgracefully hundreds of people are still forced to sleep rough on the streets – the government says around 500 at any one time, a quarter of them under 25. Other estimates put the figure at twice that.
But this is not the most generalised form of homelessness today. The most prevalent form is the “hidden homeless” population of around 400,000 people who live in squats, bed and breakfasts or temporary accommodation.
An unknown number are “sofa surfers”, sleeping in friends’ houses and moving around from place to place.
Bed and breakfast accommodation might sound reasonable, but the reality is dreadful. Often landlords will demand tenants are out during the day, disrupting any normal life and leaving people to tramp the streets.
Few bed and breakfast places have adequate cooking facilities, so families have to spend their meagre funds on more expensive food or takeaways.
The life this involves was revealed by a 2003 case where a mother spoke of how one of her children, now eight years old, had repeatedly tried to commit suicide, once tying a flex round his neck, on another occasion throwing himself in front of a car.
The family had been made homeless seven years earlier. They had been driven from one temporary bed and breakfast hostel to another. Then they faced eviction after the hostel they were living in, in Southwark, south London, complained of the eight year old’s disruptive behaviour.
A child psychiatrist spoke of how such behaviour, as well as the suicide attempts, was rooted in the constant moving from one miserable place to another.
New Labour promised to end homelessness when it came to power in 1997. Ministers pledged to tackle the misery of 50,000 families confined to “temporary and emergency accommodation”. They haven’t solved it – they’ve doubled it.
The number rose to 100,000 at the end of 2005 and is still over 93,000.
Homelessness has many causes, but one of the main ones is young people who no longer can stay with their families.
Almost a quarter of the 94,000 new homelessness cases each year are because parents are no longer willing to house youngsters.
As with so many social problems, one way the authorities have of “solving” homelessness is to change the ways in which people are defined as homeless.
The department of communities and local government celebrated two months ago that “there were 19,430 acceptances [as homeless] during the April-June 2006 quarter, 29 percent lower than in the same period in 2005. This is the first time acceptances have fallen below 20,000 since the early 1980s.”
There is evidence that this has been achieved by what is called “gatekeeping” – councils refusing to accept as homeless people who are actually homeless.
The local government ombudsman recently reported on a case where he found serious failings by Thurrock Council in repeatedly failing to take homelessness applications from a woman who had fled domestic violence from her husband in Nigeria.
He recommended that the council should apologise to the complainant, pay her £2,250 compensation and review its training for frontline staff to ensure they have a sound grasp and understanding of homelessness law and practice.
“Miss Williams” (not her real name for legal reasons), a British citizen, was pregnant when she fled Nigeria.
Shelter, the housing charity, complained on her behalf that the council failed to investigate whether it owed her a duty as a homeless person when she requested assistance with housing on three occasions following her arrival in Britain.
She was staying with friends but was then asked to leave. She lived temporarily in a women’s refuge but had to leave because her baby was ill.
She was now sleeping on a sofa in the living room or sharing a bed with a friend’s elderly disabled aunt. Her baby daughter was sleeping in a car seat or sharing the bed with her mother and the friend’s aunt.
Incredibly she was still not regarded as homeless!
There are many similar cases where councils have decided that people deliberately left accommodation they should have stayed in, behaved in an anti-social way, unreasonably stopped paying rent or mortgage, or many other reasons.
The scale of homelessness and the disgraceful lack of official response shows how relevant Cathy Come Home remains.
Cathy Come Home is on BBC4 on Sunday 26 November at 11pm.