Cathy Come Home is the shocking landmark TV play written by Jeremy Sandford and directed by Ken Loach in the 1960s about a young couple who are overtaken by events which led them into an unrelenting trap of homelessness and poverty.
Cathy and Reg Ward, (Carol White and Ray Brooks) play the real life events of a couple who, through cruel circumstance, are pushed from pillar to post against the backdrop of a system that didn’t care, in the housing crisis of the post-war era.
They encountered unsympathetic attitudes from both officials and neighbours at every turn, and had to resort to living in utter squalor, not knowing where they’d be sleeping let alone where their next meal was coming from.
After sliding down the housing ladder, living in a variety of local authority accommodation, they were ultimately forced with their growing family into living in a caravan park with gypsies. They were subsequently tormented by locals who deemed them to be scum, breaking windows and setting their only place of refuge alight.
This national housing crisis in the Sixties was the unspoken shame of the UK and due to a distinct lack of housing after the Second World War, many having been bombed by the Germans during the Blitz. Meanwhile, Britain’s counterparts in West Germany built twice as many houses post-war than the UK. Despite the war having ended some seventeen years earlier, and long before the formation of the European Union, this was purely seen as Britain’s problem.
So, with a growing family, Cathy and Reg continued to struggle against a system that didn’t care. After all other options were exhausted, constantly trailing from local authority housing office to welfare, waiting and waiting for a glimmer of hope in their despair, they were eventually allocated emergency housing. However only wives and children were permitted to be accommodated after all other options (mostly living with relatives) were eliminated. Husbands had to make their own arrangements and under extremely strict house rules concerning contact with their estranged families. After three months of what was often disease-ridden squalor the women and children were unceremoniously turned out.
As is often the misguided case, migrants into Britain in the late 1940s were ultimately blamed socially for the lack of housing and jobs, causing unrest and conflict in society as a whole. Through all the utter despair of homelessness, the importance of family and staying together in the face of such adversity ultimately became too much to bear, and Cathy painfully decided to leave her eldest child with her mother in law in order to save on a pitiful amount on weekly rent. Every penny of their minuscule income was accounted for, but with an estranged husband, life was continuing to slip yet further into a hopeless pit of despair for Cathy, with seemingly nowhere to turn. She was raising the kids as best as she could in utter squalor, whilst her husband Reg was being kept away due to the harsh rules of the authorities. They were treated like human litter in the post war phase with seemingly no options for improving their dire situation.
Ultimately, with three children and no present husband, Cathy’s children were forceably removed from her and placed in a care home. Cathy was left to fend for herself. With no money and nowhere to live, what was to become of her? Sadly this was not a rare event; four thousand homeless women were in the same situation in 60s Britain. Against the backdrop of a decade that was known as the ‘Swinging Sixties’ full of glamour, miniskirts, popular music, and the rise of teenagers, this sad litany of homelessness portrays a previously unspoken side of Sixties Britain. A side that dismally forms the history of Cathy and so many women like her.
The TV play broached social issues that were not then widely discussed in the popular media. Its hard-hitting subject matter and highly realistic documentary style, new to British television, created a huge impact on its audience of twelve million.
In the light of public reaction to the film, and following a publicity campaign highlighting the plight of the homeless, the charity Crisis was formed the following year in 1967. However, director Ken Loach has said that despite the public outcry following the play, it had little practical effect in reducing homelessness other than changing rules so that homeless fathers could stay with their wives and children in hostels. Public awareness however, was undoubtedly raised.
The brutal reality of the play continues to resonate into the 21st Century; in 2005 it was named as the UK’s most influential TV programme of all time. Homelessness is still a major issue in Britain in the backdrop of a landscape that seemingly hasn’t changed too much in fifty years. However the social impact of an arts program, highlighting the plight, remains in our collective consciousness.