Monday, April 1, 2013

Overlooked Classics: Ken Loach's Cathy Come Home (1966)

***Carol White would have turned seventy years old today.  Here is a repost detailing one of her greatest      films in honor of the day.**                        Moving, meaningful, insightful, and downright life altering, Ken Loach’s extraordinary 1966 British teleplay Cathy Come Home is one of the most essential works of the sixties and its current unavailability is frustrating to say the least.
Starring an absolutely devastating Carol White, Cathy Come Home is a socially outraged production that takes a searing look at Britain’s homeless and housing problems of the mid sixties. The fact that many of the themes and issues it looks at are still relevant in not just Britain but all over the world make it as necessary in 2008 as it was in 1966.
Cathy Come Home started out as a play written by Jeremy Sandford, a well to do Londoner who had moved to the struggling Battersea district in the late fifties with his wife (Up The Junction author Nell Dunn) to research the living conditions of the lower and working classes. Cathy Come Home is not an exploitative piece at all though, and Sandford should be applauded for creating one of the most sympathetic and honest portrayals ever written about several of the key social problems that have plagued modern urban society since the Industrial Revolution.
The BBC expressed interest fairly quickly in Sandford’s heartbreaking story of a young married couple and their children who lose everything after the husband loses his job. Sanford's work needed just the right treatment though, and 29 year old television director Ken Loach was called in to handle what was destined to be the intense and delicate directorial duties.
Loach had been working in British television since the early sixties and was a year away from his extraordinary big screen debut (1967’s Poor Cow) when Cathy Come Home made its shattering debut on British television. Loach’s work on Cathy Come Home would set in motion one of the most consistently brilliant careers in all of modern cinema, and his trademark character studies filmed in a documentary style can all be traced back to his work on this 75 minute teleplay.
Sometimes called the 'British Bardot', 25 year old Carol White was already an established star in Britain when Cathy Come Home premiered in 1966. Long undervalued as an actress, White gives a historic tour-de-force performance as the teleplay’s doomed title character. Loach recalls on the DVD’s terrific and informative audio commentary that White threw herself into the role with a wild abandon and that the part took its toll on her personally throughout the three week shoot. The brilliant White would work again with Loach on the unforgettable Poor Cow (co-starring with Terence Stamp) and she would continue to prove herself as one of Britain’s great actors throughout the late sixties and early seventies. She would tragically pass away in the early nineties, and she has still yet to receive her due as a great actress and major figure in film history.
Character actor Ray Brooks had already worked with Loach in the series Z Cars and he turns in a solid and knowing performance as Cathy’s out of work husband Reg. The rest of the cast is filled out with some familiar British character actors and many first timers cast because Loach knew that some unfamiliar faces would give the film the kind of authentic look he was hoping to capture.
One of the most striking things about Cathy Come Home is the way Loach manages to combine an obvious narrative with such a seemingly free form documentary style. Other lesser filmmakers could spend years and millions of dollars and not match the intimate details Loach achieves here with a small television budget in just three weeks. The film, shot on location in 16mm, is an absolute visual wonder to behold. Filled with many sometimes unforgiving close-ups of his cast and shot starkly in black and white, Cathy Come Home manages that rare feat of not feeling like a film about real life but instead seems to somehow actually capture it.
Expertly mixing Stanford’s dialogue with improvisation, Cathy Come Home is a bravely grueling experience that manages to expose the fatal flaws seemingly inherent in the Social Systems it is exploring. Loach points out in the commentary that it was important for him to communicate to the audience that Cathy is a victim here, and the frustrating obstacles that continue to come her way are the system’s fault. The film presents a catastrophic snowball effect that takes everything away from the young title character from her family to her humanity, and one would have to be pretty heartless to not feel for her during her plight at the hands of a bureaucracy unable and unwilling to care for those in need.
While it’s often remembered for those mesmerizing close ups of a damaged and destroyed Carol White, Loach’s film (like Charles Burnett’s later 1977 production Killer of Sheep) manages to capture bits of daily life that just aren’t often seen in cinema. From families putting out their wash on lines connecting their run down tenement homes, to the fury of an elderly man being forced from his nearly unlivable shack, to children playing in an eerie graveyard like car dump, Cathy Come Home is one of the most penetrating looks at the fragility of the lower and working classes ever captured on film.
Cathy Come Home stunned the 12 million plus viewers who tuned in on the night of November 16’th 1966 to watch it. Outraged letters from viewers who had never seen the plight of the poor expressed so strongly or eloquently on film began to pour into the offices of both the BBC and British politicians, and by December the charity organization Shelter was started in order to combat Britain’s growing homeless problem. Outside of being one of the most shocking masterpieces of the cycle of films known as The British Kitchen Sink Dramas, Cathy Come Home is one of the rare films in history that directly caused social change.
Cathy Come Home was named the second greatest British Television program in history in a 2000 BFI poll. It came out on DVD on a British Region 2 disc in 2003 but I have been told it has now slipped out of print. It has never to my knowledge been available in the United States. The film's current unavailability is a real tragedy considering that many of the problems facing Cathy in the film are a reality for a countless number of people all over the world. Speaking to the BBC during an interview on the film, Ken Loach said, "We were saying ‘this happens and it shouldn’t’.” It continues to happen and it still shouldn't. Cathy Come Home is a major masterpiece and one of the most heroic pieces of cinema I have ever seen.

-Jeremy Richey, originally written in 2008-


MovieMan0283 said...

You're doing great work on this blog - informative, genuinely diverse and idiosyncratic, and always visually stimulating. Keep it up.

Nigel M said...

Nothing to add to that really extremely influential work - sort of a fore runner to the social realist works through the early thatcher years stuff by alan clarke, bleadsdale etc.

But one thing I was surprised at was mentioning Cathy Come Home without reference to A Taste of Honey :)

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks so much Movieman,
Those thoughts are greatly appreciated and mean a lot. Thanks again...

Thanks Nigel,
You've just reminded me that I need to see A Taste of Honey! I've read great things about it and hope to see it soon...thanks again.

James Hansen said...

Excellent choice. This showed on either IFC or TCM a few months ago and I (luckily) remembered to record it. It's a really wonderful film. Great post.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks James,
I am thrilled to hear it has been having some US showings. Great news...

Steve Langton said...

Wonderful post! Amazing to think this was watched by a quarter of the population when it was first broadcast. My mother told me it ruined christmas for her when it was shown on that mid-December evening. I got to see it years later, and it's filmmaking that leaves one stunned and tearful. It's a matter for enormous regret that Cathy is just as relevant today. It was last screened on BBC4 (a channel that many of us can't access) a couple of years ago and one would hope the BFI see fit to re-release the DVD very soon.

MovieMan0283 said...

Great, great new banner by the way.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Steve for the great comments and for sharing that story about your mom...

Thanks Movieman, I was pretty happy with the way it came out as well...

Richard Gibson said...

Interesting, perhaps it is harder to see that in US than here?
Generally it is well seen here, I think BFI put it out on DVD.
I've seen it on TV a couple of times. I think because of the Shelter connection and because homelessness is still an issue it was shown in the last 12 months, I forget.

Although interestingly, Loach is generally held in higher esteem in Europe than the UK. I also like 'Poor Cow', in fact I think I prefer it.

The other one to seek out of the Nell Dunn stuff is 'Up the Junction' which is also as I recall set around Battersea. There was a TV show of it and a film, it is the film I have seen.

Also worth seeking out, if you can find is a 30 min doc about Carol White 'The Bardot of Battersea'.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Richard for the very interesting comments. Sadly neither this film nor the amazing Poor Cow are available in the States. Both my copies are imports from England. Truly frustrating for Region 1 viewers.

Thanks for the tip on the Carol White documentary. I would love to come across that some day.

Paul Bird said...

I like your review, I think it is accurate and considered with one exception. I think she should have stopped having children when it became clear that she and her husband could no longer afford to house and care for the ones they already had. There is a scene towards the end, after the caravan fire, when Reg is shown holding a baby and I just thought "Oh my God, not another one". There is misfortune and then there is fecklessness. I am sympathetic to her plight but feel that in the film Cathy bore some responsibility for her situation.