Cathy Come Home (1966)

2008 #59
Ken Loach | 77 mins | DVD | PG

Cathy Come HomeTechnically a one-off TV drama from the BBC’s Wednesday Play strand, Cathy Come Home more than deserves consideration as a film in its own right, due to it being an early work of director Ken Loach, the fact that it’s shot largely on film using relatively experimental storytelling techniques, and also considering the huge social impact it had.

The piece tells the story of Cathy, a young woman who leaves behind a comfortable life for the excitement of the big city. There she falls in love with Reg, who she marries and has children with. But, through a series of incidents and accidents — most of them no fault of their own — Cathy, Reg and the children wind up without a house, and then gradually slide down the scale toward homelessness. In this respect the film can remind us of a facet of the ‘good old days’ that is often overlooked when our collective memory of the ’60s is made up of James Bond, the Beatles, and programmes like Mad Men. The drama also had a big impact at the time: 12 million watched, it boosted the newly-formed charity Shelter, led to debates in parliament, and, eventually, changes to the law.

Loach structures the film cleverly: Cathy and Reg’s slide into poverty is all too believable, while at the same time allowing the viewer to see a cross section of the homeless experience. He employs a documentary style throughout, so effectively that it still fools some into believing the whole piece is factual. In fact there’s a mix of interviews with those really suffering such situations, and performed scenes that are shot and cut disjointedly, as if they were observed rather than written. While some of the performances give the game away, they’re never poor enough to really detract. The downside of this style is that the storyline isn’t always clear. I’m still not sure if it was Cathy’s children that died in the caravan fire or someone else’s, just one among a few such examples. While ambiguity is no bad thing — the cruelly unresolved ending being a case in point — it sometimes just seems like a hole in the narrative. However, these moments are relatively minor, and certainly don’t dint the film’s impact.

Cathy Come Home is a powerful piece of work; an undoubted television classic that (bar a few technically-incongruous studio scenes shot on video) wouldn’t look out of place on a big screen. As an important and timely history lesson, a challenge to prejudices that some of us may hold, and a reminder of how close most of us are to such a fate — especially right now — it remains essential viewing. Sadly, I suspect it always will.

5 out of 5