London was starting to swing in 1966 but away from the glamour there was widespread squalour that was shown unflinchingly by director Ken Loach in Cathy Come Home.
Cathy Come Home was first shown on the BBC as part of its Wednesday Play series. Written by Jeremy Sandford, produced by Tony Garnett and directed by Ken Loach, who has just won the Palme D’Or for the second time in Cannes with his new film, I, Daniel Blake, depicting the injustices of the UK benefits system.
Cathy Come Home uses a part drama, part documentary technique to present the decline into homelessness and poverty of Cathy and Reg, a young couple who start their life together full of plans and optimism for the future.
When an accident prevents Reg from working, the couple are plunged into a nightmare world of debt, rent collectors, bailiffs, welfare officers as they are evicted from one miserable, overcrowded hostel to another. They, and others like them, are forced to separate as men aren’t allowed on the premises after 8pm.
‘Inmates’, as they are called, are reminded of the necessity of keeping clean. Voiceovers from real people describe their experiences in hostels and rented accommodation. Authoritative voices give us the statistics of homelessness. Location shots highlight London’s rundown estates and derelict houses.
The year was 1966, yes, the year in which Time magazine showcased Swinging London.
The film had a powerful impact. One-quarter of the entire population in Britain watched it, and the BBC switchboard was swamped with calls from people wanting to help.
Cathy Come Home hits us with a series of harrowing scenes. Some of them are all the more shocking because of their downbeat and matter-of-fact presentation.
Cathy and Reg’s stoical trudge to their caravan along a track littered with abandoned cars. The images of the hostel and the halfway house, like Dickensian workhouses. The dismal condition of the accommodation that was available to rent. The smiling faces of the kids. The sour and self-righteous faces of officialdom. The final scene of the invasion of the social service on to the railway platform where they seize the children from Cathy to put them into care.
But right at the beginning, in a throwaway line, is a reference which resonates through the whole film.
When Cathy and Reg start out in a nice place that they think they can just about afford, she comments on a table she has spotted which would go well in their living room, and adds that a rubber plant would be good as well. Not any old indoor plant, or floral decoration, but a rubber plant.
Now rubber plants were a mid-1960s’ marker of hip interior décor. They were the Habitat of the plant option. (The then fiercely trendy shop Habitat had opened its first London store two years previously in 1964.) Cathy’s vague desire illustrates an expectation of and an aspiration to an existence which is more than just survival.
She’s on the first rung of the ladder to a lifestyle, as we didn’t say back in the day, which allows a bit of self-expression, of self-actualization, a bit of social advancement.
In another story, she might have had the misfortune to end up next door to Thelma in Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads. But Cathy’s moment is over in a flash. The ladder is kicked from under her and she never gets back off the ground.
The speed of the couple’s decline into homelessness is as stomach-churning as the treatment they receive from the officials who deal with their case. Cathy and Reg are treated with disdain, distaste, impatience and a kind of anger for being in this position.
You wonder if the officers’ lack of sympathy and lack of compassion stems from a need to keep at bay the subliminal fear of the hair’s-breadth that keeps us all from disaster. No pay cheque, a late pay cheque, debt, an accident, illness — wherever you draw the line, no one is immune. But it’s good to think that you are, and that other people bring their misfortunes on themselves. Poverty and homelessness are crimes and deserve to be punished. It will never happen to the likes of us.
When it comes down to it, rubber plants aren’t for the likes of them.