Not Just Historical Curiosity

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Review of 'Cathy Come Home', director Ken Loach

At long last the British Film Institute has started to release on VHS and DVD some of the treasury of TV classics that it keeps in the National Television Archive.

One of the best of these is Cathy Come Home. Working from a script by the campaigning journalist Jeremy Sandford, it established the creative partnership between Tony Garnett and Ken Loach, and in some respects it is their masterpiece. It tells the almost impossibly moving story of a young couple, Cathy and Reg, who fall in love, get married, start a family and make plans. But the romance sours into tragedy when Reg loses his job and the couple become victims of what Sandford called 'the housing famine'. Steadily they descend into homelessness and the forcible break-up of their family. Anyone who is not moved by the final scene of Cathy Come Home really should consult a psychiatrist.

There were two big dangers in a project like this. There was the risk of mawkishness, but this is prevented by the sheer artistry of the cast and crew who committed themselves to the project with a passion. Loach, Garnett, cameraman Tony Imi and editor Roy Watts give this simple story an intensity and a realism which are still overwhelming. The second danger was a political one. It would have been all too easy to make Cathy into the story of feckless losers or victims. Sandford, Loach and Garnett avoided this by giving the story a social context. The visual imagery and still more the soundtrack are constantly reminding us that what we are watching is not just the tragedy of a couple - it is the shame of the Labour government, it is not just fiction but social reality.

So although Cathy might be a 'classic' it is anything but a historical curiosity. Of course it has dated, most obviously because it is in black and white. So much of the visual furniture of Cathy Come Home - the clothes, the cars, and the haircuts - looks antiquated even to someone who lived through the times. But beneath this superficial distancing this programme burns still. Two things strike me as supremely important here.

Firstly, the politics is still scarily relevant. The problems of housing might have changed, but the dread of inequality, debt and homelessness is rising all the time under Blair.

Secondly, it reminds us of just how brilliant socialist television productions could be. When it was shown it was watched by mass audiences - Cathy Come Home was repeated within weeks of its first broadcast and on both occasions it was watched by more than a quarter of the population. This is as good as television can be and as such is a testimony to the power of socialist artistry - committed, angry, audacious and popular.