First aired in 1966 as part of the BBC’s — now sadly extinct — The Wednesday Play strand, Cathy Come Home is the story for which the word ‘harrowing’ may as well have been invented.
It is also one of the best television dramas ever made, a tour de force of small-screen acting and direction, whose impact is still being felt today — whether through the laws passed in its wake, or, on a smaller scale, by simply reducing an entire room of people to sweating, quivering wrecks, as it did courtesy of its inclusion into the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival.
On first glance — and for the opening 10 minutes — the story is a misleadingly innocent one. Cathy (Carol White) falls in love with Reg (Ray Brooks). Not wishing to flout convention, the happy couple marry, move into a rather pleasant flat, and start a family.
Rumour has it that that this was all director Ken Loach would tell the Beeb during production, for fear that he would not otherwise get away with telling such a disturbing story.
The tone changes as decisively as it is first set. Away goes the funky disco soundtrack, the declarations of love and happiness, and the pronouncements of financial security, and what follows is sheer, unrelenting horror as Cathy’s circumstances unfold, and her and Reg’s lives begin to fall apart.
Part documentary, part tragedy, Loach has crafted with forceful urgency a sustained and moving condemnation of the housing crisis faced by postwar Britain, and the government response to it. If any criticism can be made, it is that this latter intent seems at times to intrude on the narrative and dramatic capabilities of the story.
The infuriating, and at times sinister, levels of bureaucracy Cathy and Reg are faced with as they attempt to repair their lives are personified by a series of one-dimensional office drones, each less capable of empathy than the last, which can feel somewhat contrived.
What’s more, a disembodied voice providing various statistics regarding the housing shortage at strategic points in the story interferes with, rather than enhancing, the raw emotion on screen.
These are all, however, trifling matters. Cathy Come Home is undoubtedly Loach’s capo lavoro, his masterpiece. Not only has it lost none of its relevance, but it is a shrewd choice on the part of the organisers of this year’s Mental Health festival — prompting exploration of new ideas and themes, as well as the need for new discussion.