I recently read The Day the Music died, the autobiography of the film and TV producer Tony Garnett. Over the years he has worked extensively with the director Ken Loach and they were responsible for bringing Cathy Come Home to our screens in 1966.
It’s perhaps difficult for us today to fully understand what a huge impact “Cathy Come Home” had when it was first broadcast on the BBC. It resulted in a huge public debate about housing policy in general, and about homelessness in particular. One outcome of this was the formation of the charity Shelter.
Half a century on, and Ken Loach is still making films which highlight the impact of Government policies on ordinary working people. His latest “I, Daniel Blake” tells the tragic tale of a carpenter who struggles to make sense of the benefits system after a heart attack leaves him unable to work.
The parallels with “Cathy Come Home” are hard to ignore. Both films show decent people having their lives destroyed by a system which doesn’t seem to be either able or willing to help them. Cynics might argue that we really haven’t progressed much in the last half century. The scene in “I, Daniel Blake” in which a single mother is sick from hunger while visiting a food bank with her children is both harrowing and deeply disturbing.
Critics of Loach often dismiss his films as little more than crude left wing polemic. While it’s undoubtedly true that subtlety is not his strong point, he raises issues which certainly need to be raised. “I, Daniel Blake” is the most thought provoking and challenging film that I’ve seen in some time.
In 1966 “Cathy Come Home” showed that the media can be extremely effective in pricking the conscience of the nation. Fifty years on, it will be interesting to see if “I, Daniel Blake” has a similar impact.
One final point, in his book Garnett tells of how, after “Cathy Come Home” was broadcast, he and Loach were invited to Whitehall to meet the Housing Minister, Labour’s Tony Greenwood. When they suggested to him that one solution to the housing crisis might be to build more houses, Greenwood dismissed the idea by claiming that “it’s not that simple”. Isn’t it?