One further little curlicue to my thoughts yesterday about Cathy Come Home, Peter Kosminsky and The Golden Age of British Television©. It’s a nice one, I promise you.
Let’s start with a question. Did Cathy Come Home help change housing policy? Answer: No, it did not. Not significantly, at any rate. Not so as you’d notice. The real world doesn’t really work that way.
What it did do, though, was launch scores of careers in the broadcasting wing of a burgeoning new academic industry called Sociology. By the early 1970s, books speculating about the political effects of television were arriving thick and fast. These were often hastily cobbled together collections of academic papers (specimen title: “Capitalism, Communications and Class relations”); and the movement was threatening to spawn new a university fiefdom called Film and Media Studies.
Meanwhile, perhaps inevitably, attacks on Cathy Come Home (the programme itself and the sanctimonious cult surrounding it) were coming not from the Daily Mail but from the hard left. One particularly scathing (and unintentionally funny) critique, published in Screen magazine, argued it was no better than a “Lassie movie” and damned it as “a classic of bourgeois individualism.”
Ouch. By the end of the 1970s, Bennites were arguing that the Cathy phenomenon had actually held back debate about housing in this country. By giving succour to “bleeding heart liberal” charities like Shelter, they added, Cathy had merely helped paper over the cracks, thus postponing an inevitable Reckoning.
And indeed, a cynic reading this week’s newspapers might infer that the “debate” is still pretty much where it was in the mid 1960s. We’ve actually torn down many of the tower blocks proposed as a solution and given planning permission in 1966.
As I’ve already indicated, Cathy Come Home, though it moved many people in many different ways, made little impact on policy. And if you’re at all interested in the fiendishly complicated world of housing policy under Harold Wilson, you should perhaps read the diaries of Richard Crossman, his first Housing Minister. The 631 pages of the first volume (1964-66) barely scratch the surface of this troubled topic: but they give a flavour.
And by glorious happenstance, it’s a hugely important book in British television history. Because it was a primary source of inspiration for one of the most influential (and, indeed, “revolutionary”) British television shows ever commissioned. An urbane and warm and joyously mischievous satire, it did more to change our view of the world than a hundred Cathys ever could.
Its name? Yes Minister.