It’s November 16, 1966. We’ve been here before, actually, and so I’ll refer you there for the standard litany of pop songs and news events. But we’re going to need to flash back, because what we didn’t deal with in amongst everything else going on in Power of the Daleks was the fact that the BBC aired Cathy Come Home, a TV movie about homelessness that has been recognized, apparently, as the second best British TV program of all time. So since it’s one of apparently two things in the history of British television to be better than Doctor Who, I suppose we should talk about it.
At a glance, mind you, Cathy Come Home seems to be radically different from Doctor Who. One is a fairly theatrical science fiction show. The other is a pseudo-documentary about homelessness and urban poverty that makes heavy use of techniques from social realism. The similarities are in no way obvious. But as with Z Cars and Dixon of Dock Green, it’s instructive to look at other major pieces of television to understand what exactly is different about Doctor Who.
As I suggested, the main thing about Cathy Come Home is that it uses a pseudo-documentary style and hand held cameras to tell its story. This was certainly one of the big things noticed at the time, and Cathy Come Home became something of a flashpoint in a debate about the line between news and entertainment (a debate that has yet to resolve, but hey).
So in the (increasingly usual) spirit of my blowing a perfectly publishable academic paper topic on a few paragraphs of a blog (though to be fair, more people read this than will ever see one of my academic articles)…
The thing that the discussion over Cathy Come Home’s use of documentary techniques misses is the hindsight of it. Cathy Come Home works not because it attempts to fool the viewer into believing they are watching a documentary. It works because it trusts that the viewer has a sufficiently good intuitive understanding of televisual storytelling that it can import documentary narrative techniques into ordinary television.
I mean, the fact that Cathy Come Home went out as part of the Wednesday Play anthology series makes it pretty clear how the story was positioned at the time. A negligible number of viewers would have come to it thinking that they were getting a documentary, and the opening credits giving it a writer are a pretty unambiguous sign that it’s not a documentary. So the idea that its documentary techniques were ever deceptive requires that you assume camera movements are a bigger signifier of the genre of a piece of television than the opening credits and explicit presentation of the show.
Put another way, the people who complained that Cathy Come Home was misleading in its use of documentary techniques (people, we should note, who have definitively lost that debate, what with the piece being recognized as the best-ever piece of British television) are assuming an audience of people who are very bad at watching television, whereas the makers of Cathy Come Home are assuming an audience that is very good at it. Specifically, they assume an audience who recognizes that documentaries and news programs are still engaged in storytelling, and that their narrative techniques can be applied to fictional storytelling.
If this sounds like a leap for some reason, it is worth pointing out that the same technique had been being employed in prose in the nineteenth century. The use of documentary techniques for a fictional story is just the television equivalent of the Victorian convention of representing fictional characters with names like “Mr. D______” as if a name had been removed to protect a real person’s identity, or the epistolary techniques of, for instance, Dracula. We would treat any critic, even one writing contemporaneously with Stoker, who accused Stoker of trying to fool the audience into believing in vampires as incompetent.
And I want to be specific here. I am not saying that a reader who gets fooled is necessarily incompetent. I mean, they probably are, but there are far better reasons to get fooled by Dracula than there are to think that Dracula is trying to produce that reaction while simultaneously not having that reaction yourself. The former just requires that you encounter the novel in the wrong context, and then carry on in a more or less rational manner from there. In other words, you get the facts wrong, but draw correct conclusions from the facts you were given. The latter, however, requires that you understand the context of the novel correctly and then blow the interpretation anyway. Drawing an incorrect conclusion from incorrect facts is an understandable error. Drawing one from correct facts, however, is just shoddy.
But this doesn’t answer the real question – what is the point of the documentary techniques if not to provide a convincing illusion of reality? And this starts to get at what’s interesting about Cathy Come Home for our purposes now, since it’s not going to be until Love and Monsters or so that documentary style techniques make any sort of serious appearance in Doctor Who. But Doctor Who is going to repeatedly, and quite soon (like Monday soon) use other techniques to achieve a similar goal to what Cathy Come Home is using documentary techniques for.
The point of social realism is simple. It’s out and out politicized art. You do social realism because you want to get people to change something about how they live their lives – often in terms of political views, occasionally in terms of direct and immediate action. There’s not a lot of subtlety to Cathy Come Home in this regard. It’s flat-out about trying to get people angry about homelessness so they force politicians to take action and fix it.
It’s worth making one of our periodic side comments for stupid Americans here. In this unfortunate country, the idea of a social safety net is controversial. This is because the more right-wing party of our two-party system would, in any other country in the civilized world, be a preposterously extremist fringe party. In civilized countries such as the United Kingdom, the debate is not “should we have a broad social safety net” but rather a debate about fine-tuning it. And so a piece like Cathy Come Home is not, as it would be in America, about people being homeless with no one to turn to, but rather a piece about inefficient and uncaring bureaucracy that is doing an insufficient job of dealing with the problem. The terms of the debate are not, in other words, “should the government do something about the homeless problem” but rather “is what the government is doing sufficient?”
I mention this because it’s actually somewhat important to understanding what social realism is about. Or, perhaps more accurately, what it’s not about. Even though Cathy Come Home is full of intense emotional moments, including a justifiably well-regarded final scene in which Cathy has her children taken away from her, it is fundamentally not about Cathy as an individual. This is evidenced by the fact that Cathy actually has very little characterization beyond her family life and financial state (and even there her children are completely uncharacterized). What we are supposed to see is not Cathy’s suffering specifically, but rather the genericness of her suffering – the fact that there is nothing remotely special or unusual about her story. Cathy Come Home spends, in fact, a tremendous amount of time looking at the world around Cathy and at how everyone else is in just as bad a situation as she is.
This gets at the real point of the documentary style as well. Cathy Come Home is engaged in a fundamentally different project than character-centric narrative. Instead of being a story about Cathy, it is a story about her surroundings – her larger world. That’s what the documentary style does – it’s a technique designed to show what an aspect of the world is like. This is why Cathy Come Home is social realism, as opposed to just regular realism. Its purpose is showing how the entire society that it is set in works.
Where this all gets confused, and causes us to pick up on our discussion of realism from the Dixon of Dock Green/Z-Cars entry, is that the phrase “realism” here is doing double duty – on the one hand, it means that effort is made to portray a society that works in the manner of real societies. On the other hand, it means that the story is set on present-day, non sci-fi Earth. To be clear, the former is not a pre-requisite for the latter, as, to pick a current example, Glee demonstrates. Glee is realist only in the latter sense.
Doctor Who, by its nature, can do the former but not the latter. Thus far, of course, it hasn’t really. The handful of exceptions are basically the Lucarotti historicals – Marco Polo, The Aztecs, and The Massacre. A case might be made for The Ark, at least before it becomes a piece of neo-colonialist trash. But even when the show returned to contemporary Earth in The War Machines, it hasn’t put much effort into portraying the world as a society, instead of as a backdrop over which the set pieces of an adventure story can happen.
But there’s no reason Doctor Who has to be like that. The show is perfectly capable, in the abstract, of focusing on the nature, texture, and structure of a society. And we’re going to see, here and there, in the next two and a half years of Doctor Who, outbreaks of an alternative – stories that are to a significant degree about showing what a particular society is like. Ironically, this is happening after the series departs its “exploration” mode. But that it happens is unsurprising. If we take the Doctor’s regeneration as being primarily about the moral position unveiled in The Moonbase – the knowledge that there are monsters in the world – then a focus on actual people living actual lives is a straightforward corollary of the premise. If there are monsters, and if this fact matters, the reason why it matters is that the monsters threaten our world. The claim that there are monsters who “act against everything we believe” and the claim for a need to pursue a social justice agenda in the end come from the same premise. The observation that there are bad things in the world, in the end, requires the world in order to be effective.
Maddeningly, the in-print versions of Cathy Come Home available in the US are negligible, so there’s not a lot for me to push you to buy. But if you’re interested in the piece, a PAL DVD can be bought here, and the script is available here. As always, all links are Amazon Affiliates that help support the site and keep me well-fed, and every purchase is greatly appreciated.