Pop Between Realities, Home In Time For Tea 5 (Cathy Come Home)
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.…