Production Overview: 1.The Four Icons / 2.A New Man / 3.The End of the Festival / 4.Twenty-Four Steps / 5.Arrival / 6.Stand Up And Vote / 7.From Boneyards To Courting Pits / 8.Normal Service / 9.Homes Fit For Cathy / 10.Sleeping Dogs / 11.Last Orders / 12.Casualties of War
Episode Guide: Season 1 / Season 2 / Season 3 / Season 4 / Season 5 /
Season 6 / Season 7 / Season 8 / Season 9

Homes Fit For Cathy

Where The Buffalo Roam
Dennis Potter's Where The Buffalo Roam, a Swansea-based Western of sorts which featured a memorable performance from Hywel Bennett, opened the sixth season of The Wednesday Play, a season predominately produced by Lionel Harris, but with contributions from Tony Garnett, Jonathan Miller and Cedric Messina. John Mortimer's The Head Waiter afforded a wonderous turn for Donald Pleasance, but it would prove to be instantly forgettable in the wake of the third edition of the season, which reunited Tony Garnett and Kenneth Loach in one of the most highly-controversial and memorable outings the programme would ever produce.
If Up The Junction had served to blur the distinctive lines between fact and fiction, their visual realisation of Jeremy Sandford's tale of the inadequacy of the welfare system in contemporary Britain, Cathy Come Home, brought into being an entirely novel approach to television drama. Presented as a "drama-documentary", the story primarily concerned itself with homelessness and the effect upon the families of those concerned.

The visual presence of the piece as virtually a newsreel-style documentary production which faced the audience with a "warts-and-all" presentation of the harsh realities of contemporary life, the fact that the homeless are a part of society which the complacent middle-class shied away from and turned a blind eye to their problems and pitfalls, succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, as the issues raised in the play lead to prolonged public and political discussion on the issue and ultimately prompted the formation of the "Shelter" charity. The story started with the relatively simple premise of the marriage of a young woman to a seemingly prosperous young man, and the product of their happiness being two children. However, this cosy middle-class setting was soon shattered when the husband suffered a serious accident which prevented him from working and the family spiralled into poverty. Ejected from their home, they find themselves moving from temporary accommodation to eventual homelessness, and the melodramatic air of the piece was starkly fuelled when Cathy's children were taken into custody by social services. The episodic stages of Cathy's life were laced with unbridled happiness and the pits of despair, and the fact that a large proportion of the play was staged on location further enchanced the power of the piece as a contemporary, gritty and realistic "product-of-our-time" as opposed to a studio-bound-play.

Carole White and Ray Brooks in Cathy Come Home
The immediacy of hand-held camerawork further confirmed this position, and the impact upon audiences was profound: "Tony Garnett moved over from script-editing to producing, with the ground-breaking Cathy Come Home (BBC-1, 16 November 1966), perhaps the most famous Wednesday Play of all because of the public's response it elicited, both from viewers and the authorities, as a result of the play's success in highlighting one of the social problems of the day: homelessness and its attendant side-effect of family breakdown. The impact of Cathy Come Home was reinforced by the adoption of a drama documentary approach and the filming of ninety percent of the drama on location, in real streets and houses, with ordinary people appearing in the drama alongside professional actors. This gave the play, which no longer looked like a "play" in the traditional sense, an authenticity and a veracity which heightened its emotional effect, undoubtedly contributing to its social impact. As Madeleine Macmurraugh-Kavanagh has argued, this was `drama' turned into `news', a deliberate strategy on behalf of Tony Garnett, director Ken Loach and writer Jeremy Sandford to try to make an intervention that would influence social policy" ( Lez Cooke - British Television Drama: A History).

Sydney Newman would have been justifiably proud of this production (which took as many risks as it reaped in critical acclaim) as the play unashamedly approached an issue at the heart of contemporary society without refraining from highlighting the tragic waste of human life which arises from the lack of a compassionate society.

John Gielgud and Felicity Kendall in The Mayfly and the Frog.
The fact that the play itself enjoyed three repeat transmissions, two in quick succession shortly after its original broadcast, confirmed the pride its makers had in the production, which has since helped to bolster Garnett's stock of trade at World Productions, which would later produce the highly-controversial yet critically-acclaimed series This Life and The Cops (which once again confronted audiences with its graphic profanities, sex and drug use). Ian McShane appeared in Christopher Williams' The Private Tutor, a somewhat lighter comedy-drama to lift the tone after such a harrowing experience the previous week, and concerned itself with the introduction of a stranger on a dyed-in-the-wool household and the impact of his presence on those residing therein.

Simon Raven's A Pyre For Private James
and Marc Brandel's A Tale Of Two Wives were further instalments, followed by Nemone Lethbridge's second part of the trilogy featuring Planatagenet King, Little Master Mind. A delicious tale of cross-generational love between a fiery and determined young woman and a rich and lonely millionaire was played out in The Mayfly And The Frog, presented audiences with a truly wonderous turn from Felicity Kendall and Sir John Gielgud.

As a logical extension to Dennis Potter's previously broadcast Alice, Jonathan Miller's internationally-successful Alice In Wonderland was transmitted on December 28th 1966, released as part of The Wednesday Play series though never transmitted under its umbrella title.

Jonathan Miller's Alice In Wonderland
One of the most delightful realisations of this well-known tale, Miller elected to cast a wide range of personalities (from Michael Gough to Peter Sellers, Alan Bennett to Wilfred Brambell, Peter Cook to Sir John Gielgud, Leo McKern to Michael Redgrave) in the leading roles, all of whom were accomplished character actors of their time who positively shone throughout. The casting of Anne-Marie Mallik as the wide-eyed innocent, Alice, was also inspired, and the play itself has lived long in the memory of audiences.

Person To Person, The Order
(a wonderful play transmitted under the banner title of The Largest Theatre In The World, broadcast simultaneously in a wide range of European countries and hailed as a Wednesday Play production) and Everybody's Rich Except Us followed, a rich mixture of drama and comedy which sustained the high standard of the programme throughout, and culminated in the mould-breaking Jim Allen play The Lump; the central character a militant dock worker who could readily adapt to the politics of the workplace and the politics of the union movement, Yorky proved to be a powerhouse of a performance for Leslie Sands, late of Z-Cars. Further notable examples of the high-calibre of this particular season were exemplified in Dennis Potter's Message For Postery (a delightful tale which would enjoy renewed BBC Television appreciation during the series Performance in the 1990's), David Mercer's unforgettable and moving portrait of the shameful treatment of the mentally ill in In Two Minds, Leon Griffith's deftly-scripted comedy-drama The Voices In The Park and the series' climax, Drums Along The Avon, a sharp and witty exploration of the racial divide in a fictional Bristol city which provided a wonderous platform for the talents of the delightful Leonard Rossiter.

The Wednesday Play had hit its heights, and as a result of the strength of its controversial, mould-breaking productions, the demands of producing even better mid-week entertainment was gradually starting to take its toll on the programme. A victim of its own success, the series would now start a gradual decline.

© Matthew Lee, 2004