The other night I watched Ken Loach meet Cathy – or rather the young actress Elle Payne, playing Cathy in a Cardboard Citizens’ staging of his 1966 landmark TV play Cathy Come Home. The production featured many actors with experience of homelessness. It was deeply moving and beautiful to watch.
50 years on lines from the play jumped out at you in post-EU referendum Britain — angry people blaming immigrants for their housing problems. Locals burning down the caravans of the undesirables camped nearby.
Never have so many people experienced such existential feelings about their nation. Which Britain is real? The one that muddles through and gets along and loves a curry and a cappuccino? Or The one where adults push notes about “vermin” through neighbours’ letterboxes and children threaten their classmates with deportation? Leave voters complained to BBC News in their droves that THEY weren’t racist and didn’t want to discuss those who were.
And more and more I wonder, as a journalist working on a daily arts show, what art can really do when politics seems so toxic? I started seeing Brexit metaphors in every piece of work I did. Puppeteer Gordon Murray died. Was his Trumptonshire a dreamlike pre-EU Britain for ageing Brexiteers with its health and safety-free cider-swilling Windy Miller operating heavy machinery? Does the news that Nicholas Lyndhurst’s time travelling sitcom Goodnight Sweetheart has been re-commissioned prove we really are retreating to a 40s fantasy version ourselves?
The acclaimed playwright Christopher Hampton came in to the BBC to talk to me about his career as a translator. Hampton’s inquisitive quest for interesting new writers in European theatre has given us Florian Zeller’s award winning plays in his crisp, funny and moving translations: The Father, The Mother and The Truth — all of them so clearly French and yet so universal. Hampton could be dismissed, I suppose, as one of those London luvvies. But you could sense the genuine sadness at the result. What he sees as a kind of “stupidity”, combined with a uniquely British “arrogance.”
In Liverpool I met Turner Prize winning Mark Leckey, who has made a magical film about the city for the Biennial art show. Dream English Kid 1964-1999 AD is a dream collage of his visual memory featuring found footage of dance clubs from his Northern Soul youth and even Carry On actress Liz Fraser in an anonymous film clip reminding him of an erotic possibly false memory. Growing up in Birkenhead and Ellesmere Port he looked from outside at Liverpool as a kind of Emerald City – so near and yet so far. He knows all about the power of nostalgia for a lost England and, as an artist who’s put usually ignored sub culture of 70s & early 80s white working class boys into his art, expressed his own unease both at how Brexit voters had been labelled and the narrowing in of horizons that leaving the EU might mean.
That same night I was in London for Cathy Come Home. I offered to help Denholm Spurr the brilliant young actor playing Reg, Cathy’s troubled husband, spray his 60s style hair do – “no I need loads more or it won’t stay up”. I watched Ken Loach scribble notes as he watched the story of exploitative landlords and homelessness play out on stage. He was such a young man when he filmed it back in 1966. As we age the past telescopes down to not long ago or far away. How did we wake up here?
In the late 80s when I studied journalism we were taught about how art could affect the real world. The two examples we studied were Orson Welles’ 1930s radio version of The War of The Worlds and Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home. The latter inspired anger and influenced social policy. But the Welles inspired panic, an emotion that politicians were keen to whip up in the EU referendum. In our Q&A after the play Loach said he was angry that Cathy Come Home wasn’t a historical reenactment but showed a demonization of the poor that had got so much worse. When he talked about the need to restore a post war style belief in mass social house building and re-iterated his support for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership I knew that politics remained as complicated as ever. But that moment after when he met the wonderful young actress who had played Cathy it was magic. She smiled. He smiled And shook her hand. The power of great art to move us decades after it was made sometimes takes my breath away.
This article first appeared in The Big Issue Magazine -journalism worth paying for. For sale from street vendors or subscribe here.