If there truly was a golden age of British television, as opposed to a romanticised reflection on its formative years, Cathy Come Home represents its zenith in contemporary drama....But no one should think that this shocking programme and its predecessor, Up the Junction - both groundbreaking productions made by the director Ken Loach for the Wednesday Play series - were the result of a benign BBC keen to expose social injustice and ignite political argument. BBC bosses had not wanted either television play to be broadcast, and both of them - perhaps the most important and controversial of the 1960s - came to the screen only through the deceit and furtive plotting of Loach and the rising producer Tony Garnett.
In 1965, a year before Cathy Come Home caused outrage with its story of a family torn apart by homelessness, Up the Junction featured scenes of factory women, coarse language and a backstreet abortion. There was uproar, and Mary Whitehouse accused the BBC of presenting "promiscuity as normal".
Garnett, then a story editor on the Wednesday Play, later admitted that he had planned Up the Junction while the producer James MacTaggart was on holiday...."The aim," Loach said, "was to create a sense of authenticity and find working-class voices in the drama and acknowledge that they were central to it - they weren't the peripheral figures of maids and taxi drivers."
Garnett had no doubt that MacTaggart would be unhappy with the result. "We got well under way and committed quite a lot of money and resources to it before Jim arrived back from his holiday," Garnett said. "I knew he would hate it, because of the controversial content, and would not have wanted to make it. For the BBC at that time, it was a bit close to the mark, with its language and general attitude to sex among these young women.
It broke boundaries - and BBC conventions - with its documentary-style filming, a result of Loach's pioneering method of using hand-held 16mm cameras to give a look of gritty realism, influenced by his and Garnett's admiration for the French New Wave cinema.
Garnett, who became a fully fledged producer after Up the Junction was broadcast, found himself fighting opposition from inside and outside the BBC, but he and Loach eventually won what he described as "a very bloody battle" to allow most filming of television plays to take place on location. Even in the apparently liberal era of the director-general Hugh Greene...there were barriers that proved difficult to break down, but Loach regarded Garnett as being very good at "the corridor politics".
With Cathy Come Home, screened in November 1966, the pair cemented their professional partnership and the working methods that had been so hard won with Up the Junction. Anyone who thought the first play had made as big an impact as television ever could must have been unprepared for the shock waves to come. Loach had shown that the new mode of small-screen drama could be relevant to the lives of people in Britain, with hotly debated, topical issues. Now, with Cathy Come Home, he proved that television could speed up change.
It followed the story of Cathy, a young woman moving to London, meeting Reg and giving birth to two sons. Reg loses his job as a lorry driver after an accident and they live with his unfriendly mother in Islington, move to a squalid council house from which they are evicted (a scene in which fear is etched into the toddlers' eyes as the door is hammered down), before an arson attack drives them from a caravan site, leaving social services emergency accommodation, a rat-ridden hostel, as the only refuge. Reg is separated from his family, and Cathy, by then the mother of a baby daughter, eventually hands her elder son to a friend to look after, concerned about his welfare.
Cathy Come Home's final scene remains one of the most memorable in television history, hitting viewers like a punch in the stomach with its shock and raw emotion. Cathy, standing on Liverpool Street station in London with two of her three children - one played by White's son Stephen - is approached by social workers, who drag both the youngsters away, to be taken into care. Their cries are real, as is White's own hysteria - this was one of the earliest examples of Loach's talent for getting natural reactions from his performers.
Despite the criticisms, the tide of emotion that followed the play's screening resulted not just in bringing forward the launch of Shelter, the charity for the homeless, but public and political outrage that led to a new national housebuilding programme and the abandonment by local councils of their policies of separating husbands from their families and putting homeless children into care.
However, Loach reflected on it as a missed opportunity, realising that the drama raised a social issue in the context of a personal tragedy but failed to outline the political causes, allowing politicians of all persuasions to adopt it as a cause célèbre. "There was nothing in the film that suggested what ought to have been done," said the director, who subsequently trod a more directly political path.