Book Review: Two BFI TV Classics

The BFI Classics series of monographs began life in 1992 as an offshoot from a list of 360 films compiled by archivist David Meeker, occasionally referred to as the BFI 360. Meeker’s list-making was idiosyncratic and informed by his own set of rules, not to mention his own tastes. He decided to impose a cut-off point at 1981 (marked by George Miller’s Mad Max 2); stipulated that no short films would be included - yet broke this rule by including Jean Vigo’s A Propos de Nice; and demonstrated his love for certain directors (John Ford and Jean-Pierre Melville both figuring heavily) as well as a general distaste for animation (only Fantasia got the nod). Perhaps the most idiosyncratic element was the fact that the BFI 360 didn’t actually consist of 360 films at all, but rather 363, though even this is debatable depending on how you count two-part entries such as Fritz Lang’s Die Niebelungen and Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia. Nevertheless, the quality of the majority of inclusions was not to be doubted and so from 1992 onwards various monographs would appear on the bookshelves devoted to one of these classics. Few rules were imposed on the individual books resulting in a variety of takes and, perhaps unavoidably, a variation in quality. However, the writers selected were always intriguing meaning that it was impossible to dismiss any out of hand. As well as the expected academics, historians and critics (from Simon Louvish to J. Hoberman) there was also space for Salman Rushdie (on The Wizard of Oz, complete with a new piece of short fiction), Gerald Kaufman MP (Meet Me in St. Louis), video artist Ian Breakwell (An Actor’s Revenge), and so on.

Five years into the project saw a break from the BFI 360 and the introduction of BFI Modern Classics, a sister series following the same remit as the BFI Film Classics albeit with a focus on post-1981 titles and, on occasion, those which had been made prior but escaped Meeker’s attention (as was the case with Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider). Another five years and another break emerged as the main strand of titles began to include those outside of the BFI 360 (starting with Mehboob Khan’s Mother India) and even those which didn’t comply by the list’s rules, as was the case with Harry Watt’s short film Night Mail. By 2002 the Modern Classics series had come to a halt, instead being incorporated into the Film Classics strand overall, a situation that still exists to this day as confirmed by the most recent release, dedicated to Claude Lanzmann’s epic Holocaust documentary Shoah.

One further development occurred in 2005 when another strand was initiated, this time entitled BFI TV Classics. To date the remit has been extremely wide, taking in both British and American entries, encompassing everything from documentary to sitcom, and focussing on massive, years-spanning (and in some cases ongoing) series as well as comparatively smaller-scale fare. To demonstrate simply consider some of the titles published so far: Doctor Who, Civilisation, The Singing Detective, Seinfeld, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Edge of Darkness, Cracker, The Office, The Likely Lads. Forthcoming monographs are to include those on Coronation Street and Deadwood. The titles under consideration for this review do have some elements in common, however, which is why they are being considered as a pair. The first is that both were produced by Tony Garnett. The second is that they each prompted a response which has caused them to exist as more than mere pieces of television programming. As Stephen Lacey, the author of one of these monographs puts it, they have “a life beyond the moment of the initial screening.”

To clarify, I should state at this point exactly what pieces of television are being considered here. Lacey takes a look at Cathy Come Home, the 1966 entry in the Wednesday Play strand that was directed by Ken Loach and written by Jeremy Sandford, whilst Charlotte Brunsdon gives her attention to the 1978 series Law and Order, written by G.F. Newman and directed by Les Blair. Given the gap of twelve years, both came at differing stages in Garnett’s career. By 1966 he was beginning to make an impact at the BBC having had success the previous year with another Loach-directed Wednesday Play, Up the Junction. This success was far more pronounced come Law and Order, thanks not only to Cathy Come Home, but also further collaborations with Loach (including Kes for the big screen and Days of Hope for the small), not to mention such key writers and/or directors as Jim Allen, David Mercer, Dennis Potter and Mike Leigh. Law and Order would also mark the end of Garnett’s contract with the BBC as he continued to work in cinema (producing Loach’s Black Jack amongst others, directing little-seen ventures such as Prostitute and Handgun) and made the decade-long move to the US. (Upon returning to British television he would continue in much the same way as he had during the sixties and seventies, resulting in classic series such This Life, Between the Lines and The Cops.)

With regards to Cathy Come Home and Law and Order’s respective lives after broadcast, the best way to sum this up is that the former is now, and has for some time, been a very famous piece of British television history, whereas the latter would be better described as infamous. The 1966 play has been repeated on five separate occasions since its initial broadcast (the second gaining even more viewers than the first), was treated to an excellent DVD edition by the BFI which has since gone out of print, and is due to find a new audience in the US thanks to its inclusion on the forthcoming Blu-ray/DVD release of Kes from the Criterion Collection. The 1978 series, however, was repeated only once in a late-night Monday slot in 1980, never exported for showings in other countries and effectively disappeared from view until returning on disc in 2008, at which point it was screened at the National Film Theatre and on BBC4. Cathy Come Home, as a result of its stark portrayal of homelessness and the manner in which it tears a single family apart, is now indelibly intertwined with the charity Shelter and the changes in legislation it helped produce. Law and Order on the other hand prompted much discussion in the newspapers, in parliament and within the police force owing to its bleak portrait of the corruption existing in the criminal justice system. Indeed, to such an extent that this fully explains why it was effectively kept from public view for so many years.

Simply sketching out these commonalities hopefully demonstrates just how complex the histories of these two plays (or, in one case, series of plays) are and, understandably, both Lacey and Brunsdon spend significant time in their respective accounts relating the relevant contexts. For Cathy Come Home this means as much detailing the political landscape (and countering the “national narrative of national success” epitomised by Swinging London and the 1966 World Cup success with the issues the play tackles head on) as it does documenting the work methods of the BBC and the backgrounds for its key creative personnel, Garnett, Loach and Sandford. Sandford, in particular, gets a lot of attention which is extremely pleasing to read given that he has disappeared off the map somewhat when it comes to general recognition; whereas both Garnett and Loach have continued to make important works, Sandford’s only other major piece of writing post-Cathy Come Home was 1971’s Play for Today, Edna the Inebriate Woman. Yet whilst he may be largely forgotten, Sandford was undoubtedly the driving force, as Lacey repeatedly points out. His play was the result, initially, of his own investigations into homelessness and the housing system, research that led to an exposé being published in the Observer, a resulting Panorama documentary and further pieces in the popular press. Part of the appeal of Lacey’s book is the fact that such details have been uncovered; whilst Cathy Come Home remains well known, it is always the aftermath of its broadcast that gets dwelled on, not the elements which brought it into being.

Law and Order’s monograph similarly tracks the political landscape of the time with Brunsden noting how intertwined the BBC was with the government and how this affected the series’ reception, the Home Office being responsible for both broadcasting and the policing and penal systems. This was also the time of the Corporation banning Alan Milton/Alan Clarke’s Scum from transmission and an upcoming look at licence fee strategy, so there was a general wish to avoid any controversies. On top of this Brunsdon also has to consider the criminal justice system as a whole during this the late seventies, from the establishment of A10, the department which looked into complaints against police officers including CID, to individual cases such as those of the wrongfully convicted George Davis or George Ince, who was given the drug Largactyl in prison hospital - both of whom share similarities with one of the Law and Order’s main characters, Jack Lynn (played by Peter Dean). Furthermore, there are considerations of the televisual conventions to be considered, for example the placing of the series within the context of other BBC policing programmes, not to mention an untangling of some of the mythologies that have arisen, notably the recurring claim that genuine criminals occupied its cast list.

Yet whilst both of these TV Classics are admirably thorough in setting down their respective subject’s context, I did have some misgivings with Lacey’s approach. To be fair, the blame doesn’t quite lay squarely with the author, but rather with one of the driving forces behind the TV Classics series overall - although the word ‘blame’ may be a little harsh. As Lacey sets out in his introduction one of the factors determining inclusion in the range is the presence of a particular play or series within television studies syllabi. It’s a perfectly reasonable decision, especially as students, we are told, make up a significant percentage of their readership. However, in terms of Cathy Comes Home, this results in Lacey getting somewhat bogged down in concepts and theories of realism, dramatic forms and documentary which has a tendency to turn off the casual reader. Of course, any criticism must be tempered with an acknowledgement that such discussion does serve its purpose, but it is worth mentioning nonetheless. Indeed, what particularly struck me was the fact that Lacey can be extremely lucid in his writing - as when he condenses the narrative into a swift, highly readable synopsis - which only serves to make the overtly academic concerns seem all the more turgid within the wider scheme of things.

With that said, it should be noted that the most significant part of either monograph lies in their close textual analysis once the respective contexts have been sufficiently placed. In the case of Cathy Come Home we get something closer to the approach of the Film Classics range inasmuch as the play in hand is only 75 minutes long and therefore can be discussed in full, scene-by-scene. All of the previous TV Classics have dealt with pieces whose overall running time has been significantly larger, whether it be the hours-upon-hours of Doctor Who episodes or mini-series such as Edge of Darkness and Our Friends in the North (even The Office has to consider two six-part series and a pair of Christmas specials). In these instances there simply isn’t the scope within a slim volume to cover every episode or every scene and so a cherry-picking of significant moments is more commonly used. Indeed, this is exactly what Brunsdon does in approaching Law and Order. The four 90-minute episodes are condensed into their key scenes and, more often than not, those which tie in with her various arguments. Thus a particular sequence will allow comparison with the tropes of genre TV, as when the bungled armed robbery from episode two is discussed in relation to the more populist likes of The Sweeney. Or she will be able to get under the skin of director Les Blair’s methods by analysing a single uninterrupted take. By taking on Law and Order in this manner she also avoids providing too much needless description, an element which has blighted the odd Film Classic in past, though I should state that this is not the case with Cathy Come Home. (Furthermore, Lacey has the fact that the Loach film is currently unavailable on disc in the UK and as such a full synopsis will no doubt be seen as a welcome inclusion for those who don’t have the old BFI release to hand.) Importantly, neither loses sight of the overall context, so painstakingly laid down in the early stages, when discussing their plays at close hand.

Given the responses that both Cathy Come Home and Law and Order prompted, albeit at opposite ends of the spectrum, Lacey and Brunsdon each conclude with a chapter devoted to teasing out their reactions. Arguably Brunsdon has the more interesting job here as she details the ensuing controversy through various memos, duty logs and broadsheet articles, whilst also tying in some of the elements included early on, such as the licence fee strategy and its effects. Particularly welcome is the inclusion of some of the responses from those within the criminal justice system, the majority of whom, it seemed, concurred with the overall portrayal. Conversely, Cathy Come Home’s reaction is arguably much better known, though this doesn’t prevent Lacey from nimbly laying out its connections with the charity Shelter or compiling the various press reviews. In either case, both contribute to a full understanding of the plays at hand, an aspect which is undoubtedly necessary given that each serves as their first dedicated volume.

Indeed, despite those misgivings detailed above with regards to Cathy Come Home, there really is much to applaud in these two monographs. Both have a great deal of history and reputation to deal with, yet each satisfies these demands fully and offers up pretty much everything you could wish to know about Cathy Come Home or Law and Order. Whether it’s their origins, the nature of their productions, the ensuing controversy or success, little bits and pieces of trivia (Cathy Come Home was originally to be titled The Abyss; Law and Order cast its actors and then decided whether they would be put into the roles of police or villains) or a close evaluation of the plays at hand, these books should remain definitive for some time to come.

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