Ray Brooks with Carol White in ‘Cathy Come Home’
By Dr. Charles P. Jenkins
You could have knocked me down with a feather when I discovered that Ray Brooks had joined the cast of EastEnders! Why, you may ask? What is the big deal? Isn’t he an actor? He is not someone special.
Well, Ray Brooks WAS someone special at one time and had an ‘avant garde’ past. During the early and mid 1960s, Ray Brooks was a young actor and had made a big splash with his first films.
In the early 1960s, English (not British) plays were riding high: writers like John Osborne and Arnold Wesker were the toast of the West End and Broadway. The wrote about ‘The Angry Young Man’ – people who had come of age following the Second World War; who had done their national service in the army; had gone to university; and now found that promises being made by the Conservative Government were not quite bringing happiness and a sense of fulfillment to the populace. These men snapped and snarled and found solace in drink and by making others unhappy.
Although Ray Brooks’ characters were not exactly typical of ‘Angry Young Men’, however in 1962, he appeared in a film, called ‘Some People’, which was about ‘youths’ with no sense of purpose who were saved through their trying out for the Duke of Edinburgh Award. This award was introduced in 1956 and recognises adolescents and young adults for completing a series of self-improvement exercises and which has now spread to 144 nations (the U.S. never became involved). Mr. Brooks played a youth in need of ‘direction’. He had a menacing look that appealed to young girls of the time. He was dark and had his hair cut and groomed very much in the ‘Teddy Boy’ tradition, which was long (for the times) and swept back at the sides and raised high at the front. The film had a song, which was successful at the time, was directed by Clive Donner who went on to make a number of major films.
Although this film was successful, it was his next film based on the play, The Knack ……. and How to Get It that received much attraction and brought acclaim to the actors and director. The film was awarded the ‘Palme d’Or’ at the Cannes Film Festival, 1965 and brought Michael Crawford (‘The Phantom of the Opera’) and Rita Tushingham (‘Dr. Zhivago’) to public attention. This film was made in the midst of the ‘Swinging London’ mayhem and dealt with young men and sex. The film was directed by Richard Lester who had recently completed The Beatles first film and used many of the cinematographic techniques that had been fresh and well-received in this film.
Ray Brooks in The Knack….
Brooks played a ‘womaniser’ who had ‘the knack’, which Michael Crawford, a paranoid teacher lacking in confidence, wanted to have. They, and an artist, compete for the affection of Rita Tushingham, a young naïve girl who wanders into their world. This film was filled with ‘dolly birds’ dressed in mini-skirts and with long blonde hair and saw the film debut of Jacqueline Bisset, Charlotte Rampling and Jane Birkin.
Mr. Brooks was obviously ‘riding high’. He followed his successes with a television play produced by the BBC in 1966 that set the country talking and Parliament ‘on its ear’! At that time, the BBC produced a series named ‘Wednesday Play for Today’, which dealt with ‘social issues’. I was in college at the time and was ‘far too sophisticated’ to watch television, but I always watched these plays! The play in question was called, ‘Cathy Come Home’ and brought to the attention of the public the lack of adequate and affordable housing in Britain.
The story revolved around a young couple, Cathy and Reg, played by Carol While and Ray Brooks. They got married and soon had a child and moved into a modern home with ‘all mod cons’ (i.e., all modern conveniences) and seemed to be leading a charmed life. Reg gets injured and loses his job. They have no savings and are soon evicted from their home. And so begins their descent into poverty.
Reg cannot find work and the family spends time in shelters and eventually have to ‘squat’ in derelict buildings. Reg finds a job outside of London and leaves with the promise to return. At first he sends money, but this stops and Cathy is left alone with her children. You watch as she deals with Social Services and various charitable organisations, and slowly, but surely, she is worn down by the bureaucracy associated with her situation. Her family is unable to help her since they are also in a sorry state. Eventually she is told that she has to be separated from her children. This she cannot tolerate and takes the children and runs off. Of course, she has nowhere to run. The last scene is remarkably powerful. Cathy is seen holding on to her children while sitting on a bench in a railway station. Suddenly the Officer from Social Services appears along with several henchmen. They surround Cathy who is screaming and crying as she refuses to loosen her grip on her children who are also weeping copiously. They grab her hands and pry her fingers free and take the children. They are led away leaving Cathy totally broken.
A couple of years ago, ‘Turner Classic Movies’, invited the actor, Tim Roth, to be a guest presenter. He was allowed to choose the films shown and he and Robert Osborne discussed them following their emission. Mr. Roth asked if he might choose the Television Play, ‘Cathy Come Home’. Following its showing, Robert Osborne was physically disturbed by the play and asked a hundred questions about the situation that had led up to Cathy’s treatment.
The Play was written by Jeremy Sanford who had been brought up ‘with money’. He married the writer, Nell Dunn, and together they gave up their ‘charmed life’ to live amongst ‘the poor and downtrodden’ and both wrote about the people around them. The play was directed by Ken Loach who had also filmed ‘Up the Junction’ (1965), written by Nell Dunn, and featured the filming of an abortion, illegal at the time, for the BBC’s ‘Wednesday Play’ series.
The writer, producer and director of ‘Cathy Come Home’ were socialists, but were also ‘social realists’ and worked to bring attention to a number of projects, such as the labour rights, mental illness, capital punishment and alienation. Great pieces of work, but perhaps not the fare for an evening of relaxation in front of the television set!!!
‘Cathy Came Home’ caused ‘questions to be asked in the House (Parliament)’. Although ‘Britain had won the War’, people wanted to know why Germany had built more homes for its working class than Britain etc etc etc.
Most of the ‘hype’ surrounded Cathy, Carol White, who went to Hollywood, but did not do well and eventually committed suicide. Ray Brooks remained in Britain, had married in 1961 and next worked on a television series with the comedian, Sid James, about a taxi service, which was reasonably well-received. He never appeared in any major films and spent much of his career playing guest roles in various series, doing ‘Voice Overs’ and as the narrator of the well known animated children’s programmes. In the 2000’s, Mr. Brooks was, for a few years, the voice of the person informing passengers of the ‘next stop’ on the London Tramline system.
Apparently, Mr. Brooks is no stranger to British soap operas. He had appeared on Coronation Street before, in 2005, joining the cast, as Joe Macer, on EastEnders. I must admit to being shocked when I suddenly saw him in his first episode: gone were his thick black luxuriant hair and arrived was the look of age. Well, he was 66 years old at the time, so I suppose this was natural.
Sadly, I cannot say that I am overly impressed with his character, but I think that his friendship with the odious, Bert Atkinson, probably adds to this. However, what surprised me most was his marriage to Pauline Fowler. I still find it hard to believe that this took place. Still, ‘it takes all sorts to make this funny old world’, as we say in the East End.
Dr Charles S.P. Jenkins is the proprietor of the fine websites http://stories-of-london.org and http://eastend-memories.org