Telling Stories

reality, fiction and local government
Janet Sillett 

(Our Friends in the North, BBC)

'Anybody who wants to understand what the British think about their democracy – that is the elections, parties, leaders and legislatures that give it shape – as well as why they think it, should take fiction seriously'.


'….because plays, novels and films, along with television dramas and comedies, have long articulated Britons’ hopes and (more often increasingly) fears about the exercise of political power’

Steven Fielding A State of Play

Does this apply equally to local as well as national politics and government? Yes and no. No, because it is mostly national politics that is represented in fiction – local politics much less so. But yes too – as so often the themes are similar and the questions raised the same. Themes such as the nature of power, the state of democracy, the relationship of citizens to those they elect, the perceptions we have of those elected to represent us. These themes are perhaps even more pertinent now – post Brexit and post Trump.

How has local government been represented in fiction through different periods? What stories does it tell us and does the fictional portrayal of councils and councillors reflect the reality of this world (and should it) and critically does fiction itself influence that reality?

South Riding: local government centre stage

Local Government in a Country Town- Everyday Life in Wotton-under-edge, Gloucestershire, England, UK, 1944 (Imperial War Museum Collection via Wikimedia Commons)

'I admit it was through listening to your descriptions of your work that the drama of English local government first captured my imagination. What fascinated me was the discovery that apparently academic and impersonal resolutions passed in a county council were daily revolutionising the lives of men and women whom they affected. The complex tangle of motives prompting public decisions, the unforeseen consequences of their enactment on private lives appeared to me as part of the unseen pattern of the English landscape'

Winifred Holtby’s letter to her mother

South Riding was (and is) that rarity, a novel about, as Winifred Holtby herself says, ‘the drama of English local government’. Though of course it is about more than local government – it is about a whole community and scores of its inhabitants. And that is the point – local government is woven into the fabric of their lives. Holtby clearly had a message she wanted to get across – that politics and local government specifically could transform communities through what seems like the everyday and the mundane.

Holtby knew about local government – her mother was a councillor and like the 70 year old Mrs Beddows in the novel – was the first woman Alderman. According to the Guardian, Holtby had also used council minutes taken from her mother's wastepaper basket to help plot her story. In 1932 she had attended the public inquiry into a land purchase scandal in Hull, which had led to the suicide of a long-serving Conservative member of the council, guilty of making profits from land sales. This real life event was reflected in the novel.

The district of South Riding is suffering from the depression – poverty and ill health. Holtby champions the role of local government in dealing with these huge challenges – largely through her portrayal of Sarah Burton, the new headmistress, who is passionate about social change. Burton trusts in the power of collective action by local government to create a more beneficent "English landscape" – "local government is "the first line of defence thrown up by the community against our common enemies … poverty, sickness, ignorance and isolation." Is Burton Holtby? There is a lot of Holtby in her character – this line could have come direct from Holtby herself, with Burton championing single women to lead fruitful, independent lives - "I was born to be a spinster and by God, I'm going to spin." Sarah Burton could surely still be a role model for women in local politics today?

Of course South Riding has a wider landscape than just local government. Set in the 1930s, as I suggested above it is still somehow modern – it deals with issues we are familiar with – feminism, a fast moving world locally and globally, economic hardship, education and gender, public health. The plot involves a contentious public-private scheme and a scandal centred on building on flood plains. It highlights the difficulties of making cuts to budgets.

So why is this novel – published in 1936 still popular? It has not been out of print since then. Two television adaptations of it have been made, several radio adaptations, and a film. I can’t say that it is because local government is such an enticing subject in itself – even with the plot here of the Machiavellian councillor who is in stark contrast to Alderman Beddows. But it does still resonate now – especially when it has been made into television drama. It fits the television series format well – characters we are interested to follow, several stories side by side, and it still has something to say about politics and how it affects our lives. The film and television adaptions are of course slimmed down versions of the book, but the television one does capture some of its core messages.

The lesson here is perhaps that fiction about politics, including or even especially about local politics, that wants to capture the readers, listeners, or the viewers imagination, needs to be good drama:

Great characters, action and plot, passion. Still relevant now. I opened the first page, and was immediately and irrevocably swept into the lives of the warm, vital, passionate and wonderfully human cast of characters who populate this magnificent novel. It might have local government as its underlying theme, but at its core, I soon saw that it is about the human soul, and all of its struggles and triumphs and capabilities and limitations – and the characters whose souls are laid bare are so brilliantly drawn that you can’t help but be fascinated by them from the very first page’. Book Snob blog

South Riding doesn’t shy away from what is often the day to day reality of local government – then as now: “Without emotion, without haste, without even, so far as Lovell could discern, any noticeable interest, the South Riding County Council ploughed through its agenda. The General mumbled; the clerk shuffled papers, the chairman of committees answered desultory questions."

But it does show that local government is not inherently dull – that it is both an everyday, but crucial, part of ordinary life, and, critically, that it has the potential to transform those lives. More so of course in the 1930s, when it met so many basic needs – building huge public housing programmes, ensuring effective sanitation, combating widespread infectious diseases like TB. But it is still critical to the health and wellbeing of local communities – even if local government is usually only in the news when something goes wrong.

Holtby was political and South Riding very much reflects her views.

‘The magic of the book, and the meat of it, is in the politics. It's brave enough to show us the complex tangle of motivations behind the public decisions and their unforeseen consequences. Ultimately it has faith in the system to make positive change and its powerful human content, small triumphs and painful tragedies, lift it above any novel about game-playing in Westminster’.  

Dawn Reeves The Guardian

We have many novels and plays about the politics of Westminster and few about local politics (and just as local government is often stereotyped in fiction – so is Westminster). Yet Reeves is surely right – that local politics are more immediate, more relevant and more human that the politics of the whips office, cabinet machinations and political scandals.

The novel ends with local slum dwellers rehoused in new council-built homes. Holtby was not naïve – she recognised the ‘complex tangle of motives prompting public decisions’. In the novel some councillors were possessed of an idealistic desire to improve living conditions, others wanted to make a corrupt profit out of buying up land they knew would be needed for the new estate. But out of this comes good. Almost despite itself, Holtby concludes, politics had improved people’s lives.

Corrupt or ineffectual – local government can't win

Cartoonist Joseph Keppler's portrayal of corruption in the US Senate in the 19th Century.

"Power attracts the corruptible. Suspect any who seek it."

Frank Herbert, Chapterhouse: Dune

A constant theme when local government and councillors are portrayed in fiction is corruption – repeated over and over again. Steven Fielding highlights the most well known examples, particularly in film and drama: The Long Good Friday film (1980) for example, where an entrepreneur corrupts councillors to get illegal access to plans for a lucrative redevelopment site. The councillor involved is a builder – benefitting from local authority contracts. Other political dramas of the period also portray a world where the greedy exploit the opportunities that arise through extensive local developments and where the system works against ordinary people.

Muck and Brass (ITV series 1982) does present a decent and committed councillor – the Conservative leader, Maurice Taylor, but he is ultimately defeated in his aspirations by councillors and other opponents of his proposed new arts complex who are steeped in corruption.

The context here is important of course – taking the real events of 1960s Newcastle and the scandal of T Dan Smith and Poulson, and in some dramas fictionalising it to reflect the writer's views of current politics during the Thatcher years (the writers were often coming from the left). But the idea of corruption in local government has endured well beyond when the Poulson affair happened. Has fiction not just reflected what happened in the recent past but actually influenced how people view local politics now, even though there is little evidence of corruption in local government?

Peter Flannery’s Our Friends in the North (BBC 1996) was the most successful of the television series to be partly based on the Poulson scandal. Nine episodes depicted the lives of four friends from 1964 to 1995.

Why was it a success? It was gritty drama, brilliantly acted and written, and it represented a view of Britain over those years which marries the personal and the political in a way that also highlights key political events (like South Riding it has a cast of characters we believe in and watch how their lives play out in the wider political stage - albeit the much more local one of Holty's).

There is corruption everywhere – in local government, in business, in the police, but there is much more going on; it tells these big stories through the prism of the lives of the four main characters and it has a strong sense of place at different periods – the North-East and London.

So was Our Friends in the North good or bad for perceptions of local government or is that too simplistic a question? It probably did instil in its millions of viewers the usual lazy stereotype that links local politics, planning and development with corruption. But how can we complain when it reflected – for once – the reality? But it also showed the human frailties of its characters and engaged its viewers in their political and human journeys – in that sense – again rather like South Riding.

Another iconic series, but one which is completely different in style and purpose to Our Friends in the North, is, of course, Yes Minister. Yet Steven Fielding in State of Play describes the cynicism in Yes Minister – it wasn't simply a funny comedy: the weakness and vanity of Jim Hacker, Minister of State and then Prime Minister is compared to the deviousness of Sir Humphrey Appleby – real power is exercised by the non-elected civil servant. Fielding suggests that both were presented as self-interested 'who looked on the public as a source of votes and cash: in other words, neither represented the electorate'. Fielding sees a pre-eminent theme in fiction of self-interest among elected representatives, with even the 'few noble ones' flawed in some way.

Yet, 'however bureaucratic Whitehall might be, local government is, according to the Yes Minister episode 'The Challenge', even worse - and councils a byword for waste and extravagance, spending money on things like gay bereavement centres'. Hacker claims most councils are run by 'militant loonies'. This episode, of course, clearly reflects the tensions between Labour local government and Mrs Thatcher, but it did reinforce stereotypes that were prevalent at the time. In the end, Hacker forms an unholy alliance with a left wing council leader to prevent the public being given a louder voice in local affairs. So Westminster and Town Hall are seen as equally dubious.

If local politics is not being satirised as corrupt, extreme or wasteful, it is often seen as inept or indifferent. AJ Cronin’s The Citadel (1937), according to Fielding, reflects the lack of faith in public authority at the time: the council is inert in eradicating a source of typhoid and it is down to an individual to work out what to do to stop the spread of the disease. Councillors in novels that are portrayed as well meaning or even noble can also be portrayed at the same time as ineffective, especially where the writer wants to highlight what they see as the elected representative being at the mercy of civil servants (locally and nationally), big business or the more powerful higher echelons of the state.

Councillors do still appear in popular drama – soaps have councillor characters sometimes – and occasionally they represent some semblance of reality. Coronation Street seems to be fond of councillors – the latest, Sally Metcalf, is the fifth character in the Street to become a councillor. She is portrayed as annoyingly self-important and she won a by election as an independent with seemingly no real campaign. This sparked a discussion in Digital Spy Forum which touched on the role of councillors, their pay, how much time it takes to be a councillor and how realistic the portrayal was:

'It does seem a shame that Sally has been turned from a character with a bit of light and shade into one who seems to be there simply to personify snobbery of the silliest kind. Even the dimmest of local politicians do not, I am pretty sure, consider themselves as role models for others, or believe that they are looked up to. The election itself was farcical: only two candidates, apparently, both independents; by-election very close to the country-wide local elections; taking place on the wrong day and the result made public sometime in the evening, much earlier than in reality. I'm not suggesting that they have to follow every little point of procedure of the real thing, but gaping holes mean that it's impossible for it to have the slightest bit of credibility. If they are going to play fast and loose with events which have strict procedure, why bother’?

Does this matter? I think it does to some extent – as drama can affect our perceptions of institutions. But maybe the ‘mistakes’ over council procedures only really matter to those of us in the know – where it just annoys us more than anything serious. Representing a councillor, though, as becoming more pompous and vain because of her new role perpetuates a stereotype that is unhelpful at least. 

Local politics is sometimes the butt of harsher treatment than the gentler poking fun at pomposity in the soaps. David Turner’s Swizzlewick, for example, appeared on the BBC as a twice weekly series in 1964. Steven Fielding says that some saw the series as the BBC’s attempt to emulate the popularity of ITV’s soap operas. But the writer was a harsh satirist who ‘was a loud critic of conventional mores’. Swizzlewick is a market town where the mayor Augustus Bent is at the heart of the corruption in this so-called ‘democracy’. Critical reaction to the programme was almost universally harsh – largely because it was lewd. 

Satire can perpetuate perceptions of politics and politicians that some critics would say does harm to democracy. Did Swizzlewick reinforce the views of those who always see local government as somehow corrupt?

Local politics is still the subject of satire – like JK Rowling’s novel (and television adaptation) The Casual Vacancy, where the parish council is populated by eccentrics and bullies, and there is intrigue and corruption in a small village (I expect this would be news to the parish councillors of England and Wales). It is so far from reality though that it really doesn't – I don't think – perpetuate the usual stereotypes.

Is there a place for satire about local government – yes, there must be, but perhaps those of us who are local government loyalists would feel more comfortable about it when it is about local politics rather than the institution and its workforce? Would a local government version of The Thick of It be harmful or would it spark an interest in local politics which is much needed?

Mayors – a new source of political drama ?

From Trumpton

As the Mayor arrives, the fire-bell shatters the peace of the countryside. The great doors swing open and the six stalwart firemen slide down the pole.

Pugh! Pugh! Barney McGrew! Cuthbert! Dibble! Grubb!

No one is missing. The Mayor inspects them and crosses to the Fire Engine - the most modern, sleekly-lined, gadget-filled vehicle it is possible to buy. It is Trumpton's pride and joy.

The fact that there hasn't been a fire for 30 years is, of course, rather a pity, but there are many things one can do with a modern, sleekly-lined, gadget-filled fire engine, as you will discover when you hear the two stories on this record, and since the fire brigade also do double-duty as the Town Band, time never drags in Trumpton.

British fiction has largely ignored mayors – or made fun of them (affectionately in Trumpton). 

Mayors are taken much more seriously in Scandinavian television and novels, in French television shows, and especially in the US – The Boss (about a fictional Chicago mayor), The Wire, Spin City, and Show Me a Hero. And there are novels too which focus on mayors (yes, we have the British Mayor of Casterbridge, but the mayor part is pretty low key): novels like the American novel Pleasantville by Attica Locke, which was inspired by her father’s campaign to become mayor of the town. 

We haven’t had many elected mayors of course – though it is interesting there hasn’t been a drama about a Mayor of London. Will the arrival of a new generation of elected mayors in other big cities become a source of future television drama?

Blackout, a 2012 BBC series, did feature a mayor of a major unnamed city. If it is a sign of what is to come then mayors will be tragic figures whose personal weaknesses destroy their ability to affect positive change. It had a familiar feel – the flawed figure seeking redemption – this time a corrupt and alcoholic council official who had started out with ideals but ended up with his life semi ruined. A dramatic act of redemption buys him public adoration, so much so that he becomes a candidate in the race for mayor and then a respected mayor, but one threatened by his past.

Did this series tell us anything about the realities of being an elected mayor in a big city? No, not really. It leant on Scandinavian political thrillers like Borgen and The Killing, but its plot was essentially dramatic and not realistic. Do we need drama with the authenticity of Borgen – where the plot is woven in to the politics and which can draw what may seem disparate elements together?

Stephen Fielding reminds us of a long forgotten play where, for once, the mayor is not corrupt – the 1972 ITV play Buggins Ermine by Arthur Hopcraft – where an unassuming man is on the verge of becoming a Labour mayor of a northern town. He has spent his political life being loyal to and working hard for his party and community where 'local politics gave him a chance to perform some modest public service'. Hopcraft, like Holtby, shows politicians playing a 'hidden but organic part of the community'. But it doesn’t end well – local government reorganisation results in the mayor’s modest powers being taken over ‘by a higher authority less connected to local people’. A theme that has not perhaps lost all its resonance today?

It looks like for drama about mayors to make a real impact on the public they need to be more like The Boss and less like Buggins Ermine. More action and less cosiness. But I think what is really needed is some kind of cultural shift – the politics of the Killing and the Boss have centre stage – they aren’t an afterthought. American and Nordic writers do seem comfortable in placing the politics and workings of local government at the centre of their writing. Nordic dramas take politics seriously.

UK writers should acknowledge that there is indeed an appetite for political drama – and if so – why not local politics?

Does fiction about real life have to resemble real life?

'I thought Damned was great! And for those who are saying it's not an accurate portrayal of S/W - well DUH! It wouldn't be a comedy if it was'.

(Community Care blog)

Let’s look at one very recent example. Damned – a new comedy sit-com series about social workers on Channel 4, written by (and starring) Jo Brand. I suppose it should really be called a black comedy. And, clearly, a comedy can’t be ‘true to life’ in a direct sense. But should a show like this reflect the realities underlying the comedy?

The reaction to the first episode from the profession and from media reviewers was very mixed: A Guardian review wanted more social work and ‘less of the office japes and politics’: the Telegraph also found it too light:

‘and the script coyly danced around details of cases’, though it acknowledged that child protection isn’t a world we often see on TV, outside of gritty soaps or grim documentaries’.

But many social workers themselves were much more critical – saying it was nothing like real social work and it ‘trivialises and denigrates profession and service users’ and ‘For a profession I am extremely privileged & proud of Damned was tragic stuff. Real opportunity for comedy & realism missed’. (tweets to Community Care)

But not everyone was critical:

Colin C Dinnie, a social work educator, defended Damned – ‘It is, after all, a sitcom and I can’t help feeling that people’s reactions have been fundamentally tied to their expectations of the programme going in. For some these expectations seemed to have been pegged incredibly high, somehow believing this half hour of late night television would undo the years of media misrepresentation of social workers overnight’.

Jo Brand herself said in an interview with the Guardian that she had long hoped to make social workers "seem like real people" and address the negative stereotypes of “middle-class, tweedy women” and “hippy do-gooders’ and that ‘Comedy, says Brand, seemed the best medium to redress the balance. It enables you to get across a message about something that’s actually really awful”.

There is a constant dilemma for writers of shows about real institutions and organisations – how far should they reflect reality? This is a discussion that occurs regularly about police and crime television drama (probably because there are so many of them). But the daily reality of police work – even in complex cases, doesn’t make good television. If a writer wants to get a message across about social work or another service like it, it has to work as entertainment as well as reflecting the realities of the situation.

If a programme, though, claims to be rooted in a real situation such as a workplace, or it is clearly about a group of workers, is there a responsibility on the writer to, at least, reflect some kind of reality about that? I suppose the answer must be a qualified yes – even if the programme (or novel, or play) is comic or, indeed, satirical. Clare in the Community, originally a cartoon about Clare, a social worker, and now a long running radio series, doesn’t really tell us what life is like at work for a hard pressed social worker. It mocks Clare’s political correctness and she has stereotypical characteristics, but, crucially, it does it affectionately. We like her, despite it all, and we get a flavour of what being a social worker is. That seems enough to me – for a light hearted show – though if I was a social worker I might feel somewhat different?

Perhaps one solution is for aspiring writers working in the public sector to think about writing their version of reality. One social worker had this to say:

“I agree this (Damned) is just a comedy and like others in the profession I probably had unrealistic expectations. What I think we really need though is our own version of casualty – social work has loads of fantastic stories to tell – funny, sad, moving. We need characters and stories the public can empathise with. Ok they may be stereotypical and unrealistic but they can help to get a message across’

I saw 'Hope' by Jack Thorne at the Royal Court in 2014 – about how a northern English council has to make serious cuts to their budget in their working class town. How real did it feel? It tries to show the almost impossible choices councillors have to make; how they struggle to decide on priorities and how the public and interest groups can affect those decisions. But it was also rather simplistic and  the Muslim led riot was, I thought, unbelievable. Michael Billington, in the Guardian, was more enthused:

'Thorne sets the action in a working-class town where the Labour council must cut £22 million from its budget. But the virtue of his play is that it shows what this means in reality. Hilary, the pragmatic council leader, proposes equal misery for all. Mark, her deputy, is a thwarted idealist who fights for the library, the museum and street lighting. But the excrement really hits the fan over the closure of a day centre for adults with learning difficulties. Gina, Mark's ex-partner who runs the centre, organises a petition that becomes national news and embarrasses both the local authority and the Labour party. The big question is: what can be done'?

I don't think it did show what that reality is really like – even in a shorthand way: it has to entertain and to condense events to make the drama happen. But I agree with Billington when he says what he most liked about the play was its lack of cynicism. Out of the sometimes chaos and the personal challenges the main characters face we are left with a sense that there is, maybe, a way through this – and that retaining a sense of idealism, whilst recognising political realities, can finally result in a degree of 'hope' of better things to come (possibly in the next generation), and that people's intentions are important, even if the reality doesn't match up to them. 

It may not be real life as we experience it every day in local government, but it is not a complete distortion of real life either – and in that sense –  has a mixed, but ultimately, positive message about local politics and local politicians, with all their flaws.

Can fiction really change society?

"A film is one small voice among other large ones. The film is a tiny part of the discourse. You do what you can but under no illusions of what a film can do?"

Ken Loach

"Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it."

Bertolt Brecht

The post-war housing crisis and the rebuilding programme were the subject of many novels and drama in the mid twentieth century, and even in unlikely ones like popular crime fiction (like Margery Allingham's 1963 novel The China Governess), not necessarily as direct political comment, but more about the housing crisis and regeneration after the war which reflected the realities of post war society in many parts of the UK. The theme sometimes acted as a metaphor for hope after chaos, and in some later fiction - sometimes of how hope was dissipated.

Ken Loach's Cathy Come Home was predated, for example, by left wing playwrights in Scotland in the 1940s and 50s who mixed political theatre with vernacular entertainment. Poor housing was a theme in some of the most successful - like Robert Mcleish's The Gorbals Story (1946). Similar to Holtby, McLeish makes a compelling fiction out of the mundanity of daily life with a host of characters. The city's Lord Provost attended the opening night where a spokesman for squatters rights addressed the audience from the floor. 

More contemporary fiction has also used housing as reflecting the state of society bth physically and metaphorically.

The Scottish novel Our Fathers by Andrew O'Hagan published in 1999 (and shortlisted for the Booker prize) focuses on urban regeneration, but is fundamentally about personal and national identity. Hugh Bawn is a socialist councillor who played a major role in the  post-war rebuilding programme. His vision turns to dust (literally) as the tower blocks deteriorate. His grandson, Jamie, is a demolition expert who destroys the concrete tower blocks Hugh built in his heyday as Glasgow's 'Mr Housing'. 

"The story is framed in a richly depicted history, geography and sociology of Glasgow, the Clyde and Ayrshire.

Hugh was the archetypal socialist city councillor who cut corners and was all too easy with money from the public purse; who rushed up 20-storey tower blocks in the 60s which, 30 years later, are crumbling and about to fall. These streets-in-the-sky represent the idea of escape, an escape into the sun and air for the people of the slums.

In reality they become a new form of slum. Defiant to the last, Hugh chooses to end his days in a flat on the 18th floor of one of the towers he built in a New Town west of Glasgow. The lifts don't work. The block is laced with piss, plastered with shit, patrolled by glass-breaking gangs of vicious, mainlining youth. In it Hugh hides from a world that he wanted to rebuild not least because, you can't help feeling, he was trying to escape from it all".

Jonathan Glancy Guardian review

"From the beginning of his writing career Andrew O'Hagan has pushed at the conventional limits of literary genre, blurring the boundaries between fiction, memoir, documentary and journalism.

What characterises all his work however, is a resolute political and historical engagement".

(note in the British Council: literature website)

McCleish is not writing so much to change society, at least not directly, but to explain how individual lives are enmeshed in the politics of local and national identity and how important that sense of identity place is to the individual and to society in a rapidly changing world.

Cathy Come Home

Ken Loach's Cathy Come Home is the most cited example of a television drama having a perceptible impact on politics. Though it has to be said that the programme was more a mix of documentary and drama than strict drama.

On the 16th of November, 1966, 12 million people watched Cathy Come Home, depicting a family's descent into homelessness at a time of major housing shortages.

In parliament, Anthony Greenwood, the Labour housing minister, said that he welcomed the film "because the more that the conscience of our people is shaken by programmes of that kind, the easier my job is going to be".

The programme was highly contentious at the time. It, like all Loach’s work, had a clear political purpose and message. It distilled the experiences of many people who had suffered homelessness, and the loss of their children as a result, into the powerful drama of Cathy and her children.

Again, it worked because it delivered a strong message and portrayed an uncomfortable reality, but it did so by showing it through the eyes of a character we could feel strongly about. Even if the reality was contested by the council involved and the government department.

Undoubtedly it had an effect on the debates around homelessness and families. Whether it started the debate or reflected it (in a dramatic and compelling way) I am not sure. It did, though, provide the catalyst for a fierce debate in Birmingham and beyond. It fed into contemporary political argument about social problems and sparked a more intense discussion. It did seem to start a national conversation.

According to Derek Page (in an article on Tony Garnett’s website), Sandford and Loach discussed homelessness with Birmingham City councillors, who were incensed that their city had appeared in such an unfavourable light in the film. Policy in respect of the conditions in the city’s hostels for the homeless changed almost immediately; the separation of husbands and wives was stopped in Birmingham. It also affected the government, according to Page:

'The film also had its effects on the Labour Government of 1966. Earlier on the same day, 28 November, a special screening of the film was arranged for the Minister of Housing and Local Government, Anthony Greenwood, his Parliamentary Private Secretary, Wayland Young, and three permanent officials at the Ministry of Housing. Afterwards, Tony Garnett wrote a memo to his bosses at the BBC (1 December 1966) noting: ‘We were not challenged at any point either on our intentions in making the film or our facts.’

Detractors of the play, however, criticised its inaccuracies. After Cathy Come Home was screened, there were many protests about the inaccuracy of its statistics about the homeless and its portrait of the authorities. On its second showing, two million council members and officials were asked to watch and see how many mistakes they could find in it. Mr Laurence Evans of the Local Government Office said, ‘This play is full of blunders and omissions.’ Another official complained of factual inaccuracies and another of the deliberate misrepresentation of officers of a public authority as ‘gangsters’, especially in the scene where the children are wrenched from Cathy on a station platform. On its second showing, most of the background comments giving statistics were, in fact, omitted because of doubts about accuracy.

It is clear, though, that the play forged a place in our national consciousness – people, at least of a certain age group, know immediately what is being discussed when it comes up in conversation or the media. Would a straight documentary have had the same resonance?

Loach’s new film ‘I Daniel Blake’ has many similarities to Cathy Come Home, and raises some of the same issues around the role of fiction – can drama change anything and can it give a true picture of social and political realities and conditions? Cathy Come Home and I, Daniel Blake are perhaps more contentious than similar dramas - because of their blend of documentary and fiction (in the way they are made) and because of the strong political message Loach is trying to convey.

There are critics of I, Daniel Blake, including some within the government, who say it is not at all realistic in its portrayal of the DWP as a bureaucratic system that has beaten down an individual caught within it. But it has won prestigious awards and moved viewers in many national film festivals.

It has certainly sparked debate – partly because it’s a very powerful film and because we entirely believe in the two main characters, Daniel Blake and the single mother he meets at the job centre, who has been moved to Newcastle by her London council to a more affordable flat.

Even if it doesn’t lead to changes to the system directly – it has got people talking and arguing about something which is largely ignored or where we often see caricatures instead of real people. It is fiction, of course, but it is surely reflecting what many people feel is their reality. 

Given some of the very difficult and contentious issues local government (and its partner agencies) are having to deal with - such as child protection - perhaps there could be serious drama on the lines of Cathy Come Home to explore what are complex and disturbing cases in ways that can resonate with viewers in ways that newspaper headlines and news soundbites can't?

Strong drama can do this better than academic articles and research papers perhaps in exploring the reality behind the headlines. Maybe there is a lesson for local government here? We just need a local government Ken Loach to come along....


Making new stories

Amazing Stories via Wikimedia Commons

'Someone will be murdered today at the Local Government Association conference in Manchester. It could happen in a narrow service corridor behind the catering area or in an unlit car park underneath the town hall.

A chief executive may appear with strange blue marks on his hands or, to keep the city safe, a council leader could be forced to cross a line she's never crossed before. I don't know how it will end because that's up to the participants – it will be their story.

Encouraging our local government leaders to write their own town hall thriller might sound like an improbable conference session, but there is an urgent need to tell a different story about local government'.

Dawn Reeves in the Guardian.

Dawn Reeves is a former local government director, who has worked with and in the public sector for 18 years. In the Guardian article she says how she was infuriated by the way in which public services, and local government in particular, are constantly undermined. She has written a crime novel centred around local government:

‘In my novel, Hard Change, local government officers are heroes as well as villains. The story examines whether they and their colleagues in the police and public health can act collectively to prevent another death. I think it's important to tell stories in creative ways that change perceptions and shine new light on our experiences’.

Hard Change works as a novel, and that is essential. A reviewer in goodreads says this of the book:

‘Hard Change is a very good title for the novel; I'm not sure I'd ever really thought about local politics working at such depths.

What is clear here is that the author has a strong grasp on processes that may often be invisible to those living and working outside the world of policy makers. Given the importance of what happens in this world, I suspect it's time I paid a little more attention.

Hard Change demonstrates the author's deep understanding of the complexity of the issues facing just about every town and city centre - alcohol, drugs, crime, and the financial drivers behind local decisions. Change is - well - hard, and in the twists and turns told from several different key points of view, these challenges come alive in a very human way’.

After writing the novel Dawn Reeves developed workshops ‘to change the local government story’:

‘I've taken (these) back into councils to continue the dialogue about how to turn around gloomy, cynical or antagonistic narratives. The workshop focuses on how to construct a good story and how to get different messages out in a way that really connects with people. Local government is constantly being undermined and it's important to me that we generate more stories which explore and make sense of what's happening, particularly as the range of narratives on offer in the mainstream at the moment is depressingly limited.

I know these stories are there. Lots of people have said to me that in local government, "you don't have to make it up," but I think we do. There's so much doom and gloom surrounding the future of local government, and I think we need to fashion some new endings’.

This has also developed into a collaborative creative writing project to produce a collection of flash fiction stories about the future of local government, ‘written by people who care about it’:

‘We need to change the ending and imagine the future we want to see, or the stories we tell about local government and the public sector will become the same old same old, we lose what’s good and everyone else loses interest’.

Sense of an ending

Of course there are many ways of telling 'stories' about local government – in television documentaries for example, but are they more ‘real’ than fiction? Yes – in one sense – they are inherently more real. But, of course, documentaries – whether about homeless person’s units, pest control staff, or people on housing benefits – are not the ‘truth’ – they are versions of reality and aren't neutral – even if they are factually based. 

Not that that always means local government will come off badly. Scottish BBC has just shown a three part documentary about Fife Council - the first part focused on some of the workforce doing difficult frontline jobs and doing them extremely well. It told us about the cuts to the budget and the hard decisions councils are having to make. And like some fiction and drama it managed to engage us with the stories behind the statistics. Maybe because it did not include any actual politicians  it managed to be sympathetic to both the council and to its workers. But telling us stories about local authorities without featuring councillors seems to be missing half the story?

But we are anyway, apparently, in an era of post-truth politics - perhaps fiction will increasingly be more real than 'facts'?

So how can fiction be as, or more, ‘truthful’? Firstly it depends on how good it is. Bad fiction can’t tell us very much at all about life. But good fiction – whether drama or film, television or novels, has a particular resonance. It can make sense of reality. It can make connections. It can interpret meanings and convey messages. It has to have a sense of inner coherence - whatever the medium or style.

Done well, it captures people’s imagination and sparks their interest. Local government, as Dawn Reeves claims, is too often vilified or ignored. What local government does is misunderstood. Local authority workers and councillors can be demoralised. And this does matter – because it can undermine democracy itself and discourage engagement. Local government deserves better – as the former blog, ‘We love local government’ put it:

'We Love Local Government because:

Within the catch all term ‘local government’ is a diverse, complicated, at times bizarre and yet dedicated, brilliant and innovative organism. At its best local government can make a lasting difference to the lives of the residents it serves and even at it’s worst you can guarantee that the motives will be good and that there’ll be something interesting to talk about. It’s a place where things done perfectly go unnoticed, whilst the slightest hiccup makes news columns big and small, which attracts some of the greatest thinkers and doers working today along with more than its fair share of those whose only purpose in life is to serve as a bad example to others.

Like any relationships, our love of local government has its ups and downs, its highs and lows, its moments of pure inspiration, its moments when the acronym WTF?! is the only way to describe things. It may drive us mad at times, but if nothing else it will always drive us someplace interesting.

Local government is all this and so much more'.

Indeed. We need to tell stories and have better endings. (Dawn Reeves).

"Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth." Albert Camus