Spongers, The

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1978 on BBC1

Single mother Christine Hargreaves struggles with mounting debt and callous social workers in this highly polemical and unremittingly bleak diatribe against government and public judgments of those living on welfare as ‘spongers’, which caused something of a stir (though not quite on Cathy levels) when it was broadcast, not least for the opening shot (deftly inserted by director Roland Joffe at the last possible moment before transmission) of outsize cut-outs of the Queen and Prince Philip, over which the title is cheekily superimposed.

The background is a familiar one to just about anyone over 30 – the run-up to the silver jubilee, with pageants and street parties planned all over (the cut0outs are manhandled into a huge union flag hoarding by workers, overseen by the pipe-smoking labour councillor (“You’ve got the Queen upside down! Bloody communists!”). The opening scene couldn’t be harsher or more abrupt, however, as Pauline (Hargreaves) deals with bailiffs pricing up her furniture in lieu of rent arrears she can’t afford. Her eldest of three children, Paula, suffers from Down’s Syndrome, which makes the turmoil all the more difficult to bear. The bailiff, for his part, goes about his job in the same officious, emotionally detached manner all the officials in the play exhibit (necessary as a survival tactic).

One doesn’t, however – Pauline’s social worker, a trainee who is later dropped by her superior from Pauline’s case for becoming “emotionally involved”. Pauline runs the gamut of obstructive social services, from the DHSS office (in authentically grim cubicles with grilles) through to a frosty appeals tribunal with her dad, who delivers an impassioned plea on the increasingly deflated Pauline’s behalf to a stony-faced team of officers, including a shifty-eyed Roger Sloman. Local community worker Sullivan (Bernard Hill) tries to persuade Pauline to keep fighting (“Don’t blame yourself”) when Paula is moved from a relatively happy care home to a hostel unequipped to deal with her.

Her doctor predicts her condition will worsen, so Hill’s character rounds on the local head councillor, who dismisses him as an emotional “long-haired” lefty, as opposed to the “practical” socialists like him who do the “real work” (the council have been seen in meetings earlier reluctantly agreeing to cuts in all departments). Despite a few brief respites in the downward spiral – the jubilee celebrations do indeed provide a brief respite for all – Pauline has clearly given up. Finally, after getting a prescription of anti-depressants, she laces the bedtime hot chocolate of her children and herself. The final scene the next morning shows Sullivan racing up to her home, to find ambulancemen wheeling out covered stretchers of varying sizes. Locals crowd round “She had no right to do that. She should’ve stuck it out like the rest of us” but Sullivan can only stand about, helpless.

It’s one of the most powerful dramas the BBC, or anyone, have shown, and as such presents the strongest possible case for the “naturalism” that many Play for Today writers were determined to get away from. The ensemble playing is brilliantly done, with interruptions and improvised stutters giving a documentary feel that, while grossly overused (even misused) these days, is wholly convincing here. Joffe’s camerawork is uniformly flat – either huge hand-held close-ups bring us right into the action, or telephoto long shots distance us, as in the final scene, like a news report. It’s entirely the right thing to do – the shabby reality of life at “the bottom of the pile” is presented as a constant, a prison the characters can never escape from with tricksy flashbacks or flights of technical reverie.

Writer Jim Allen planned a two-part follow up, The Commune, set in the same location – Middleton, Manchester’s impoverished Langley Estate, which was to provide a more hopeful outlook for the community than Pauline’s story, featuring the residents taking control of the running of the estate over from the local authorities. Sadly, due to problems between the project’s developers, Kenith Trodd’s PfH Productions, and London Weekend Television over the spiralling budgets of a trilogy of Dennis Potter plays, this fascinating-sounding working class epic was shelved.

Last-minute cutting room subversion Last-minute gutwrenching tragedy

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One Response to “Spongers, The”

  1. L. Aspell says:

    ‘a prison the characters can never escape from with tricksy flashbacks or flights of technical reverie.’

    Denying them the faculty of imagination, objectifying them, endorsing determinism, endorsing defeatism.

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