Tony Garnett • Blog Posts

The Spongers

The inspiration behind ‘The Spongers’

I see that Elizabeth Windsor is 90. I congratulate her. I have no problem with her or her family and wish them health and happiness. My problem is with the institution of the monarchy. I would like us to abolish it. Not in the 1640’s manner, but by simple democratic action, allowing them all to retire to a private life. They might be relieved. That world of luxurious, constricting Ruritanian duty must be wearing.

This Jubilee takes me back to the Silver one in the 1970s. I knew, as it loomed, that the BBC would celebrate on its knees, with supreme unction. So I thought I would make a contribution. My friend Jim Allen was as republican as me, so we got to work. It was a time of Labour welfare cuts. Jim found a case. We researched it and he wove a screenplay around the actual events.
The Silver Jubilee was the background, framing the family tragedy.

We shot it in Oldham. The people from round there were hospitable. Many of them were in it, including Jim’s daughter. In fact most of the cast were from working class northern families. Christine Hargreaves was brilliant. It was a film from that community and deeply embedded in it. Jim himself was a Manchurian and lived in Middleton.

It got a huge audience and made a big impression, even winning the Prix Italia and other prizes, for what they’re worth. But its now largely forgotten. Cathy Come Home also dealt with a social problem involving a destroyed family and is now remembered and still played around the country. Both films are shamefully even more relevant now than when they were made. Why they should have suffered different fates is a puzzle to me, but I never understood the mysteries of audience reactions.
Of course, for all their faults, I love them both.

But it would be good if The Spongers could join Cathy in helping to expose our contemporary disgrace: the suffering of our fellow citizens amid great wealth.
It is Victorian without the do-gooding consciences of Christian philanthropists. It is suffering the system shrugs off as inevitable collateral damage.

And we tolerate it. We need a Dickens. But please have a look at The Spongers and weep.

Related article: BFI: The Spongers 35 years old and still fiercely relevant.


2 Responses so far.

  1. mike hamlin says:
    Great to be reminded of this magnificently humane piece and what a contrast to the more contemporary likes of Benefits Street!
  2. Gary Todd says:
    Hi Tony,
    My name is Gary Todd, I was cast in the play as ‘Gary’ it was a great experience for me and I remember Grace Allen and I being firmly told off by you for leaving a mess near to the catering van. Although now 53 years old my over riding memory’s are of friendship and kindness.
    I was just tell my Grandchildren of my time in the play and in searching on the web I found the enclosed. I just wanted to pass on my warmest regards to you and of actually point out that the play was filmed in Middleton which is in Rochdale not Oldham as mentioned above. Hope all is well with you. Best regards Gary