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Spongers, The (1978)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Spongers, The (1978)
For Play for Today, BBC1, tx. 24/1/1978
105 minutes, colour
DirectorRoland Joffé
ProducerTony Garnett
ScriptJim Allen

Cast: Christine Hargreaves (Pauline); Bernard Hill (Sullivan); Peter Kerrigan (Peter); Paula Mcdonagh (Paula); Gertie Almond (Gertie); Elaine Lindsay (Mrs Johnson)

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Deserted by her husband, Pauline struggles to look after her four children, including one with Down's syndrome, on state benefits. But with the Queen's Silver Jubilee approaching, things are about to get even tougher.

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A compelling human tragedy and urgent social report, The Spongers depicts a mother's struggles as welfare cuts affect the poor and disabled. Pauline's decline combines powerful dramatic invention, the detailed research of writer Jim Allen and director Roland Joffé into care provisions and local government, and real events observed in Salford, including the withdrawal of mentally-handicapped children from a home.

The Spongers denies stereotypes of the poor as cheats or parasites, underlining the cruel irony that such poverty still existed during Silver Jubilee celebrations for Queen Elizabeth II. These elements combine in the play's opening, as a happy family scene is disrupted by a bailiff, following which the drama's title is subversively superimposed over hoardings of the Queen and Prince Philip. Dennis Potter argued that this title frame, added after BBC1's controller had approved the play, demonstrated how programme makers had to smuggle challenging content through the BBC's system. The Jubilee is not explicitly attacked - a worker is berated for carrying the Queen's image upside down, and characters excitedly participate in celebrations - but Pauline's father sees a different historical continuity: a return to the 1930s Depression.

Further combinations of scenes contextualise events (while children play happily in a specialist home, we see a council meeting target them for cutbacks) but rather than caricature officials, the play shows their powerlessness within a confused system. Enforcing national cutbacks in Labour-controlled local councils sparks debate about Labour values, as Councillor Conway (played by actual Leeds councillor Bernard Atha) criticises community worker Sullivan as a Utopian.

The human impact of politics is most powerfully documented in performances. Critics praised Christine Hargreaves (who researched Pauline's background by living on the estate for two weeks with her four screen children) and Paula McDonagh who, like her character Paula, had Down's syndrome. Paula is serenaded with "I wonder if I'll ever know what loving you really means," but the system does not know, transferring her to a cheaper, unsuitable home that causes her epileptic regression. Pauline's appeals against this and benefit cuts result in bureaucratic limbo and a resolution as tragic as Thomas Hardy's 'because we were too many' scene in Jude the Obscure.

The play received several awards, including the Prix Italia, and mostly positive reviews for its distanced naturalism and avoidance of didacticism, which for some reviewers made it the masterpiece of that period's socially-concerned drama documentaries.

Dave Rolinson

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Video Clips
1. A visit (3:48)
2. The interests of the children (4:08)
3. If you really cared (2:07)
4. It's not realistic (2:58)
Allen, Jim (1926-99)
Garnett, Tony (1936-)
Hill, Bernard (1944-)
Joffé, Roland (1945-)
Play for Today (1970-84)