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Spongers, The (1978)


Warning: screenonline full synopses contain 'spoilers' which give away key plot points. Don't read on if you don't want to know the ending!

A bailiff visits separated single mother-of-four Pauline. Nearby, Councillor Conway watches preparations for Jubilee celebrations. The bailiff values Pauline's furniture, and will remove it in 15 days unless council flat rent arrears are addressed. Eldest child Paula, who has Down's syndrome, becomes distressed. Neighbour Gertie buys Paula a dress.

Community action worker Sullivan drives Pauline and Paula - who is excited about the Jubilee - to a dedicated home for special needs children. At a meeting of the Labour-controlled council, Conway is confronted over public expenditure cuts.

The DHSS refuses Pauline exceptional needs payments because of previous grants, electricity arrears, and her spending her rent allowance on food. They recommend clearing arrears by benefit deductions. Later, Pauline's small donation to a Jubilee collection angers Grace because of the system's treatment of Pauline.

Facing government demands for expenditure cuts, councillors compare the annual cost of people in residential care (£1,100-£3,800) with community care (£27-£105). Conway vetoes a reduction in elderly bus passes, fearing the elderly's powerful lobby and recommending cuts that aren't seen to be cuts. Despite policies promising improvements in public services for the mentally handicapped, Conway approves cuts, denying that people will suffer. Paula and other children happily re-enact the Coronation. The council agrees to transfer children from the dedicated resource.

Paula is transferred to an old people's home, where she has no other children to play with. She sits silently with elderly people, and fights against being put to bed. Pauline and her father complain. Pauline's father doubts her social worker's commitment or ability to help. The social worker raises Paula's case with her boss, but he blames her inexperience and emotional involvement for Paula's distrust of authority, and says she should help Pauline to accept the decision rather than question it.

Without representation, Pauline and her father attend the independent hearing for her appeal against the exceptional needs refusal. Pauline's father cites high inflation and former machinist Pauline's prior 16 years of marriage: she has only needed help for a year. A survivor of 1930s poverty, he did not believe Britain would return to such circumstances after 1945. The tribunal advises Pauline to accept rent deductions. Upholding the decision, the chair believes husbands leave families just to get their debts covered by supplementary benefit, and wants to discourage them.

Paula is upset at the home. The director is unavailable to see Pauline and Sullivan, and a representative defends moving Paula because she is nearer home. Pauline stresses that Paula needs special care and facilities. Her only alternative is to withdraw Paula and take her home. The representative cannot discuss policy decisions, and Sullivan thinks such officials are themselves bottom of the pile. He tells Pauline to stop blaming herself as the system makes the poor feel inadequate or wicked. Paula's doctor says he was not consulted and fears the home will make Paula regress into disturbance and epileptic fits.

Pauline becomes depressed. The bailiff takes her furniture, complaining that she has not removed personal effects. Gertie and Grace take Pauline to a club, where Gertie sings and performs comedy. Sullivan and Pauline's father discuss how the system turns worker against worker, and how the stigma of welfare leads to £600 million being unclaimed. Pauline's dad sees himself as a parasite. Conway visits the club and Sullivan approaches him.

Conway investigates Pauline's case but nothing changes. He tells Sullivan that pushing it would harm his relationship with officers. Conway denies that decisions were motivated by Government-dictated financial restraint. Sullivan aggressively denies Conway's claim that Paula's transfer was in the child's interest: he thinks councils target the mentally handicapped for cuts because they cannot fight back. Mocking Sullivan's utopianism, Conway claims that the only way to be a socialist is to face realistic facts.

Pauline takes Paula home, getting the stronger tablets that Paula has needed while there. The social worker gives discouraging news about Paula's future accommodation. Street parties mark the Jubilee, with Paula involved in a tug-of-war. At night, Pauline puts tablets in drinks she serves to herself and the children, including the baby. Next day, their dead bodies are removed. Some neighbours think Pauline should have fought like everyone else. Sullivan looks on, shocked.