carol white, the actress who has died in Florida aged 49, was celebrated for her powerful performance in the title role of Cathy Come Home, Jeremy Sandford’s coruscating account of homelessness on BBC Television, which caused a national sensation in the 1960s.
Cathy Come Home was not so much a television play as fierce propaganda. Sandford traced the painful downhill journey of a young couple who began their married life full of hope and gaiety and ended it, separated from their children, as casualties of the Welfare State.
After an accident cut the husband’s earnings, the couple lived with unfriendly relations, were evicted from squalid tenements, were driven out of a caravan site and found refuge in a rat-ridden hostel. For all its overemphasis, the production showed with compassion the raw degradation of hostel life. In a tour-de-force of naturalistic acting the highly photogenic Carol White succeeded in making Cathy likeable and eventually extremely moving as the courage and optimism in her wasted away.
The diminutive Miss White, a London scrap merchant’s daughter who had already made her mark in the television version of Nell Dunn’s Up the Juction (1965), consequently became something of a Sixties icon. She went on to bring warmth and a plausible innocence to the film Poor Cow, a raw and realistic picture of South London life which opened with a graphic scene of Miss White giving birth while reflecting on the shortcomings of her absent husband (“He’s a right bastard”).
Subsequently Miss White was rather miscast as a jolly virginal girl in Michael Winner’s all too forgettable I’ll Never Forget What’s ‘Is Name. However, she made a good impression — when she remembered to substitute a Gloucestershire accent for her native Cockney — as a comely country lass in Dulcima (1971) adapted from a story by H. E. Bates.
Miss White showed promise of better things as an actress opposite Alan Bates, Dirk Bogard and lan Holm in the film of Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer. Her performance as Raisl Bok won her a Hollywood contract in 1968 to make Daddy’s Gone-A-Hunting.
But from then on nothing seemed to go right, and the rest of her career was distinctly chequered. Miss White’s attempts to establish herself in America were dogged by ill fortune. Her name — forever bracketed with her role of Cathy — became more familiar in the press in connection with her amours, divorces, court appearances, drink and drugs than with her acting.
“I came to America thinking I was at the very top,” she recalled shortly before her death from liver failure, “and that no one could touch me. But pimps, pushers, liars and ex-husbands brought me crashing down.”-•
In 1982 she returned to London to take over the role of Josie from Georgina Hale, in Nell Dunn’s play Steaming, but her comeback ended unhappily when her contract was terminated following several missed performances. Carol White was born in Hammersmith, London, on April 1 1942. She described her father as “a scrap-metal merchant and a spieler in a fairground and a door-to-door salesman of the elixir of life”. At the age of 11 Carol heard about theatre schools from a hairdresser and thereafter attended the Corona.
Miss White made her film debut three years later in Circus Friends and went on to appear in Carry On Teacher, Beat Girl and Never Let Go, in which she played Peter Sellers’s girlfriend. “In those days in British films,” she recalled, “brunettes were ladies and blondes were bits. I wore my hair white and painted my lips red and my eyes dark.”
She then married Michael King of the King Brothers singing act and gave up acting for a few years. She returned, this time on the smaller screen in Emergency — Ward 10 and, more notably, as a bright Battersea girl in Nell Dunn’s exhilarating sketch of South London life, Up the Junction.
Miss White’s later films for the cinema — not a distinguished collection — included The Man Who Had Power Over Women, Something Big, Made, Some Call It Loving, The Squeeze, The Spaceman and King Arthur and Nutcracker.
She wrote a racy volume of memoirs, Carol Comes Home (1982), in which the Swinging Sixties of purple hearts and Courreges boots gave way to the excesses of Hollywood (“the assault course of a hundred different bedrooms . . . with broken hearts and broken promises left at every corner”), as well as a beauty book, Forever Young.
After her divorce from King she married Dr Stuart Lerner, a psychiatrist, and then Michael Arnold, a musician. She had two sons from her first marriage. Jeremy Sandfbrd writes: In her early films Carol captured powerfully the quality of the urban girl-next-door from the less prosperous areas. And in Cathy Come Home she seemed the archetypal young mother, every mother who has ever struggled not to be separated from her children. I last saw her some 10 years ago when she had come over to London and asked me to help her write her autobiography. She had devastating tales to tell about double-dealing Hollywood psychiatrists. Unknown to her, she told me, hers had been paid double her fee by an ex-boyfriend, to “muck her up”. She told me she had come home for good to live the simple life back in Hammersmith, and I never dreamed she would go back to America. She later wrote the book with help from another writer and I have regretted since that it wasn’t me. It seems the classic tale of the pretty but unsophisticated girl who goes to Hollywood. There is no simple moral, though, because Carol, besides being pure and straight, was always reckless, always something of a life gambler.
September 20 1991