Carol White – Working Class Hero Remembered

Written by Matteo Sedazzari
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On Wednesday nights, households across the UK would tune in to watch BBC's The Wednesday Play, an anthology drama that ran for six series, October 1964 to May 1970. The Wednesday Play was popular, as the plots often reflected contemporary life; therefore, the viewer could relate to the production.

Furthermore, The Wednesday Play launched the dramatist and screenwriter Dennis Potter and filmmaker Ken Loach who called himself Kenneth back in the 1960s. Many actors whose careers were at the start or in development, like Glenda Jackson, Brian Cox, and David Hemmings, would grace the small screen on a Wednesday in Old Blighty. As time has passed, it is apparent that participation in The Wednesday Play, be it writing, directing or acting, would prove to be a stepping stone for a career in drama and giving the artist credibility later on in their profession. In addition, the self-assured, beautiful, and young actress Carol White (1st April 1943 – 16th September 1991) would make a significant impact after her lead role in Cathy Come Home, aired Wednesday night 16th November 1966.

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While the UK was amid the Swinging Sixties, the BBC viewing public on that November Wednesday evening were saddened and shocked to see the plight of Cathy (Carol White) and Reg (Ray Brooks, The Knack ...and How to Get It, Big Deal). A recently wedded couple from London, with two small boys, forced into destitution, through no fault of their own. Furthermore, as they spiral towards homelessness, Cathy and Reg are not aided by the authorities. Those who are better off view Cathy and her family, and those in similar circumstances, as delinquents. Filmed in a documentary style, Cathy Come Home revealed the slums that existed in the UK cities, the hardship faced by people, and how the establishment was brutal in their treatment towards them, who could not step up the rent ladder let alone the property ladder.

As Cathy Come Home was being filmed around Battersea, Bruce Kenrick and Des Wilson were founding Shelter, the charity that still exists today in assisting the homeless or people trying to avoid being homeless. Cathy Come Home helped establish Shelter's profile, and contrary to belief, Shelter was not created after Cathy Come Home; it was already established. The majority of the British public, who didn't live in city centres, had no idea that so many were 'not having it so good’. Yet sadly, this drama didn't wake up the government of 1966.

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As for Cathy from Cathy Come Home, Carol White, she may not have been born into poverty, yet she did come from a working-class family. Born in Hammersmith, to a father Carol White described as ' a scrap metal merchant, and a spieler in a fairground, and a door-to-door salesman in elixir of life.' Carol White's mother's occupation is unknown, yet as Carol came from a humble family, it would probably have been remedial and low-paid; however, that is a guess, not a fact.

Carol White must have shown the talent to act, as she made her film debut aged six, as Young Sibella, in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) starring Dennis Price, but Carol White wasn't credited. How she got that part, who knows? Probably her father, who Carol White did describe as a hustler. Carol White would make a further 12 films and only credited once in Circus Friends as Nan before she enrolled with the newly founded Corona Theatre School, 1957, in Hammersmith's district. However, before enrolling at drama school, Carol White, aged 12, would meet Brigitte Bardot (28th September 1934) on the set of Doctor at Sea (1955), and according to Carol White 'We didn't speak for days, but finally, she invited me into her dressing room, and we had a long talk.' It was at this meeting that Carol White got advice on lipstick and hair colour. In addition, ten years later, Carol White would be called by the media, The Battersea Bardot, after her appearance as Sylvie in The Wednesday Play, Up the Junction (aired 3rd November 1965), directed by Ken Loach and written by Nell Dunn, (9th June 1936), a British playwright, screenwriter, and author.

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Even though from a wealthy background, Nell Dunn moved to Battersea, aged 22, and found employment in a local sweet factory. This humdrum life inspired Dunn to write a collection of short stories about petty crime, back street abortions, poverty, all set around Clapham and Battersea, her new dwellings.

One of the stories within Up The Junction is about a privileged girl from Chelsea who moves to Battersea after being disillusioned with her current status. She befriends two local girls and starts work at a nearby factory. This tale is semi-autobiographical and was the main plot for The Up the Junction, with Geraldine Sherman (Rube) and Vickery Turner (Eileen) starring alongside Carol White.

Up The Junction was watched by ten million people to much critical acclaim. Yet the press focused on Carol White, with her Brigitte Bardot type haircut and colouring, even though the transmission was in black and white. So, this is how Carol White became the Battersea Bardot. Furthermore, Up The Junction was given the status of a rebellious piece of drama, as there was outrage from the moral campaigner, Mary Whitehouse.

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Up The Junction was made into a film in 1968, but Carol White didn't reprise her role.

Nell Dunn, Ken Loach, and Carol White would work together again in 1967, with the film, Poor Cow, again based on a novel by Nell Dunn, who, along with Loach, co-wrote the screenplay. This was the third and final time that Loach and Carol White would work together. I don't believe they fell out; they just went on separate journeys, as it seems neither wanted to rest on their laurels. Ken Loach's and Carol White's body of work, Cathy Come Home, Up the Junction and Poor Cow, indicates chemistry and an understanding between director and actress, which is still respected and valued over fifty years later raw, poignant, and natural style. In short, it was a brief but wonderful creative association.

Poor Cow centres around Joy, a stunning yet naive London girl and new mother who desires to date local and hardened criminals, one being Tom, father to her child, played by real-life Fulham gangster John Bindon. Bindon led a colourful life, to say the least, be it doing security for Led Zeppelin to dating a member of the Royal Family; Bindon was always in the thick of things. John Bindon passed away in Oct 1993, aged fifty, a legend in the underworld and the world of entertainment. Poor Cow was Bindon's first lead role, and as the story goes, Ken Loach discovered him in a London pub.

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Tom (Bindon) is an abusive and cruel man towards Joy, yet Joy (White) is given a respite when Tom and his gang are arrested and imprisoned for an armed robbery. Enter another local villain, Dave, who should have been the driver at Tom's failed armed robbery. Played by another working-class actor, Terence Stamp, who in 1967, was already held in high regard after his performance in The Collector (1965).

At last, Joy finds love and happiness, as Dave is tender and loving towards Joy. Yet, he is brutal in pursuing ill-gotten gains, which is shown after a vicious aggravated burglary on an old lady. Dave is sentenced to 12 years, leaving Joy to raise her son on her own, on the mean streets of London.

Ken Loach, renowned for wanting the actors to improvise their scenes, as he wants their performance to be raw and naturalistic. This approach seems to be ideal for Carol White, as she uses, in her work with Ken Loach, her facial expressions, from smiles to tears, and the tonality in her voice, to feel her true emotions, like the ad-lib line she gives towards the end of Poor Cow, 'I don't think there is a perfect life, really. You've just got to make do with what you've got, and be happy', delivered in a matter-of-fact and sad manner. In all, Carol White gave a touching and empathetic performance, while her natural beauty still shone through, making her acting soulful and moving.

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Ken Loach and Nell Dunn were probably aware of Carol White's talents in one of her first starring roles, the teen drama Linda (1960), also that year, Carol White played Peter Seller's girlfriend in the crime drama, Never Let Go.

Linda,  directed by Don Sharpe, who would go on to forge a successful career as a director with Hammer Films, The Kiss of the Vampire (1963), Rasputin, the Mad Monk (1966). Linda, titled after the lead character, played by Carol White, is about her and Phil (future Coronation Street star, Alan Rothwell), a young couple in Italian clothes escaping from London to Brighton, on a Lambretta, after a disturbance with some fellow youths. Linda is probably the first Mod drama, yet the drama is not about the then-current fashion trends, for it is an insight into sex before marriage, youth gangs, crime, and violence. By all accounts, it is a hard-hitting and ground-breaking film, which has sadly been lost.

On a different note, Carol White did have a blink, and you might miss her appearance in The Beatles' A Hard Day's Night in 1964, but what the heck Up The Junction was only a year away for her.

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After the success of Up the Junction, Cathy Come Home, and Poor Cow, it seemed only natural that Carol White’s, then aged 24, next step would be to become a superstar across the world. But competition was fierce, as other home-grown talents, like Julie Christie, Charlotte Rampling, Sarah Miles, and Susannah York, were making an impression in the cinema. Yet, Carol White was as striking and gifted as her peers and probably tougher, as she did hail from a working-class background.

Yet during her brief career, it wasn't all work and no play for Carol White. In fact, quite the opposite, she was known to attend fashionable parties of the sixties, and it was at such a reception she met Mike King, brother of the singing trio The King Brothers. White and King married and had two children, Sean and Steve King who both, appeared in Cathy Come Home. as her young sons. Furthermore, when Carol White resided in Los Angeles in the early seventies, it is alleged that Carol White partook in heavy drug usage with British rock stars like Keith Moon, Eric Clapton, and Rod Stewart. It is noted that Carol White was adulterous and promiscuous, who had affairs with many leading men, like Oliver Reed, Terence Stamp, Adam Faith, Warren Beatty (when Julie Christie was his girlfriend). Apparently, Carol White had a lesbian affair with a housemaid in the US, to which Carol said, 'an interesting diversion which helped pass the time.'

From 1967 to 1973, Carol White would star or appear in eight more films over six years, which isn't bad going. I'll Never Forget Whatshisname (1967), with Orson Wells and Oliver Reed, The Fixer (1968) with Alan Bates, Daddy's Gone A-Hunting (1969) with Paul Burke, The Man Who Had Power Over Women (1970) with Rod Taylor, Dulcima (1971) with John Mills, Something Big (1971) with Dean Martin and Honor Blackman. Made, (1972) with Roy Harper and Some Call It Loving (1973) with Zalman King. These films were reasonably successful, and none were box office flops. After 1973, Carol White appeared in two more films, a supporting role in the forgotten and hard to find British crime drama, The Squeeze (1977), written by Minder's creator Leon Griffiths. As the urban legend goes, Sex Pistol guitarist Steve Jones was an unwilling extra in the film. Carol White's final film was Nutcracker (1982), starring Joan Collins; Collins has gone on the record, saying the film was 'a horrible mistake'. In addition, Carol White made one-off appearances in Hawaii Five O (1974) and Different Strokes (1980). However, Carol White's promising career seemed to take a turn for the worse in the early seventies.

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So how did the girl from Hammersmith, who had the world at her feet in 1967, end up as yesterday's papers so quickly. One reason often cited is that Carol White's addiction to drink and drugs led to her demise; for sure, addiction will more often than not lead to self-destruction. But the question is, how did Carol White get to that point? From her childhood to her early 20's, she had worked hard to develop her profession. She took risks by appearing in dramas that were undoubtedly not mainstream entertainment, so I can't see her throw that all away for a decadent existence.

As mentioned, Carol White had numerous affairs, which took a toll on her marriage. Her husband, Mike King, knew that his wife was sleeping around, she had promised to stop, but she didn't, so they separated in 1972, when Carol White left the UK for the USA, taking their sons, Sean and Steve, with her. Being a known adulterous can be harmful in terms of family, status, and work. Moreover, there was one affair that Carol White had, which probably did cost her career, her relationship with the married Paul Burke during the making of Daddy's Gone A-Hunting in 1969. This film was distributed and produced by National General Pictures. They offered Carol White a lucrative three-picture deal that probably would have made her the superstar that Julie Christie had become.

National General Picture offered Carol White the lead in The Grasshopper towards the end of 1969. Yet, when they heard that her affair with Paul Burke had nearly driven his wife to suicide. National General Picture withdrew the offer. Carol White was replaced by fellow British actress Jacqueline Bisset (13th September 1944), fresh from the success of Bullitt (1968) with Steve McQueen. Like Carol White in 1969, Jacqueline Bisset was on the up, and after The Grasshopper, Jacqueline Bisset became a huge film star. The success of Bisset must have been a bitter pill to swallow for Carol White, as she was within touching distance from living the dream.

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I extremely doubt that Carol White was not the only person, male or female, who was pleasure-seeking and philandering in London during the Swinging Sixties and Beverly Hills during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Carol White, who seemed to be a confident and strong-minded woman, may have been 'too hot to handle, and her face didn't fit. Carol White did famously say, ‘I came to America thinking I was at the very top, but pimps, pushers, liars and ex-husbands brought me crashing down,’ about her ordeal.

However, whether self-inflicted or not, Carol White did seek treatment to help her on the road to recovery. She received therapy from a Hollywood psychiatrist, Dr Stuart Lerner, in the mid-70s. After several sessions, they were married and divorced by the early 80s, when Carol White married Michael Arnold in 1981. Some sources say Arnold was a carpenter, while others say he was a musician. Nevertheless, they were divorced by 1984. Moreover, there is very little information on these marriages, and I couldn't locate either man. However, it would be fair to say that both marriages failed. 

In 1981, when back in the UK, Carol White approached her friend, journalist, and Daily Telegraph's obituarist, Hugh Massingberd, to help her write her memoirs. He declined the offer but later lamented his decision, 'She later wrote the book with help from another writer, and I have regretted ever since that it wasn't me.'. During their conversation, Carol White reveals to Massingberd, 'She had devastating tales to tell about double-dealing Hollywood psychiatrists.'. I presume that Carol White was maybe referring to her ex-husband, who probably took advantage of her when she was vulnerable and lonely.

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A year later, Hodder & Stoughton Ltd published 'Carol Comes Home' in November 1982. November was a lucky month for Carol White, Cathy Come Home and Poor Cow were released in November 1965 and 1967, respectively. Carol White's autobiography is unfortunately out of print, yet from the reviews, I have read, it is an honest and heart-warming account of her life. Furthermore, aged 39 in 1982, Carol White was trying to make a comeback.

Her renaissance came in the form of theatre, not film. Her friend and writer from the 1960s, Nell Dunn, cast Carol White as 'Josie' in a stage adaptation of her novel, 'Steaming,' at a West End Theatre, directed by Roger Smith, the story editor of Cathy Come Home and Up the Junction. Steaming and Carol White received favourable reviews, yet she would often turn up late or not at all, so Dunn and Smith reluctantly fired their friend Carol White. 

It would be easy to assume that Carol White didn't grasp this opportunity due to her drinking and drug-taking. Yes, that may have played a significant part in the downfall of her return, yet we have to consider that the 1970s were a harsh decade for Carol White, from her career to her love life. Therefore, she was probably having severe panic attacks before she 'tread the boards, as the confidence she once had in the 1960s was no more. Carol White probably felt unloved and didn't trust anyone, apart from her sons. Back in 1982, panic attacks and such like weren't talked about so openly as they are today. Furthermore, when Carol White had sought help back in the USA, it ended up in a short and loveless marriage; she would have been in a dark place, with no one to turn to. Her relationship with her parents is seldom mentioned, so not much is known about her family, other than her children, who in 1982 were in their late teens.

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Carol White returned to Los Angeles at the end of 1982, with very little money, became a recluse, and seriously ill. In 1991, she moved to Ocean Grande, a cheap hotel in Miami, with her live-in nurse, in a room with two beds, a TV, a small cooker, and a fridge. Her son, Steve, moved from Los Angeles to assist the nurse and look after his mother. In September of that year, Carol White was rushed to Mount Sinai Medical Centre in Miami with a ruptured oesophagus. Carol was put on a life support machine, and her other son, Sean, rushed to her side. Carol White died on 16th September 1991, aged 48. Carol White must have been in severe pain, so the only relief she would have had is for her two sons to be there, so she didn't die alone. Unable to afford to send her body back to England, her sons posted her ashes to Mortlake Cemetery, where she rests to this day.

There is speculation that Carol White committed suicide, but I don't think any mother would want their children, adult or not, to see them suffer so severely. Maybe her health insurance didn't cover the treatment she needed in the US; we don't know, perhaps if she had stayed in the UK, she would have received better treatment from the NHS, but this is all ifs and buts.

However, Carol White was a beautiful, intelligent, conscientious, well-dressed, and talented actress, who starred in three films, Up The Junction, Cathy Come Home, and Poor Cow, critically acclaimed when released and now considered masterpieces.

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Carol White left a legacy for her two sons, now middle-aged men, to be proud of. In addition, for a brief while, in the 1960s, she was probably the best and most important actress in the UK, due to the mentioned films within this article, who seemed destined to break America. But as we know, that never happened. As mentioned earlier, she may have been too 'working class,' too independent to make tinsel town her true home; her beauty and affairs probably spawned jealousy. Maybe Carol White may have made one powerful enemy too many, and when there was a chance to kick her, when she was down, my word, did she receive one all-mighty kicking.

Carol White was probably insecure, and when things spiralled out of control, that insecurity increased tremendously, leading to a breakdown, with drinks and drugs the only things to give her solace.

Rest in peace, Carol, you beautiful soul, and long may you be remembered for your positive contributions, of which there are many, to the world.

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Matteo Sedazzari

Matteo Sedazzari

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