|The July 1975 screening of Yorkshire Television‘s Johnny Go Home across the ITV network had tremendous impact on viewers. That it is largely unknown by those not young enough to have seen it then is partly down to the simple fact that in the case of documentaries, even landmark television is rarely repeated (Johnny did remain available as part of the 16mm library of the Concord Films Council, an active distributor of films of social and educational value). It must also be something to do with its investigative, crusading style. It’s still compelling – if not shocking – viewing, but made for the moment rather than with an eye on posterity. The same can be said of other work by John Willis, in particular the series First Tuesday (ITV, 1983-93) and the controversial From the Cradle to the Grave (ITV, 1985).
Here Willis produces, directs, narrates and briefly appears on screen. Because of events that unexpectedly occurred during shooting, his programme eventually doubled in length and was screened in two discrete parts. ‘The End of the Line‘, shown at 9pm, followed the case histories of a 17 year-old girl hardened to her homelessness and, Tommy, a 12 year-old Scottish boy seen arriving at Euston Station as the documentary begins. The boy’s plight deeply affected viewers, forcing attention on the Dickensian images and grim statistics.
During production, a murder took place in one of the local hostels. The crew realised they had filmed many of those involved. With police permission they began documenting the unfolding investigation: ‘The Murder of Billy Two-Tone‘ became the second half of Johnny Go Home, screened after the ITV 10pm news bulletin. It forensically uncovers the facts behind the killing, centring on the hostel’s owner. His housing empire turns out to be based on sexual exploitation, religious cultishness, financial corruption – and bureaucratic ineptitude unable to see these behind his persuasively respectable front.
The two ‘films’ have similar styles, but the second has greater urgency. It may feel an opportunistic means of sensationalising the first film’s theme. But it also cleverly recalls it. Some footage is replayed: now-sinister scenes which had seemed innocent when first shown. An interview with the victim’s mother echoes that with Tommy’s. Willis isn’t crass enough to imply that Tommy is headed for the same fate as his older compatriot, but leaves us in no doubt as to the ugliness and danger of modern homelessness.