Published: Tammy 27 April 1974 to 15 June 1974
Artist: John Armstrong
Translations/reprints: None known
Cathy Sampson lives for running – which she does barefoot. It’s her only joy in the miserable life she leads with her parents (or foster parents, as they referred to at one point). They treat her worse than Speed, their racing greyhound, who gets expensive steak to keep fit for racing, whereas Cathy gets a cheap diet. Living off Speed’s winnings is the only way they live, as neither Mum nor Dad can be bothered to work. But even Speed is prone to being ill-treated.
Cathy’s ambition is to join the local athletics club and beat the local champion, Helen Douglas. Helen and her fellow athletes have heard of Cathy, but they, along with the rest of the neighbourhood, look down on her because she lives in a slum house and her parents, known as “the smelly Sampsons”, have a bad reputation. As a result, Cathy has no friends, except for Speed. Cathy also has a reputation among the athletes as a wild girl, and she is tagged with the moniker “common”, which comes as much as from her spending so much time on the common as the way she lives.
Cathy uses her time on the common to train secretly while helping Speed to do the same; training Speed is something her parents constantly lumber her with. She has also learned how to forage for nutritious food growing there to compensate for her home diet, which is hardly suitable for training on. In the garden, she has a secret stash of money, which are her savings to join the club.
One day, Helen and the other athletes drop by Cathy on the common and tease her. Cathy gets her own back by setting Speed on Helen. She then chases after Helen herself, and discovers she is a match for Helen and could even best her. Unfortunately, Helen has realised it too, which sets the stage for what follows: not allowing Cathy to prove it to the club or overtake her as local champion.
After her race against Helen, Cathy heads to the club to get the enrolment form for joining up. But Dad finds her secret stash for the joining fee, which all goes on steak for Speed, of course. However, after reading the enrolment form, Cathy discovers that if she can demonstrate exceptional talent, she can join without a fee. The club secretary, Mr Bennett, is a bit reluctant, as this rule is seldom applied, but eventually agrees to Cathy’s deal: if she beats Helen, she can join. What can be more exceptional than beating the club champion? The race is set for the following day.
Helen isn’t having this, and knowing Cathy could beat her, tries to make trouble for her by reporting Speed’s attack to the police. The police warn Cathy’s parents that Speed will be destroyed if there is another complaint. This really gets their backs up as they depend on Speed for their livelihood. They go around to Helen’s place to read out the riot act to her and her family, and the scene they make gets really ugly. Mr Bennett, after seeing their conduct, is put off allowing Cathy to join, and she realises it. It looks like Cathy’s parents have ruined things for her again.
Cathy decides to go back to apologise for her parents’ conduct. There she meets Mrs Mirren, who agrees to pull a few strings. However, Dad is so angry at Cathy going back to apologise that he forces her and Speed through extra-hard training, which leaves her too exhausted to perform well against Helen, and she fails the test.
However, Mrs Mirren can’t forget Cathy and has Helen take her around to Cathy’s place. She is appalled to see the house Cathy lives in and senses Cathy is in desperate need of money to join. Cathy sees them approach. She doesn’t know if it’s jeers or second thoughts, but eventually assumes it’s the former. Meanwhile, Dad sees them both off with Speed. Mrs Mirren still won’t forget Cathy, so Helen is desperate to find a way to put her off Cathy altogether.
Deciding money is the problem, Mrs Mirren decides to loan Cathy the money for the joining fee, encloses a note to join in time for the inter-club competition on Saturday, and has Helen deliver it. But, as Helen plans, Cathy’s parents pocket the money, which they intend to put on Speed’s race the following day. When Cathy asks questions, the parents spin a lie that Mrs Mirren doesn’t think she’d make a runner and sent 25p to feed her up as she looks skinny. Cathy’s left heartbroken and raging at Mrs Mirren for such an insult. Meanwhile, Helen tricks Mrs Mirren into thinking Cathy conned her out of the money. Now both mistakenly thinks badly of the other.
Then, a newspaper informs Cathy that Mrs Mirren is one of Britain’s top coaches and Helen is one of her discoveries. This renews Cathy’s hopes of beating Helen and getting her chance. Meanwhile, back at the stadium, which is also used for the greyhound racing, Mrs Mirren discovers how horrible Cathy’s parents are to Speed. He’s lost the race and the money they put on him, and they’re beating him. She then overhears them rage on how they lost all that money they took from Cathy and now suspects the truth.
Sensing Mrs Mirren has overheard them, the parents make fast tracks for home and silence Cathy, fearing Mrs Mirren will come asking questions. But Cathy overhears Mrs Mirren asking what happened to the money she sent for the joining fee. The parents try to fob Mrs Mirren off with more lies, which she doesn’t believe, but she can’t do much without seeing Cathy. Cathy, of course, now realises her parents have tricked her and is desperate to explain to Mrs Mirren, but doesn’t know where to find her. After making enquiries, Cathy realises her only hope of finding Mrs Mirren is the championship on Saturday. But when Cathy sees the crowds at the event, she realises finding Mrs Mirren will be like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.
Then, when Cathy sees Helen running in the 800 metres, she gets a crazy idea on how to get Mrs Mirren’s attention. There’s nothing to lose, anyway. She jumps straight in and races after the competitors. The spectators are initially angry at Cathy gatecrashing the race, but they soon start cheering at her amazing speed, how she’s narrowing the gap and “going through them like a hot knife through butter” – and doing it barefoot! And this time, Cathy beats Helen.
Of course, Cathy’s win isn’t official, so the medal goes to Helen. But it’s a hollow victory for her because she’s been beaten at last, and Cathy is the hero of the event. She’s made her point, gotten Mrs Mirren’s attention, and soon explains what her parents did. Mrs Mirren replies that she guessed as much. Mrs Mirren not only takes over Helen’s training but her welfare too, so Cathy leaves her horrible parents forever. Sadly, Speed’s still in their clutches, and Cathy can only hope he wins enough to keep safe from ill-treatment.
This story was published in the weeks leading up to the June merge with Tammy on 22 June 1974 and ended, along with all the other running Tammy serials, the week before the merger. Yet it does not give the impression it is intended as a filler story, even if it was. The length of eight episodes feels right, and the pacing is good. Nothing feels rushed or underdeveloped. It would have worked well as a reprint in an annual somewhere.
Common Cathy was one of many serials to follow the Cinderella format, but it does have some differences from the formula, which makes it refreshing. The main one is that there is no wicked stepsister/cousin who gets the lion’s share in everything at the expense of our ill-used Cinderella protagonist. Instead, there’s a dog who gets the lion’s share of the food expense, but he’s far from spoiled. In fact, he’s as liable to be as ill-treated as Cathy herself. He’s only there for profit and income, and the parents don’t care any more for him than they do for Cathy. His racing is the only means of income for the parents, who are too lazy to work, but his winnings are subject to hit and miss, and he suffers if it’s a miss. And he serves not only as Cathy’s friend but also in helping her to become the speedster that she hopes will be her salvation from her miserable life.
Cathy does not seem to be as much of a drudge as other Cinderella protagonists, such as Bella Barlow. For example, we don’t see her being forced to do all the work her parents are too lazy to do. The drudgery seems to be more focused on training Speed, as her father is too lazy to do it, and getting the leavings of the food expense. She is also very innovative in how she makes up for the poor diet she gets at home, so she is not underfed as some Cinderella protagonists are. But there is no question she is not well treated, and the RSPCA ought to have serious concerns about Speed too.
The parents’ nickname, “the smelly Sampsons”, sure makes us laugh. It’s not quite clear if it’s their B.O., their slum house or what, but there is no denying they are stinkers in everything they say and do. They would live better than they do if they made their own income instead of depending on Speed’s racing, but they are too lazy for that. It’s surprising they are not involved in any criminal activities, given the type of people they are.
Again, we have abusive parents that are not punished in any way for how they treated Cathy. But what’s even more concerning is that they still have Speed. Mrs Mirren has seen for herself that they mistreat the dog, but nothing is done in that regard. Being left on the hope Speed will win enough to stay safe is not very reassuring, especially as Cathy is no longer there to train him. The story would have ended on a much happier note if Speed had been removed from his abusive owners and maybe come along with Cathy.
A race to win is always an exciting resolution to any serial, and making it unofficial, with Cathy crashing the race out of desperation rather than being officially entered, makes it even more so. Seeing Helen seething over a hollow victory and a medal that means nothing while Cathy is cheered as the real winner gives us a whole lot more satisfaction than seeing Cathy claim an official victory and the medal. Moreover, Cathy not being officially entered in the race gives Helen no time for dirty tricks, as she’s been taken by surprise. Readers would be reading Cathy’s race to win over and over.