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Fancy A Jump?: 30 Years Of Rita Sue And Bob Too!
Adelle Stripe , May 26th, 2017 08:17

Novelist Adelle Stripe re-appraises writer Andrea Dunbar and director Alan Clarke's masterpiece

When West Yorkshire’s literary culture is discussed, its merits often include a roll call of swaggering towers of masculinity such as Ted Hughes, Tony Harrison, J.B. Priestley, David Peace or Keith Waterhouse. But Andrea Dunbar is rarely mentioned. She is a cult hero of working-class drama whose difficult truths were (and to some extent still are) unpalatable. Dunbar’s visceral scenes sadly hold little traction against these literary titans. It begs the question, why hasn’t Yorkshire claimed Dunbar as one of its own? Unlike her closest contemporary, Shelagh Delaney, on the other side of the Pennines, there is no iconic status for Bradford’s ‘genius straight from the slums’. Perhaps, in 2017, with the 30th anniversary release of Rita, Sue and Bob Too there will finally be public recognition for this forgotten figure.

Dunbar was born in 1961 and grew up on the Buttershaw Estate in Bradford. Located on the fringes of the city, it reached across the millstone grit towards the deep ravines of Halifax and beyond. It was here that she wrote her first play, The Arbor. At the age of 18 she was the youngest person in history to have her work staged at London’s Royal Court theatre. Dunbar’s plays (nurtured by the Court’s director, Max Stafford-Clark) displayed uneasy and contradictory versions of poverty, racism, underage sex and domestic violence set against the backdrop of a fading post-industrial North. These autobiographical accounts were drawn from her immediate environment and set in the Thatcher era: they reflected the harsh reality of her family, friends, and local community.

Her second play, Rita, Sue And Bob Too, was adapted by Dunbar as a screenplay for Alan Clarke’s film in 1987; it was drawn from her own personal experiences and featured the bruising encounters of The Arbor, alongside the story of two babysitters (Rita and Sue) who become involved with a married man (Bob). Its infamous early scene - where the schoolgirls take it in turn to have sex with Bob in the back seat of his car - made it an instant success at the box office. This was most definitely not erotic cinema; instead it captured the grim, rainy, cold fumblings of a windswept Yorkshire moor. It was grubby sex in the reclining seats of a burgundy Rover, sex without foreplay, sex wearing loafers and pringle socks, sex as a bad cassette tape played on the stereo when Bob’s bare bottom pumped up and down. It appears fitting that the original soundtrack for this jaw-dropping scene was Hot Chocolate’s 'You Sexy Thing' until the band declined to licence it. Instead, Michael Kamen’s tropical rumba plays in the background. Like Black Lace’s perfectly pitched rendition of 'We’re Having A Gang Bang' in the iconic conga scene filmed at Lilycroft Working Men’s Club in Manningham, Kamen’s track enhances the sense of embarrassment that surrounds the film. It is a convincing period detail and makes this as authentic to the working-class 1980s as Abigail’s Party was to the aspirational suburban 1970s.

In these post-Savile times it’s impossible to view Bob (played to full sleazy effect by George Costigan) as anything other than a grubby chaser of underage girls. He grooms Rita and Sue and is old enough to know better. The paradox here is that the girls seem to enjoy it. Having ‘a jump’ with Bob is just about the only pleasure they get, aside from walking in repetitive circuits around the estate. Their ribald attitude to sex is indicative of what it represents – a cheap and easy thrill with no moral baggage. On this point alone, there is little doubt that this film could not have been made in 2017.

In this new cleaned-up and restored BFI edition, the extras feature a making-of documentary, Having A Ball, which reveals the story of the film through talking heads from the cast and production team, alongside perceptive comments from Clio Barnard (director of The Arbor film) and Clarke’s biographer, Richard Kelly.

The most striking element to this release is the colour. The bright pink leather sofa of Bob’s living room is heightened, the avocado bathroom suite captures the depressing hues of the late 1970s, and all of this contrasts against the shabby interiors of the Buttershaw estate. When the film was shot, many of the flats (on The Crescent and Boulevard) were already earmarked for demolition and some of the actors couldn’t tell if the set had been dressed, or just left that way.

Bob’s life on a middle-class estate in Baildon, in a new-build house with a neat garden and tarmac drive, represents his social status in comparison to that of his babysitters. He has the wife, two children, a big car, and nosy neighbours. His wife Michelle is repulsed by Bob’s sexual advances, and walks out on him when she discovers his infidelity, pulling Tretchikoff’s Chinese Girl from the wall in a rage.

In Dunbar’s play, Bob’s story follows Aristotle’s rule; in the beginning he has everything, and ends up with nothing. He is stripped of his assets, status, manhood – and his car, the symbol of his freedom and sexual potency. It is the classic reversal of fortune. It was always Dunbar’s intention that Bob would be punished for his actions, yet in Clarke’s film, Bob loses his wife, but ends up with Rita and Sue in his bed in the final scene. This was a bone of contention for Dunbar, who was furious at Clarke’s revised ending. She burned the original script after hearing they had used other writers to add new scenes. Curiously, this detail has been omitted from the new documentary.

Following the film’s release in 1987, Dunbar attracted the ire of right-wing journalists who were horrified at the drama she had portrayed. Casting director Patsy Pollock recalls how one eminent critic believed it was a satire, while others such as Hilary Mantel in The Spectator described Rita and Sue as ‘a hopeless pair of greasy-faced witches, with no virtue in their shrieking camaraderie.’ Rob Ritchie, who acted informally as Dunbar’s agent, told The Guardian that the film caused many problems for her personally and despite the money, it represented “the point at which whatever dreams she might have had about being a writer collapsed. It unleashed all those problems for her family and the community that she was living in.”

Rita, Sue and Bob Too’s billboard campaign, with the tagline ‘Thatcher’s Britain with Her Knickers Down’, attracted criticism from Bradford City Council who described it as portraying a ‘slummy, false image’ and detracted from their recent tourist campaign grounded in the safe heritage of the Brontës, Frederick Delius, and David Hockney. This, after all, was the era of Peter Sutcliffe, the Honeyford affair and the collapse of the worsted trade. Bradford had an image problem, and in the council’s eyes, Clarke’s adaptation was oil on the fire.

Although the film brought Dunbar brief fame and notoriety, in the years after its release she worked in a local speaker-making factory, packing luxury units for London penthouses. She was still claiming social security when she passed away and had £45 in her bank account at the time of her death. The royalties from the film had been spent on plastic surgery (following an accident falling through a glass door), buying rounds in her local pub and raising her three children as a single parent.

Tragically, only twelve days after completing her final work, The Moneylenders (a sequel to Rita, Sue and Bob Too based on a gang of debt collectors), Dunbar suffered a brain haemorrhage and was pronounced dead at Bradford Royal Infirmary. She was 29 years old.

It is within Clarke’s film that perhaps we see the birth of poverty porn; it showed a version of the underclass that gave licence for audiences to laugh at the world it represented. Despite this, there’s no denying it still has comedic potency. As Dunbar remarked to Stafford-Clark on the opening night of The Arbor in 1981, “What are they all laughing at? It weren’t so fucking funny when it were happening”.

However much Rita, Sue And Bob Too provided a level of schadenfreude it was authentically working-class, unlike, say the sickening contemporary portrayals of Benefits Street. Dunbar’s vision is perhaps more closely replicated in Pawel Pawlikowski’s magnificent Twockers (which was filmed in nearby Mixenden), or Penny Woolcock’s Tina Goes Shopping. Both are the true cinematic inheritors of Rita, Sue And Bob Too and provide compelling and pity-free accounts of life on the margins in West Riding.

Looking back at Clarke’s opening Steadicam scenes, which track Sue’s drunk father staggering from The Beacon pub to Bowland House, it is clear that little has changed in Yorkshire. Many of the same social problems exist - the lack of hope, attainment, the poverty trap - but the Buttershaw estate was one of Blair’s pathfinder areas, and a result of the film’s attention, millions were spent on regenerating the area in the 1990s. There are new schools, a church, a health centre, and the houses have double glazing and railings. It could be argued that were it not for Rita, Sue And Bob Too then Buttershaw may never have had the opportunity that Dunbar’s writing afforded it. Despite the damage it caused for her in a personal sense, her legacy remains in a new generation of working-class writers and within the bricks, mortar and enduring spirit of one of West Yorkshire’s most maligned areas.

Rita, Sue and Bob Too has been released by BFI on DVD and is out now

Adelle Stripe is the author of Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile, a novel inspired by the life and work of Andrea Dunbar. It is published in July 2017 on Wrecking Ball Press.