Vulgar Reality

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Whilst rummaging through the Local Studies archive at the newly opened Bradford Library I discovered a review of Rita, Sue and Bob Too, written by Hilary Mantel for The Spectator in 1987. Bonkers in Bradford is a particularly caustic reading of Alan Clarke’s film, and shows Mantel’s attitude to Andrea Dunbar and the North of England at full throttle.

Her assumption that northern women walk in a certain way was rather offensive to the many elegant ladies I’ve seen perusing the city’s streets. And as for the chunky legs, well, is the pot calling the kettle black?

“Suppose you lived in Bradford, on the Buttershaw Estate. You could – according to this film – pick up your giro, reel around the streets in a drunken fashion, enjoy group sex, and abuse your children and neighbours in roundly satisfying north-country terms. You could go to a nightclub where the lights turned your face fuchsia, and join in a merry song called ‘We’re having a gang-bang’ – there is a mime to go with it. You would never wake up in the night sweating about post-structuralism, or the Dow Jones Share Index. You could have malt vinegar, not raspberry. You would never have to eat salades tièdes. Every night you could have fish and chips.

Andrea Dunbar, the screenplay writer, is a local girl who has been taken up by media folk, and is now dangerously poised between two horrid realities. On the one hand, she has had three illegitimate children; on the other, she has sold three plays to the Royal Court. She has been at a battered wives’ refuge; more lately – why are some young lives such a tissue of misfortune? – she has been at the Groucho Club. Now she has gone back to Bradford, where no doubt the burghers will stone her in the streets for besmirching the city’s reputation. No doubt she will stone them right back.

Sue and Rita are schoolgirls, friends, who live on a nasty council estate: boarded-up windows, stray dogs, drunks with carry-outs. They look like robust 40-year-olds, and their conversation consists almost entirely of obscenities. The actresses, Michelle Holmes and Siobhan Finneran, have their moments of brilliance. Sue in particular has a way of walking peculiar to northern women; it’s not due to an ancestral memory of walking in clogs, but to very small pointed shoes on the end of very sturdy legs.

Friday nights, Rita and Sue go up to the executive development, to babysit for Michelle and Bob. Up there they have gardens, and ‘Georgian’ front doors that look like coffin lids. Since Bob is, as Disraeli would put it, ‘a dweller in different zones’, we might think he would be ‘fed by a different food, ordered by different manners.’ But his fridge is full of cream buns, and under his shirt he sports a tattoo. His seduction technique is not, either, as genteel as his reproduction television set would suggest. He simply snaps a condom under the noses of the willing girls, and enjoys them both in his car, on a reclining seat. ‘How long will you be?’ Rita enquires, as Bob penetrates her friend. ‘Can I have a cassette on?’

It ought to be funny, but it isn’t. It is hard to think of a film where so many comic set pieces have been played through without raising a smile. The film asks us to like them and pity them, to find them funny and to find their lives funny, but in fact the girls appear desperate and pathetic: a hopeless pair of greasy-faced witches, with no virtue in their shrieking camaraderie. Bob, whom they soon regard as an animated vibrator, is much more the sympathetic character; as is the Asian boy who beats Sue up.

The sex scenes are protracted and quite remorselessly indecent; the act in Bradford, one imagines, is much as anywhere, but at the cinema we are not used to such low-quality bodies. Usually we are cushioned from vulgar reality by well-turned and evenly bronzed limbs, by impossibly trim and neat torsos. These people look much like everybody. Hence the indecency. The girls flounce across fields and hop over cow-pats, removing their undergarments, and Bob unzips his flies; so anaphrodisiac a spectacle is quite beyond the wit of the people who make the Aids commercials. The Government ought to employ this entire film crew, to put the nation off it; no sex is better than safe sex.

Sadly, even Miss Dunbar’s vaunted super-realistic dialogue fails. There’s too much of it; in the girls’ households, they communicate more in one scene than such families do in a year. And amid the pink leather sofas and sunburst clocks of Bob’s residence, her imagination fails completely, and she resorts to putting inverted commas round the clichés of the problem pages.

Its distributors are promoting this film as ‘Thatcher’s Britain with its knickers down’. Actually it makes no political point, but no one will be able to stop its metropolitan viewers reading in a satirical message. They may not be able to see it purely as comedy. ‘But’, Miss Dunbar has insisted, ‘that’s what it were wrote as’. ” [1]


[1] Bonkers in Bradford, Hilary Mantel, The Spectator, 9/87 [Andrea Dunbar, A Tribute, Bradford Libraries and Information Service, 1991]

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