RITA, SUE AND BOB TOO At 30: Strange Bedfellows In ’80s Britain
Thirty years on, Alan Clarke's fitfully funny film, Rita, Sue and Bob Too, still holds up as a first-rate character study and resonant critique of the Thatcher era.
For a portrait of Britain in the 1980s, there is a certain irony in the fact that all you have to do is turn on the TV and look at today’s headlines. A Conservative government in power, strikes and civil unrest, unemployment, immigration, problems with Russia, problems with Northern Ireland. It may all seem a little simplistic, but the comparison is real: it’s there, right in front of us, right under our noses.
Sometimes it takes a work of art to see it, so never was there a better time for the re-release of Rita, Sue and Bob Too, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this month, with the BFI hosting special screenings as well as the release of a brand new Blu-ray.
The film was made in 1987, written by Andrea Dunbar, from her two plays The Arbor and Rita, Sue and Bob Too. Dunbar grew up in Brafferton Arbor (the inspiration for her first play) on the Buttershaw Council Estate in Bradford, West Yorkshire, an area on the bread line, where unemployment was rife and times, particularly for large families like her own, were extremely tough. She was one of seven brothers and sisters, but would be the only one of them to show a unique talent for the written word.
She wrote three plays during her short life, becoming something of a celebrity in her home town, although she never really had any interest in the rags to riches side of fame, and died, tragically, from a brain hemorrhage in 1990, at the age of 29.
Given the origins of its author, one might be forgiven for thinking that Rita, Sue and Bob Too, both the play and the film, was yet another in a long line of “grim up north” kitchen sink dramas, more akin to Ken Loach or Mike Leigh. The film contained elements of the genre: the alcoholic father, the racial tensions in districts that were becoming ethnically diverse, unhappy marriages and, most of all, children forced to grow up too soon — yet there is something more focused in Dunbar’s script.
Set in Bradford — indeed, on the same streets that Dunbar had lived — it tells the story of two bored schoolgirls, Rita and Sue (Siobhan Finneran and Michelle Holmes), who start an affair with Bob (George Costigan), the husband of Michelle (Lesley Sharp), the woman they babysit for. Essentially a comedy of both class and manners, what unfolds is an unconventional portrait of British life at the time, a study in promiscuity that related directly to the circumstances under which the characters lived.
It contains no real plot, to speak of, essentially riding the beats of any story that deals with extra-marital affairs. But it is in the treatment of the people it follows that the film scores a hat trick.
The Right Direction
Director Alan Clarke had form with the material. He had cut his teeth in the theater, before embarking on an illustrious career of television, during the great glory days of the ’60s and ’70s, when television programs reflected British life as lived by most people.
Play for Today, Armchair Theatre, the Wednesday Plays: these were a section of scheduling given over to short, one-act stories, often about the working class, but always innovative — a dry run for short films as we know them today. Directors such as the aforementioned Loach and Leigh, and writers like Roy Minton, Alun Owen and Colin Welland, all started here.
Clarke’s keen visual style would soon spill into cinema, his eye and ambitions often too grand for TV programming. His remake of Scum, which had originated at the BBC as a television play (before being promptly banned by its own broadcasters), was possibly his most notorious venture. It displayed his fondness for movement, particularly in the later works with his use of Stedicam to follow his characters as they marched through a barren, often hostile landscape, and which would become his signature style, known as the ‘walking’ films.
But it was in his intellect that he was best suited for Rita, Sue and Bob Too. He was keenly intelligent, yet never pretentious, his mind and affections always with the people, who were often oppressed, but always fighting against a system intent on destroying them. Rita, Sue and Bob Too may have been a comedy at heart, “Thatcher’s Britain with her knickers down” as the posters would later state, but its mind was set in the poverty of Bradford, the thin line between working and middle class, blurred by the allure of materialism.
For Clarke, it was a counterpoint to the stark, surreal landscapes of his work on pictures like Contact, Christine and Elephant. They take place in the same world, a country turned into a classless society by the Thatcher government, yet Rita, Sue and Bob Too has a warmth and a humor that balances out the socio-political undertow of the story.
More than just a story about the working class, it explores an emotional side to Britain, at a time when it was systematically and cruelly being picked apart in the name of position and profit. Barren, forgotten landscapes. Tenement blocks, like tobacco-stained teeth, a smear against the pristine walls of bureaucracy. It’s all there, fed in to the story and driving the characters.
The film itself was, surprisingly (or maybe not), considered controversial at the time of its release. The idea of a threesome between a grown, married man and two girls teetering on the verge of adulthood, a residue of the freewheeling hedonism and freedom of the ’60s generation, was not what the establishment wanted to see on 50-foot-tall screens in their own country. It hit a nerve, which is why the film retains a power and a relevance today. And yet, the story has a more subtle agenda at its heart.
The sex contains no eroticism, no titillation. There isn’t even any nudity, outside of George Costigan’s naked rear bobbing up and down in the back of his car, high up on the moors, surrounded by cow manure. It’s all very matter of fact, an almost joyless sense of the mundane. Rita and Sue are certainly bored (you’d have to be to go after a guy like Bob), but they aren’t malicious. In fact, there are times when you aren’t sure just who is teaching who a thing or two about relationships. There is no shift in power, no real agenda, outside of getting a little release from their everyday lives.
Bob’s wife Michelle suspects an affair, although she never considers the possibility of what is really going on behind her back (or under her roof), instead reveling in the spoils of her nice, tidy house in the good part of town and dressing up in sexy lingerie. Not for Bob, obviously, but because she can, because it’s hers. She represents that small faction of the middle class, not content with simply existing, for whom possessions meant status — a sign that you had climbed above your original position in the pecking order, and desperate to show off.
Sex was often used as a keen metaphor in British films at this time. Indeed Rita, Sue and Bob Too has a certain kinship with Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Launderette, a film which used the notion of a homosexual relationship (and a multi-racial one at that) as a perfect example of how diverse the country had become, a diversity that bred both liberation and fear in equal measure. These were films that sought to lay out these themes for the audience’s consideration, neither judgmental, nor didactic, but with a care and attention, not to mention authenticity and heart.
A Question of Character
Yuppie Britain was in full swing, yet beyond the self-made ivory towers, were the realities of life in the country at that time. Poverty, unemployment, crime — Rita, Sue and Bob Too contains all of these things, but it also contains real compassion for its characters. Bob has never lost a grasp of where he came from, whereas Michelle parades around as if she was to the manner born, which is one of the main reasons Bob’s mind (and libido) wanders a little closer to his roots. Yes, he’s something of a big kid in a sweet shop, but you warm to Bob — root for him, even.
It’s a film that would be very hard to make today, in a culture desecrated by sex scandals and predators (at least as far as the media would like us to believe anyway), yet what we have here is handled with a tender, sweet-natured touch, which hit a nerve with audiences (the film was the most successful of Clarke’s cinematic ventures, making profit from a modest budget no bigger than that of a daily soap opera).
And yet, the bigger triumph here is that it stuck. It managed to become a part of the country’s pop culture, with a message that is still relevant today, maintaining the dogma that real community, real family, grows out of a sense of humanity, not duty.
The final image sees our trio under a bed sheet decked out in the union jack. Certainly not subtle, but neither was the idea of a government turning its back on the people. Dunbar’s message, if she ever really intended one, still rings as true today as it did three decades ago.
In the end, a soiled mattress is probably all they deserve.
What are your memories of British cinema in the Thatcher era?
Rita, Sue and Bob Too is currently showing at select cinemas courtesy of the BFI (UK). The new BFI Blu-ray is out now.
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