Rita, Sue and Bob Too Review
The Buttershaw Estate, Bradford, the mid 1980s. Rita (Siobhan Finneran) and Sue (Michelle Holmes), teenaged school friends, earn some extra money by babysitting for the rather older Bob (George Costigan) and his wife Michelle (Lesley Sharp), who live nearby in the rather more affluent area of Baildon. Driving Rita and Sue home, Bob stops the car on the moors, and has sex with both of them. Needless to say, this doesn't stay secret for long...
In a directing career that lasted twenty years, cut short by his death from cancer at the early age of fifty-four, Alan Clarke (1935-1990) built up a big reputation mostly for his work on the small screen rather than the large. This was showcased in one of the disc releases of 2016, Dissent and Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC, which collected all his surviving work for the Corporation, plus the early Half Hour Story, which was made for Rediffusion, which at the time held the ITV franchise on weekdays for the London area. (I covered the set for The Digital Fix's television site over fourteen reviews. Start here and follow the links.)
However, Clarke did direct three films for the cinema. The first was the big-screen version of Scum, which almost certainly would not have existed if the BBC had not banned the original. That banning was a turning point in Clarke's career, and he was vocal at the lack of support of the BBC, an organisation that had nurtured him for eight years up to that point. His remaining two cinema features happened during a two-year hiatus in his work for the Corporation, following Contact, first broadcast in 1985. Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire, released in 1986, a seemingly quite uncharacteristic fantasy musical, and the present film. By then, Channel Four, which was launched in 1982, had been investing in films from the UK and elsewhere, with a view to giving them cinema releases before they showed them on television.
Rita, Sue and Bob Too was based on two plays by Andrea Dunbar (1961-1990), The Arbor, first performed in 1980, and the one the film is named after, from 1982. Dunbar was born in 1961, and was brought up on the Buttershaw estate in Bradford where the film is set and was filmed. She began writing in school exercise books. The Arbor began as a class assignment at school. Her teacher encouraged her to send the play to Max Stafford Clark at the Royal Court theatre in London. It premiered there and jointly won the Young Writers' Festival. Dunbar wrote three plays in all, the two above and Shirley (1986). She had a troubled life, becoming pregnant at fifteen but giving birth to a stillborn child, and later having three children from three different fathers. She spent time in a refuge for battered women and became alcoholic, and died at the age of twenty-nine. The opening scene of the film shows Sue's father staggering home drunk from the Beacon pub on the Buttershaw estate, the very place where Dunbar suffered her fatal brain haemorrhage. For more about Dunbar, see Clio Barnard's 2010 film The Arbor.
Although it was intended for cinema screens, rewatching Rita, Sue and Bob Too, shot in Super 16mm on a lowish budget of £800,000, now shows it to be very much of a piece with Clarke's television work. That is even more so now that we have the opportunity to watch that earlier work, if we didn't see them on their original, and in some cases only, broadcast. By this time, the Steadicam had become available. It was a device that Clarke was to use extensively, with many scenes, interiors and exteriors both, covered in lengthy mobile takes. Clarke is often thought of as a director of very “male” and often violent subject matter - Scum most obviously - but one thing that last year's box set showed is that his filmography includes more than a few stories centering on women, as often as not written by women, which he directed with considerable sensitivity. That's not a word that immediately comes to mind with this film, a raucous comedy, but it's justified. If it depicts a triangle, it's not an equilateral one but an isosceles. It's there in the title: this is Rita and Sue's story and Bob is an adjunct to it, and most likely a temporary fixture in their lives. What's more important is their friendship, their solidarity, their having each other's back.
Dunbar's plays, and this film script, were heavily autobiographical: set in the place where she was brought up, depicting the people she knew around her and had been involved with, presented without judgment, a depiction of the underclass in Thatcher's Britain from within it, telling it like it is. (The film's publicity emphasised this: “Thatcher's Britain with her knickers down.”) Clarke and his production designer (Len Huntingford) point up the differences between the characters and their situations, the difference in affluence between Bob and Michelle and Rita and Sue and their families. (For example, Bob and Michelle have a colour television, while Sue's family's set is black and white.) Inevitably, this does make the film something of an Eighties time capsule: there's a poster of George Michael on Sue's bedroom wall. There's a definite gain in the use of real locations, when the camera moves outside. The film does have a non-diegetic music score, by Michael Kamen, which was less usual in Clarke's work at that point, though this is something Rita, Sue and Bob Too has in common with earlier, more comedic, television work such as 1972's Horace. Black Lace turn up as themselves in a club scene, playing no, not “Agadoo” nor “Superman” fortunately, but “Gang Bang”.
Another much-commented-upon aspect of Clarke's work is his discovery and nurturing of acting talent. Both Siobhan Finneran and Michelle Holmes were in their late teens when they were cast. This was Finneran's professional screen acting debut and Holmes had only previously appeared in the television medical soap The Practice. This was also the screen debut of Lesley Sharp and a first cinema film for Kulvinder Ghir (as Sue's boyfriend Aslam). George Costigan, twenty years older than his co-leads, had been working on British films and television since the mid-Seventies, though this was his first and only collaboration with Clarke. All of the principals have continued to act regularly on the small screen and large. For example, Finneran and Costigan both played leading roles in Happy Valley.
It's fair to say that Rita, Sue and Bob Too didn't set the world alight when it was released in British cinemas in 1987, a year after the similarly underperforming Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire. In fact, reviews were often scathing. Some Bradford (and Buttershaw) residents complained about the depiction of their city and estate. In the documentary on this disc (see below), co-producer Patsy Pollock describes the film going down like a lead balloon at its premiere at the Brighton Film Festival, with critics – none of whom came from the same background as the films' characters – objecting to stereotyping and sensationalism as, they said, no one lived like that. (Recent comments from parts of the press about I, Daniel Blake spring to mind.) Pollock refers to a very distinguished and now late film critic saying just that, and she waiting outside the Gents to hit him on the head with a rolled-up newspaper. She doesn't name him, but I've guessed right she wouldn't have been the first filmmaker to do that to him. The film's cinema release was short-lived, and I first saw it on its television premiere, on Channel 4 on 10 May 1990. By the end of that year, both Clarke and Dunbar would be dead.
Channel 4 financed a lot of films in the 1980s, many of which had a short cinema life before appearing on the small screen. With only one or two showings and no later VHS or disc release, many of them have now vanished into obscurity and how well they stand up now I cannot say. (Some of them are available to stream on BFI Player, in their Unavailable on DVD section.) At the time Rita, Sue and Bob Too was made, there was a tendency to write Clarke off because he worked primarily in television, and much of his work there was then all but impossible to see outside archives if you hadn't seen it on broadcast, if it wasn't lost. It's quite possible if he had lived longer, he may have made more cinema films. But with his work attracting renewed interest, the best of it does stand up very well indeed. While I wouldn't place Rita, Sue and Bob Too in the top flight of Clarke's work, it does stand the test of time.
The BFI's release of Rita, Sue and Bob Too is dual-format, with a Region B Blu-ray checkdisc supplied for review.
The Blu-ray transfer is in 1.66:1, which may well be the intended aspect ratio, though UK cinemas at the time would very likely have shown it in 1.75:1. The transfer is derived from a 2K resolution scan of the original Super 16mm negative. The use of 16mm does ally this with Clarke's film-shot television productions, all of which were shot at this gauge, rather than with his previous two cinema films, which were shot in 35mm. (Just to be picky, location scenes for The Last Train Through Harecastle Tunnel and To Encourage the Others were 35mm, even if the majority of both productions were video shoots in the studio.) With the subject matter, and especially the low budget, of Rita, Sue and Bob Too, a gritty, grainy feel would be quite appropriate, and that's what you see in this transfer, which is inevitably softer than a 35mm original would be. But this is how it undoubtedly would have looked in a cinema at the time.
The soundtrack is mono, and rendered as LPCM 1.0. Films were still being made in mono in 1986, though Dolby Stereo (even a basic mix with everything though the centre speaker other than music through the surrounds) was rapidly becoming ubiquitous. That said, many cinemas at the time had Dolby in one screen with others unconverted. The track is clear and well balanced. English hard-of-hearing subtitles are available. I spotted one typo: church bells “peel” instead of peal.
“Having a Ball: The Making of Rita, Sue and Bob Too” (68:16) is a newly-produced documentary, directed by former Digital Fix contributor Jon Robertson. It follows the format of the Out of His Own Light documentary, which was split over the twelve main discs of the Dissent and Disruption box set, tracing the evolution of the film from its origins in Andrea Dunbar's life and on stage, to the making of the film and its reception, as mentioned above. Many of the interviewees reappear from Out of His Own Light, and in order of appearance they are: Richard T. Kelly (author of a book on Clarke which I have used as a resource for both the box set reviews and this one), Siobhan Finneran, Max Stafford-Clark, Lesley Sharp, Clio Barnard, Sandy Lieberson (producer), Patsy Pollock, Michelle Holmes, George Costigan, Kulvinder Ghir, Molly Clarke (Alan's daughter), Ivan Strasburg (cinematographer), Bernard Wrigley (the actor playing Rita and Sue's teacher), and Clarke's long-serving Steadicam operator John Ward (from a 2009 interview). In lieu of a commentary, this is as detailed a piece as you would want.
Also on the disc is an extensive stills and collections gallery, subdivided into sections by source: pictures provided by Michelle Holmes, Sandy Lieberson, BFI Stills Collection and Channel 4, rehearsal shots and miscellaneous, and UK and overseas posters. Finally, there's a textless version of the opening sequence (4:10) and the trailer (1:37).
The BFI's booklet runs to thirty-two pages and begins with an essay by David Rolinson, also the author of a book on Alan Clarke. This covers the film's origins and production, and discusses in more detail the negative reviews the film received – one of them by Hilary Mantel, then a candidate for most undersung British novelist and not then a double Booker winner, with her journalistic head on as film critic for The Spectator. Next up is Andrea Dunbar, or her response to the critical savaging the film had received from some quarters after its Brighton screening. After complete film credits, the booklet continues with Max Stafford-Clark's account of Dunbar, an extract from his 2007 book Taking Stock cowritten with Philip Roberts. Finally, there are credits and notes on the extras and on the transfer.