Michael Brooke has reviewed the Region 2 DVD release of Rita, Sue and Bob Too!
Although he created work of unparalleled power and intensity for the small screen, Alan Clarke never really adjusted to a larger canvas: his three cinema features Scum, Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire and Rita, Sue and Bob Too! shrivel in comparison with such TV masterworks as Made in Britain, Road, Elephant and The Firm.
That said, Rita, Sue and Bob Too! stood up surprisingly well for me. I hadn’t seen it since its first TV outing in the late 1980s, when I was far less familiar with Clarke’s work than I am now, and although I’m not about to hail it as an undiscovered masterpiece it certainly has more going for it than seemed apparent at first glance.
One word of warning, though – for God’s sake don’t be fooled by the DVD box, which makes it look like some kind of ghastly softcore sex romp. Indeed, I felt embarrassed buying it – the shop I bought it from put it on the same shelf as the likes of Randy Financial Adviser and Two Lesbians and a Plumber – not too surprisingly, when the back cover promises “two schoolgirl babysitters who are introduced to the adult ways of the world by Bob their employer”.
This is in fact an entirely accurate description – but anyone expecting titillation is going to be in for a major let-down. George Costigan, who plays Bob, said of the sex scenes that “anybody who found it erotic would be a bit damaged, I think. It’s just clumsy and real and fumbling about, it’s not sexy and it’s not meant to be. You’re just looking at a bunch of people grabbing it while they can.”
Sexy it isn’t, but the film is often hilarious – Clarke’s friends attested to the fact that this was the closest he ever came to capturing his own deadpan and distinctly Northern sense of humour (he was born in Liverpool) on film. That’s not to say that it isn’t often as bleak as his other studies of 1980s Britain – the underlying desperation of the characters keeps bobbing to the surface, despite their attempts at laughing it off, but the mere fact that they do try to laugh it off makes it a decidedly different viewing experience from the relentlessly downbeat likes of Christine and Road, which Clarke made at about the same time.
The writer made a considerable difference – most of the writers of Clarke’s films tended to be male and roughly the same age, whereas Andrea Dunbar was a Bradford playwright not much older than her protagonists when she wrote it, and whose initial response to an offer to work with Clarke was “I’m not fucking writing for any fucking wanky fucking film director” (incidentally, the film’s big-screen origins mean that the language is somewhat riper than it is in Clarke’s other films!). Clarke apparently loved working with her (though it seems the feeling wasn’t mutual!), and made much of the film on the run-down Bradford housing estate that Dunbar herself lived in, with her family and friends in attendance to offer suggestions.
Rita and Sue are teenage girls, whose loud, brassy confidence belies their ignorance of the world in general and sexual matters in particular. After offering to drive them home, Bob, the father of the children Rita and Sue have been babysitting, seduces both of them in his car on a deserted moor. After that, they continue to meet up clandestinely – always as a threesome, to prevent Bob showing any favouritism – but it’s an utterly empty experience for them: Rita and Sue do it because it makes them feel adult and wanted (albeit briefly) while Bob is using them as a substitute for his own passionless relationship with his wife. Needless to say, things turn out badly, though I’m not going to give away spoilers here.
Like Clarke’s other films of the period, Rita, Sue and Bob Too! was shot on location using long Steadicam-powered takes, the camera constantly circling around his characters, tracking their movements, especially when they’re on foot. David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film – arguably the first book to take Clarke’s work seriously – calls him “a poet for all those beasts who pace and measure the limits of their cages – no-one has ever grasped the central metaphor of walking quite as well as Alan Clarke”.
Much of the film is set out in seemingly limitless open space, but it’s populated by people who can’t see further than the end of their noses (or, in Bob’s case, another organ). When Sue gets herself a Pakistani boyfriend her own age (played by a very young Kulvinder Ghir, of subsequent Goodness Gracious Me fame), she can’t really relate to him because her entire knowledge of his native culture comes from her family and friends’ petty prejudices and watching unsubtitled Bollywood films with him in the local cinema, and he has similarly blinkered views about women’s subservient role (so does Bob, come to that).
The three lead performances are well-nigh faultless: Siobhan Finneran and Michelle Holmes never achieved the heights of the likes of Ray Winstone, Phil Daniels and Tim Roth, to name other actors who made their debuts in Clarke films, but that’s no reflection on their performances, which are more than up to the same standard (and given vividly drawn characters and dialogue to match). And George Costigan is wonderfully sleazy as the horrible, nouveau riche Bob, whose sharp suits conceal tattoos from a previous existence, and whose cocky demeanour is deflated by unexpected impotence. And few directors handled supporting extras quite as well as Alan Clarke – Sue’s family and neighbours are particularly well-drawn. It’s not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a sadder and wiser piece of work than its advertising or initial reception suggested.
The DVD transfer is pretty much in line with that offered by Carlton’s Made in Britain and Second Sight’s The Firm – there’s very little indication that it was made for the big screen, and I’d guess from the grainy texture that it was shot on 16mm, much like most of Clarke’s other films.
The print is in reasonable condition, barring a few age-related spots and scratches and some large and obtrusive reel-change marks, and the transfer is similarly adequate: the grain causes an occasional outbreak of artefacting, but nothing especially serious. It’s certainly a very fair impression of the film, though no-one’s going to use it as a demonstration disc. One difference between it and the other Clarke DVDs is that it’s been framed at 1.66:1, though the transfer isn’t anamorphic (then again, given the grain, it’s debatable whether anamorphic enhancement would have made much difference).
The sound equally betrays the film’s low-budget origins: it’s mono (which was true of the original cinema version), and the mix is not what you might call subtle. In fact, the opening song is somewhat distorted, and I can’t tell whether that’s the fault of the original recording or the DVD transfer – certainly, the dance hall scene later on is rather better recorded, so it may well be the former. There are sixteen chapter stops, which is adequate for a relatively brief film.
And that’s it – in common with just about all the other Alan Clarke DVDs to date (Odyssey’s Scum being the honourable exception), there are no extras whatsoever, a crying shame given that the people who made it seemed only too keen to talk to Richard Kelly about it for the latter’s superb oral memoir Alan Clarke (Faber & Faber). Clarke and Andrea Dunbar are both dead (the latter suffered a brain haemmorhage at 25, less than a year after Clarke succumbed to cancer), but a commentary by the three leads would have been both hilarious and probably rather moving, But, given the DVD artwork, it’s clear that VCI aren’t exactly promoting this as an art movie!
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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