Good question! For those that don’t like it, then the answer is no and that’s that. But for everybody else who loves it, it is a very good question. Britain has a very long list of great films. Could Rita, Sue and Bob Too really be the very best one? In my opinion, the answer is most certainly yes, and I think I’ve watched every British film of note so I’m basing my answer on a good bit of homework.
I love British films, it has been a passion of mine for a very long time. My DVD collection has got so out of hand that you could be excused for thinking that you’ve turned up in a charity shop as you head up our stairs for the loo. I just can’t get enough of them, the smaller the budget and the fewer the stunts the better, for me. I’m more interested in the story, the dialogue, the settings and the message than I am of massive budgets and superstar lead actors. I started my love affair with low-budget movies in the 1980’s when Channel 4 used to broadcast their home-grown productions on Sunday nights at 10pm. (Don’t grass to my mum, she thought I was asleep and that my portable telly was off.)
One Sunday night in 1988 I watched that week’s offering, Rita Sue and Bob Too and it really blew my socks off. I’d never seen anything quite like it in all of my twelve years. The relentless swearing, the inappropriate jokes and snide remarks, the caustic insults and the general chaos of the story had everybody talking the next day at school. I remember it like it was yesterday. If you love your British films, and watched them like I did on Sunday nights, you’ll remember sitting open mouthed as you watched this extraordinary film, probably just as clearly as I do. There had been plenty of working-class films before this one, but nothing had ever been shown which was quite like this before. Despite the best efforts of incredible working-class film producers since, people like Shane Meadows and Danny Boyle, I don’t think it has been matched yet. I still watch this film at least once a year, it is without any challenge my absolute favourite British film and dare I say it, inspires the kind of books that I write, desperately trying to capture that raw, real-life honesty which comes out in abundance throughout this 90 minute comedy-drama.
Rita, Sue and Bob Too is an Alan Clarke production. Alan Clarke was born in Birkenhead on 28 October 1935. He only directed three films for cinematic release, the bulk of his output was made for television. Alan Clarke was a radical, uncompromising and innovative director, his best work concerned the exposure of injustice towards the most despised and neglected groups in society. He was responsible for some of the hardest hitting film and television productions that this country has produced, including Scum, (which launched Ray Winstone’s career) and Made in Britain, (which launched Tim Roth’s career) but most notably of all, for Rita, Sue and Bob Too, (which launched Siobhan Finneran‘s, Michelle Holmes‘, Lesley Sharp‘s and George Costigan‘s careers.) Alan Clarke died of lung cancer in 1990 when he was only 54 years old and I always wonder what his filmography would look like today if he was still around. You can guarantee that his CV would include a BAFTA Fellowship, at the very least.
But Alan Clarke wasn’t really the genius behind Rita Sue and Bob Too. That accolade belongs to its writer and creator, Andrea Dunbar. RS&BT started life as a play , written in 1982 when Andrea was only 21 years old, hot on the heels of her first play The Arbor which she had started writing when she was fifteen. The story of Rita, Sue and Bob was inspired by Andrea’s own experiences growing up on the Buttershaw estate in Bradford, helped along the way by a conversation that she had overheard between two teenage girls in the ladies toilets at Keighley Market. Andrea Dunbar’s story of Rita and Sue was streets ahead of the news when it was written almost 40 years ago. The story of a married man grooming two impressionable, impoverished young girls who came from dysfunctional families is a topic which has made the news headlines with depressing regularity over the past decade or so, particularly in the run-down northern towns where the story is set.
My view that this is the best British film ever made is something I stand by, although I must admit to feeling extremely surprised that it doesn’t appear in the BFI’s Top 100 chart. (Mind you, East is East didn’t make this rundown. Neither did Wish You Were Here so something’s gone a little bit awry.) Looking through the list, I can’t think of a single film on that rundown which has left viewers with so many catchphrases. How many can you remember from Rita, Sue and Bob Too? Here’s just a few of those classic one-liners which litter the entire script. “You’ve done nowt and you’ve been nowt all your life!” “It looks like a frozen sausage!” “Make your own fucking tea!” “I’ll wrap this round your fuckin’ neck!” “It’s better than Match of the Day, this!” I could go on, because we’ve not had Willie Russell’s best line, “I’ve done some things” yet. This is where the magic lies for me, in the script. Whilst telling a tragic and complex tale with great humour, Andrea Dunbar managed the near-impossible feat of creating realistic sounding dialogue in a poor, northern town, whilst adding laugh-out-loud, cutting humour to every scene. Was this formidable achievement an accident of brutal, unapologetic honesty or just simple genius? I believe it was the latter.
Andrea Dunbarr died from a brain haemorrhage in the same year as Alan Clarke, 1990. She was 29 years old. Speaking as a fan, and a fellow writer, this tragic end to Andrea’s life, when she had so much left to say, never gets any easier to accept and I feel a true sense of loss for what Andrea would have gone on to achieve. I’m just so glad that she was there to see her hometown and estate overrun and buzzing with film crews when she was 25, as one of the UK’s most celebrated film directors shot her script. It’s wonderful to know that she would have been watching as well, that Sunday night in 1988. Andrea Dunbarr lived a very short, very sad life and it is heart-breaking to think that instead of going where her talents could and should have taken her, she instead became a heavy-drinker and lost the sense of hope which had inspired her formidable work. The saddest part of all is that she died in her local, The Beacon. The pub shown in the opening shots of Rita, Sue and Bob Too. RIP to Bradford’s finest, Andrea Dunbarr and thank you for creating the one British film that everybody has an opinion about.