Rita, Sue and Bob Too

UK 1987, 91 mins
Director: Alan Clarke

‘The film that turned the festival blue’ was one shocked tabloid’s verdict on Alan Clarke’s bleakly bawdy comedy about a married man bedding his teen babysitters, which scandalised the Brighton Film Festival in May 1987. In the affectionate ‘making of’ in the neatly restored and well-packaged BFI DVD release, cast and crew recall the critics’ accusations of fakery at the press conference. It goaded producer Oscar Lewenstein into protesting: ‘This artist is reporting from the lower depths. This is a report!’

Adapted from teenage working-class writer Andrea Dunbar’s controversial 1982 London Royal Court play, and its predecessor The Arbor, Rita, Sue and Bob Too was indeed a nakedly autobiographical reworking of her tumultuous life on Bradford’s run-down Buttershaw estate. A wary Dunbar, whose first reaction was ‘I’m not fucking writing for any wanky fucking film director,’ was well-matched with Clarke, then best known for the raw, hard-hitting Scum (1979) and TV’s Made in Britain (1982). Clarke committed utterly to constructing images that honoured the writing’s caustic vitality and its milieu, and to ‘not putting myself in front of the film’. Dunbar’s combative dialogue, and the physical back-and-forth of the girls’ gobby exchanges with lovers and family alike, open up smartly in Clarke’s long, restless Steadicam takes, giving the film an almost documentary style.

Striding fiercely across the estate, or skittering around Bob’s house or on the moors, Rita and Sue and the wily, weaving Bob recall David Thomson’s praise of Clarke, with his trademark walking shots, as a ‘poet for beasts who pace and measure their cages’. First-time actresses Michelle Holmes (the brassy Sue) and Siobhan Finneran (a stoical Rita) acquired the naturalism that Clarke sought in two weeks’ intense rehearsal with George Costigan’s Bob. Their fluid, flirty threesome is captured in a freewheeling visual style, where the camera rejects a fixed character point of view for a watching brief. Observe that high-up opening shot, wandering across the decayed estate via Sue’s drunken father’s unsteady progress home, to tag on to Sue’s and Rita’s brisk march to babysitting in upmarket Baildon, which introduces us to an unknown Bradford. Far from the bustling monochrome city centre of Billy Liar (1963) or Room at the Top (1959), it’s a snapshot of Thatcher’s Britain, threading from the workless estate to Bob’s aspirational homeowners’ suburb.

The replacement of the restless 60s Northern male hero with bold, thrill-seeking teen girls is reflected in the film’s novel use of space. Leaving school without work or prospects, Rita and Sue are socially trapped but physically free, roaming the streets for distractions. Bob’s car, nosing on to the night-time moors, enters a liminal space, where the frustrated husband and bored girls can escape and transgress. A defiant sex comedy, its casual view of coupling nodding at the 70s Confessions of… series, the film celebrates sexual pleasure as a giggle, a palliative for poverty. Released at the peak of the Aids crisis, its bald take on promiscuity shocked many critics. Yet the in-car sex scenes are deeply unerotic, played for deadpan comedy with the camera pressed earnestly against the window as Sue’s jigging foot sets the car horn blaring, or the girls laugh at Bob’s erectile dysfunction. Possibly the first ‘dogging’ movie, its bickering trio and incongruous mid-coitus arguments elicit laughs rather than titillation. However, even allowing for autre temps, autre moeurs Bob’s blithe teen sex grooming is disquieting, despite the girls’ just-legal status and vocal sexual agency. Perhaps to counter this unease, and the film’s dour undertones, Clarke was obsessed with keeping performances light, and scenes speedy, urging Costigan: ‘Keep it frothy, keep them laughing.’ There’s real hilarity in Lesley Sharp’s Michelle, Bob’s wife, enraged at her betrayal and dropping her smug gentility for a slapping assault on her errant babysitters. But beating under everything, including the trio’s raunchy club dance to Black Lace’s winking ‘Gang Bang’, and their raucous public shaming on the estate, is a pulse of poverty and hopelessness.

Female friendship is the emotional engine here (as it is in that other mid-80s paean to a good time Letter to Brezhnev), the film’s giddily implausible ending owing more to Rita and Sue’s enduring bond than to a socially rebellious ménage à trois. The hard-drinking Dunbar, who died in 1990, was ambivalent to the end about the film that had against all the odds committed, as Lesley Sharp shrewdly observes, ‘her life, her neighbourhood, her England, to the screen’. But Costigan, still hailed today in Bradford streets as ‘Bob!’, is in no doubt about the film’s durability: ‘It’ll live for as long as we’ve got an underclass.’
Kate Stables, Sight and Sound, July 2017

A contemporary review
Rita, Sue and Bob Too has already been compared to such 60s slices of British industrial life as A Taste of Honey and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and clearly bears more recent comparison to Letter to Brezhnev. In fact, uncluttered by either the romantic sentimentality or the stereotypical scouse wit of the latter film, Andrea Dunbar’s script is an altogether dourer, grittier affair. Bradford writer Dunbar has an undoubted ear for local rhythms of speech and there is an unmistakeable ring of authenticity to her dialogue. In its picture of the poverty, unhappiness and desperation of many people’s lives in the North of England, the film is acutely observed.

But it is also primarily a comedy, and every supposedly shocking observation is leavened with bouts of very funny black (and crude) humour. The comic situations clearly draw on the standard fare of television comedy, farce, soap opera and tabloid newspaper stories – closer, as all interviews confirm, to the writer’s own experience than the more respectable ‘sophistication’ of classical film genres. It is this which has perhaps led to accusations of sensationalism, with critics mistaking the clever synthesis of these popular forms for a cynical regurgitation of them.
Adrian Wootton, Monthly Film Bulletin, September 1987

Director: Alan Clarke
©: Channel Four Television Company
Production Companies: Umbrella Entertainment, British Screen, Channel Four
With the assistance of: National Film Development Fund
Executive Producer: Oscar Lewenstein
Producer: Sandy Lieberson
Co-producer: Patsy Pollock
Production Supervisor: Garth Thomas
Production Co-ordinator: Laura Grumitt
Production Accountant: Maggie Phelan
Assistant Accountant: Gary Jones
Location Manager: Clinton Cavers
Assistant to the Producer: Julie Watts
Production Runner: Nick Strasburg
1st Assistant Director: Mike Gowans
2nd Assistant Director: Jon Older
3rd Assistant Director: Cordelia Hardy
Continuity: Francine Brown
Casting: Beverley Keogh
Screenplay and original plays: Andrea Dunbar
Script Consultant: Jennifer Howarth
Director of Photography: Ivan Strasburg
Steadicam Operator: John Ward
Focus Puller: Luke Cardiff
Clapper: Mark Strasburg
Gaffer: John Devine
Electrician: Frank Sheeky
Generator Operator: Ray Bateman
Editor: Stephen Singleton
Assistant Editor: Anthony Morris
Production Designer: Len Huntingford
Assistant Art Director: Peter Jones
Prop Master: Peter Dawson
Dressing Prop: Danny Hunter
Standby Prop: Eddie McMahon
Chargehand Standby Carpenter: John Sullivan
Standby Carpenter: Colin Baillee
Standby Rigger: Micky Seymour
Standby Painter: Peter Spice
Costume Designer: Cathy Cook
Assistant Costume Designer: Katherine Naylor
Chief Make-up Artist: Alan Boyle
Hairdresser: Barbara Sutton
Title Design: Plume Design
Music: Michael Kamen
Music Supervisor: Daniel Secunda
Music Recording Engineer: Paul Samuelson
Sound Recording: Mike McDuffie
Boom Operator: David Lindsay
Dubbing Mixer: Alan Dykes
Assistant Dubbing Mixer: Nick Church
Sound Editor: Allan Morrison
Assistant Sound Editor: Jonathan Moony
Stunt Co-ordinators: Roy Alon, John Lees
Publicity: Minty Clinch

Siobhan Finneran (Rita)
Michelle Holmes (Sue)
George Costigan (Bob)
Lesley Sharp (Michelle)
Willie Ross (Sue’s father)
Danny O’Dea (Paddy)
David Britton, Mark Crompton, Stuart Goodwin, Max Jackman, Andrew Krauz, Simon Waring (Rita’s brothers)
Maureen Long (Rita’s mother)
Joyce Pembroke (Lawn-Mower Lil)
Patti Nicholls (Sue’s mother)
Jane Atkinson (Helen)
Bryan Heeley (Michael)
Paul Oldham (Lee)
Bernard Wrigley (Terry Middleton, the teacher)
Kulvinder Ghir (Aslam)
Dennis Conlon (taxi driver)
Joanna Steele (Sylvia)
Joanne Barrow (Judy)
Rachel Shepherd (schoolgirl)
Paula Jayne (2nd schoolgirl)
Alison Goodman (Hilda)
Marie Jelliman (gym mistress)
Black Lace (themselves)
Nancy Pute (Mavis)
Ken Hainsworth (Billy)
Niall Costigan (Simon)
Sinead Parkinson (Jenny)
Paul Hedges (Hosepipe Harry)
Laura Devon (neighbour on balcony)
Charles Meek (taxi driver)
Kailash Patel (Aslam’s sister)
Usma Islam, Naeela Jaben Sabir, Shabar Hussain (Aslam’s nieces) *
Claude Powell, Alexander Cruise, Nelson Fletcher (West Indians in taxi office) *
Mel Fredricks (white man in taxi office) *
Blake Roberts (West Indian in cab) *

UK 1987©
91 mins


In Celebration
Mon 27 Mar 20:30; Sun 23 Apr 18:10
Northern Soul
Thu 30 Mar 18:15; Sat 15 Apr 20:40
The Wednesday Play: No Trams to Lime Street + Armchair Theatre: The Hard Knock
Fri 31 Mar 18:20
Of Time and the City
Sat 1 Apr 20:40; Tue 18 Apr 18:20
Saturday Night Theatre: Roll On Four O’Clock + Play for Today: Kisses at 50
Tue 4 Apr 18:10
Billy Liar
Thu 6 Apr 20:30; Fri 14 Apr 18:15; Thu 27 Apr 20:50
Letter to Brezhnev
Fri 7 Apr 18:20; Thu 20 Apr 20:50
Sat 8 Apr 20:40
The Arbor
Tue 11 Apr 20:40; Sun 30 Apr 14:30
Play for Today: Comedians
Sat 15 Apr 15:15
Play for Today: The Land of Green Ginger + Armchair Theatre: The Pity of it All
Sun 16 Apr 15:20
Rita, Sue and Bob Too
Sun 16 Apr 18:30; Sun 30 Apr 12:10
Northern Voices Forum
Sun 23 Apr 15:00
Laughter from Liverpool + intro
Sat 29 Apr 14:50

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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
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