Looking Back At RITA, SUE AND BOB TOO - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Tony’s back in Thatcher’s Britain.
If you’ve never seen Rita, Sue and Bob Too, it’s tricky to know where to begin explaining it, especially in 2022. Possibly, its strapline – Thatcher’s Britain With Her Knickers Down – is as good a place as any to start.

Showing life on a socially deprived Bradford council estate during the government of Margaret Thatcher, it centres on the lives and relationships of its three protagonists – Rita, Sue… and, well, you get the gist.

Rita (Siobhan Finneran, probably most widely known as Miss O’Brien from Downton Abbey) and Sue (Michelle Holmes, probably best known as the ‘first’ Yvonne in Goodnight, Sweetheart) are schoolgirls in their last year of education before leaving and doing – probably nothing. Work is hard to get, and the alternative, a government training scheme that pays a life-insulting, spirit-shrivelling pittance, is so clearly a dodge to skew the unemployment figures while the poor starve and freeze, that it insults the intelligence of even the meanest Bradford schoolgirl.

Actually, as a film, it may not be that hard to explain after all, because while much has changed, much has become again depressingly the same.

With little money, fun is also hard to come by for the girls, and they earn a little cash doing joint babysitting for Bob (George Costigan) and Michelle (Lesley Sharp), who are better off, but still live on the estate. It’s never made entirely clear how the relatively affluent couple earn their money in Thatcher’s Britain, but all is not rosy on the domestic front.

Chronically sexually mismatched, Michelle feels like having sex once a week is too much, while Bob is, if not a man-child, then certainly a man-teenage-boy, propelled through life by relatively uncontainable lust.

One night, when he’s driving Sue and Rita home after a babysitting session, he takes them up to the moors, and they have (thankfully protected) sex, one after the other, in Bob’s car.

While writer Andrea Dunbar and director Alan Clarke go out of their way to present the sex realistically – cramped, short, focused entirely on penetration and thrusting, and each girl’s session being interrupted by the complaints of the other – Rita and Sue agree that, compared to the alternative of boys their own age, sex with Bob is a thing of which they want more, and the three agree to begin a triangular affair.

Bob, however, is a bit of an idiot outside the confines of his own head. He leaves condoms in his trouser pockets, and Michelle finds them. He fronts it out, and the three continue their life-brightening sex behind Michelle’s back, the girls even skipping out of school to go and meet their slightly greasy, impatient, self-interested lothario.

When the whole situation blows up, becoming the kind of cabaret the estate couldn’t afford to pay for, things take a twist – Bob and Rita have been meeting on the side, behind SUE’s back too, and on those occasions, they’ve been less scrupulously careful.

Michelle leaves, taking her kids with her, while Bob and Rita prepare to have one together.

Sue, meanwhile, takes a job at a local cab firm, meeting Aslam (Kulvinder “Goodness Gracious Me” Ghir), a Pakistani driver, and eventually getting together with him. When they both move in with Aslam’s sister, things look positive for a while – and then the jealousy, the manipulation, and ultimately the beatings start.

Sue moves in with Rita – who’s lost the baby before being able to deliver it - in Bob and Michelle’s house, without consulting Bob, and ultimately, the three end up shacking up in the house they’ve more or less usurped in Michelle’s absence.

Annnnd that’s how the story ends. It’s oddly framed as a comedy, despite the social realism that streams through every moment of the movie. The fact that consequences are ultimately shown to be like water off our three ducks’ backs, leading to a comic ending, could be seen as justifying the strapline of the film – Thatcher’s Britain With Her Knickers Down.

Each of the three central protagonists ultimately only cares about their own aims and ends. Sue has a moment of rising above that self-centred (arguably Thatcherite) viewpoint when Rita gets pregnant with Bob’s child, and Bob says he still wants to see Sue too. She brusquely tells him that she wouldn’t do the dirty on Rita – and she doesn’t think he should, either. The irony that Rita’s been doing ‘the dirty’ on her by breaking their three-way code and sleeping with Bob on her own, isn’t exactly lost in translation, but it is rather minimised in Sue’s one shining moment of gaining a sense of the potential consequences of going behind her one true friend’s back.

But that’s undercut by the end of the film, which has Rita and Sue side by side in Bob and Michelle’s marital bed, waiting for Bob, who joins them with a leap of laughter and abandon. Consequences only extend to the three as far as they’re biological, and so to hell with it, they’ll plough on with their triangular relationship, having graduated from secrecy to openness, and from uncomfortable moors and car seats to a fully functioning bed.

As it stands, the social realism is sharp, but the comic ending is practically Shakespearean – if you were to tweak one or two elements, Rita, Sue and Bob Too could easily be a tragedy of Thatcher’s Britain, where only sex and sensation, cheap booze and other sensual pleasures offer an escape from the bleak reality of an urban landscape turned into a hostile environment not specifically for immigrants (as under Theresa May and current Home Secretary Priti Patel), but for all the working class poor, especially in the ‘economic north.’

Jeez – downer, right? Why are we flipping the tables on this 1987 film that is marketed everywhere as a comedy?

Well, because author Andrea Dunbar disowned the film precisely because of the happy ending – and the fact that other writers were brought in to deliver that tacked-on happily-callous sequence where the three pleasure-seekers end up together and happy.

She was a social realist writer of profound talent, and Rita, Sue and Bob Too was an amalgam of the first two of only three plays she wrote before dying aged just 29(!). Twisting the ending so the film could be marketed as a comedy, rather than a social realist story (with the likely negative ending that implies) turned Rita, Sue and Bob Too into something that differed significantly from the author’s initial intentions.

Was it supposed to be a dreary drag from start to finish, then?

No, of course not. Social realism includes comedy, absolutely – but it’s the comedy of people and the things they do, the things they say, to get through the generally negative flow of life. Especially life on a Bradford council estate in the age of Margaret Thatcher. Social realism includes brilliant people, mediocre people, successes, failures, bar-room wits and bedroom thuggery. It very rarely includes a happy ending(!). All the character comedy that lights up Rita, Sue and Bob Too is socially realistic – it’s almost Victoria Wood-style comedy, people saying and doing daft things to keep a light on in the bleakness of a hard life. Where that differs is in that one last scene, which says, again in a seemingly Thatcherite shrug, “To hell with it. People get hurt every day – what matters is our pleasure, so we can keep going until tomorrow.”

The contrast between the version of Rita, Sue and Bob Too that made it out into the world on film, and the version in Dunbar’s plays, takes another twist when you realise that the film was shot on location on the estate WHERE DUNBAR LIVED, and where the stories that made it into her writing were played out.

In fact, the opening shot of the film shows Sue’s staggeringly drunk father (played with a positively smellable realism by Willie Ross) leaving The Beacon pub on the Buttershaw Estate.

The very same pub where Dunbar, by then herself a heroically heavy drinker, fell ill at the age of 29, and from where she was admitted to Bradford Royal Infirmary, dying of a brain haemorrhage before she could be discharged.

Also, the framing of the film as an overall comedy of ‘immorality’ and bed-hopping adultery and drunkenness went down poorly with the real residents of the Buttershaw Estate – where Dunbar continued to live until her death. She was threatened by several of her neighbours as a result of the film.

Once you know all this, the inconsequential and comical ending to Rita, Sue and Bob Too feels more than wrong, it feels almost horrifying.

But let’s make no mistake about it. For most of its length, the film is a masterpiece. The subsequent careers of some of its core actors – Michelle Holmes, Siobhan Finneran, George Costigan, Lesley Sharp, Kulvinder Ghir, and even smaller players like Bernard Wrigley (if you’re a Phoenix Nights or Victoria Wood fan, you’ll know him. Think Bobby Ball, but funny), are testament to the fact that the casting director had an uncanny nose for talent. And the film positively thrums with realistic performances.

More than even that, though, the pace and the locations of the film make it feel like a statement on the time, the place, the economic hopelessness and the lack of pathways to anything different or better in Thatcher’s North.

From Michelle Holmes’ first scene, both Rita and Sue rarely just WALK anywhere. They MARCH – frequently in what feels like unconscious time with one another. They’re young, and impatient, and determined to get from A-B, in the hope that wherever B is, it’s better than the A they’ve just left – especially when A is their respective homes.

Bob, by contrast, moves relatively slowly most of the time, seeming to see himself as a Buttershaw Brando, all machismo and charisma. George Costigan imbues him with this sense of self, with confidence, and with unbreakable self-legend, even though we see the reality of his emotional infancy oozing through his leather jacket.

The Buttershaw Estate shows poignantly the reality of the world in which Dunbar’s life and work was lived. Even the interiors of Sue’s and Bob’s houses feel like a genuine statement on the divisions between those who have no safety net and those who have a few pounds to spare in Thatcher’s Britain. If you want to get properly socially realistic, it’s possibly worth pointing out that they had a plague back then too, though theirs was transmitted by unprotected sex with multiple partners, intravenous drug use or Hepatitis, rather than by coughing.

In Sue’s house, there’s the detritus of life that’s become a grimy part of the furniture, whereas Bob and Michelle’s place is much more precise, more clean, more tastefully decorated – almost like the show home to which Bob takes Rita for an exclusive tryst.

Watched again 35 years on from its initial launch, Rita, Sue and Bob Too is still a fantastic, intense piece of film, with plenty of character-based and incidental humour along the way, because life is like that, and social realism helps you see both the drama, the tragedy, and the comedy in any situation.

The ending though, while acceptable back in 1987, feels oddly consequence-free in the 21st century, and when you add in all the things about Andrea Dunbar’s life and response to the film that no-one knew in the Eighties, it feels like a betrayal of her vision and her creative principles.

Rita, Sue and Bob Too is 96% timeless excellence, but it should never have been sold as an outright comedy. It’s a film about finding light in dark times, hit with writing spanners at the end to free it of its consequences and sell it to a society that was in dire need of laughs, rather than of taking a long, hard look at itself.

Watch Rita, Sue and Bob Too today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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