Chris Arnot

A few samples of my work

Playing for real

The portrayal of life on a grim West Yorkshire council estate caused a stir in the play and film Rita, Sue and Bob Too. Nearly 20 years on, preparations for a new play revealed a community still trying to cope with its problems.

London theatre director Max Stafford-Clark first met Andrea Dunbar in 1980 in Haworth, that unusually twee part of West Yorkshire which was once home to the Brontës. Like Charlotte and Emily, Andrea was a female writer whose work caused a stir in its day. Comparisons end there. Dunbar’s natural territory was the Buttershaw council estate in Bradford.

“She was staying at a refuge for battered women when I tracked her down,” Stafford-Clark recalls. “Her social worker just happened to live in Haworth.” A long way from the Royal Court in Sloane Square, SW1, where Stafford-Clark was responsible for unearthing new writing talent. Dunbar didn’t seem too bothered about being unearthed. But she did, rather grudgingly, agree to follow the posh bloke with the double-barrelled name back to London, and attend rehearsals of a play called The Arbor, which she had written at 17.

She would go on to write Rita, Sue and Bob Too – shocking, even by the Royal Court’s standards, in its portrayal of life in what has become known as “the underclass”. It was not an expression that Dunbar would have recognised. She just lived in the underclass. And died there. Three years after the play had been made into a feature film, she collapsed in the very familiar surroundings of her local pub. A short, brutal life, which had spawned a rare talent, had been extinguished at 28.

“Most working-class writers become middle class after their first success,” says Stafford-Clark. “But she was never interested in escaping.” That’s why, he believes, hers was an authentic voice worth rediscovering. Twenty years on from that first meeting, he has taken six actors from his Out of Joint theatre company and gone back to the estates of West Yorkshire to find out what’s changed since the early years of Thatcherism. In the autumn, they’re planning to stage a revival of Rita, Sue and Bob Too, coupled with a new play called A State Affair, which should reflect three weeks of listening to residents, drug counsellors, care workers, policemen and others.

The man responsible for transforming their words into a coherent, compelling drama is Robin Soans, an actor who lives in Kilburn, north-west London. He has worked for the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, as well as the Royal Court. When I catch up with him in Bradford, he is scribbling notes in the cramped office of Agape House, a stone-built villa which an estate agent might describe as “compact”.

Perhaps it just seems small because there are so many people in it. Apart from a project worker, part-time volunteers and a kitchen full of cooks, there are a dozen young men in various stages of rehabilitation from serious drug habits. They are the lucky ones. Many more are clamouring to get in. “We can only take 12 at a time,” says Sue King, who set up the unit with a loan from Barclays and some funding from her local Free Church, where her husband James is a pastor.

The Kings have a business selling burglar alarms – much in demand on the nearby Thorpe Edge estate. Robberies to fund drug habits are not exactly uncommon. Soans and Stafford-Clark did plenty of reading (notably the work of Nick Davies and Paul Danziger) before heading north, so they had some idea of what to expect. “But the thing that has shocked me,” Soans admits, “is the sheer scale of it. A policeman told me that he knew of only one person who could finance his habit.”

It’s not that the drugs are expensive. Indeed, one of the key changes since the early 80s is a drastic reduction in the price of heroin, which has served to make it accessible to far greater numbers. “We’re not looking back to some golden age,” Soans insists. “Many of the old factory jobs round here had gone by 1982. But no structure has been put in place to replace that pattern of the working day. At the same time, the other structures which held society have gradually disappeared – youth clubs, boys’ brigades, swimming pools, even chip shops and post offices.” Sue King chips in: “And don’t forget the break-up of the family unit.”

“Absolutely,” Soans goes on. “Every story starts with terrible abuse – sexual, physical or emotional. No wonder heroin has gone through this area like a forest fire. It offered temporary relief from pain. One woman told me it was ‘like heaven on a piece of foil’.”

Jack would recognise that description. He knows all about the buzz of heroin. And the pain it causes. Tucking into a bowl of pasta on the terrace behind Agape House, he is wearing a tracksuit and looking like a fit young man of 25 should do.

“When I came in here, I looked as though I’d come from Belsen,” he confides between mouthfuls. He had, in fact, come from Leeds, where he once had a £250-a-week job as a machine operator and a girlfriend who was a catalogue model. His addiction to heroin cost him both, and he bitterly regrets it now he can think straight. “When you’re on smack, you don’t think about anyone else,” he says. “All that’s on your mind is when that dealer’s going to switch on [his mobile] and where you’re going to get the money to pay for it.”

Listening carefully is young actor Gary Whitaker, who was brought up on the Buttershaw estate and went to school with Andrea Dunbar’s brother. Although he has no part in the revival of Andrea’s best-known play, he has offered his services as “tourist guide” to Stafford-Clark. “It was a bit eerie going back,” he concedes. “There were so many boarded-up houses, but I think that’s because they’re doing a lot of work there.”

In fact, Buttershaw and two adjoining estates have been the recipients of £31m from the single regeneration budget. “There are a lot of positive things going on,” adds Whitaker, who is keen not to appear critical of the place he came from and where some old mates still live.

Although he has appeared in some cutting-edge work on the London stage, his face is better known up here from television advertisements. “Are you the Kwik-Fit fitter?” asks a resident, emerging from the pool room at Agape House. Whitaker grins gamely and admits that he is. After that welcome shaft of light relief, we set off to a drop-in centre called the Listening Zone, run by more volunteers – “rays of hope,” according to Stafford-Clark who seems surprised and moved by how many selfless people devote their lives to battling against seemingly insurmountable odds in their own communities.

The zone is in Greystoke Avenue, but this derelict stretch of shuttered shops might as well be called Desolation Row. Across the road, it’s a different story. Neat new semis in local stone are set in an undulating landscape with open fields behind them. Hope and despair rub shoulders here.

Actress Jane Wood sits on a crumbling wall outside the derelict shops and tells me about two little girls who used to play with her daughter in London. Both later became addicted to heroin. One is dead and the other has just had her child taken away. Wood blinks away the tears and says: “Even if we can’t change anything by putting on this play, we might just raise awareness of what’s going on.”

Those who choose to go and see it will be confronted by two bleak views of estate life, separated by 20 years. And still no happy ending in sight.

A talent shining through the gloom

When Rita, Sue and Bob Too first hit the London stage, it was famously described as “Thatcher’s Britain with its knickers down”. In a notorious first scene, two schoolgirls take turns to have sex with a married man in the back of his car.

In an unfortunate piece of timing, the later film version of the play was released just as Bradford council was launching a promotional campaign for the city under the slogan Bouncing Back With Bradford. Among reviews best described as mixed, the Daily Express called the film “unmitigated abusive gloom”.

In the ensuing controversy, playwright Andrea Dunbar wrote in the Yorkshire Post: “This is life, the facts are there. The guardians of our morals can stand back and gasp, but these things go on – maybe not in their circles, but certainly in mine. Young girls do get involved with married men. They do have affairs and abortions, and nobody gives a second thought to it.”

The film, though, was resented by many older residents of the Buttershaw estate. And Dunbar did suffer a backlash. One of her daughters, Lorraine, has blamed the movie for her mother’s death, and Rob Ritchie, who had acted as Dunbar’s informal agent, has said: “I think the film… was the point at which whatever dreams she might have had about being a writer collapsed. It unleashed all those problems for her family and the community that she was living in.”

Dunbar always maintained she was an unexceptional talent. “There’s people in Buttershaw a lot more clever than I could ever be,” she once told the Bradford Telegraph & Argus.

• Rita, Sue and Bob Too and A State Affair begin a national tour at the Liverpool Everyman on October 19. The plays will go to Oxford, Colchester, Eastbourne, Plymouth, Coventry, Manchester, Blackpool, Cam- bridge and the Soho Theatre, London (December 5-16 and December 27 to January 13).

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