I remember watching the 1987 cult film Rita, Sue and Bob Too and thinking I’d never seen anything like it before. It’s about two teenage schoolgirls from a run-down council estate having a sexual fling with a married man. I remember the scene where the married man was having sex in the front seat of his car while her friend sat in the back seat waiting for her turn. Blimey - did such an underbelly of society exist? The writer was Andrea Dunbar and here I am at her former home on the Buttershaw housing estate where she wrote about such people who did exist. Scenes from the estate were used in the film.
I arrived at Andrea's former home on the Brafferton Arbor estate in south west of Bradford with trepidation. It was a Saturday afternoon and someone was in the main front window. The occupants were probably friendly (sometimes they invite you in) but the estate wasn’t really. I’d passed the odd mattress in a garden, smashed booze bottles and bikes just lying abandoned the street. I got out and took some photos of the blue plaque. The house looks out across a large square of grass to houses that look private and newer than Andrea’s. I had a walk around the grass (on which stood blocks of flats in the seventies) and returned to the blue plaque. It must have been a tight squeeze in there - Andrea had seven brothers and sisters to her parents who both worked in the textile industry.
She was only fifteen when she began her first play The Arbor written in green biro in pages torn from an exercise book. It was just a assignment for her CSE English - grim stuff about a schoolgirl who gets pregnant by her Pakistani boyfriend, a rough racist estate and an abusive boozer of a dad. Her teacher encouraged her and helped her turn it into a play which - against terrific odds - premiered at London's Royal Court Theatre in 1980. She was just 18 and this was dreamy stuff for a impoverished Bradford lass who'd never even been inside a theatre. The Arbor won Andrea joint first prize at the Young Writers' Festival and she was commissioned to write a follow-up play which became Rita, Sue and Bob Too. It was performed in 1982 when Andrea was only 21. She wasn’t overly impressed at the glitz though. She was writing what she knew about: underage sex at the down-at-heel estate, grubby living conditions and poverty. She’d got pregnant at 15 (it was stillborn at 6 months) and would go onto have three children by three different fathers. She was a single-mum of two while still a teenager. She spent 18 months in a women's refuge and drank heavily. There was an appearance in court for assault, windows were smashed after a clash with a boyfriend and one daughter was a heroin addict.
You’d think the 26-year-old would have been elated when Rita, Sue and Bob Too was released in 1987 but Andrea estranged herself from it after other writers were brought in to give it a happier ending. She didn’t do happiness and elation and some Buttershaw residents didn't like the estate being known as “Thatcher’s Britain with its knickers down.” She received threats from some residents and jealousy from others who thought she was earning a small fortune (a semi-detached house was £20,000 then - way beyond their reach.) One day she was sat on a bar stool in the Cap n’ Bells pub when someone she knew dragged her off the stool by her hair and threw her to the floor and then walked out.
Andrea died aged 29 from a brain haemorrhage and I drove a couple of minutes to neglected Beacon pub on Reevy Road where she fell ill (it appears at the start of the film.) I got out and had a look around. The poor lass was drinking in here one night a few days before Christmas in 1990 when she collapsed. She was rushed to Bradford Royal Infirmary but deep damage was done. The next day a scan showed she was brain dead and the life support machine was turned off (her children were only told after after Christmas.) I took a few photographs of the wrecked pub and thought ironic it was she'd collapsed here as she'd written some of the plays while drinking. I got chatting to a friendly chap parking his van opposite. He said two lads had run the pub, ripped the money out of it and vanished. I hadn’t driven passed any other pubs so I guess it could still be a money-spinner but the chap said he’d heard it was going to be torn down and replaced with flats. I’ll drive by in a few years and have another look. Another local told me Andrea used to drink there but she preferred another pub The Cow and Bells.
I did a salute outside the pub to the amusement of some kids on bikes. I had a coffee and a sandwich in the car, did a salute at the curious kids and left. I called at Bradford Infirmary to see where Andrea had been rushed to and died. Later on I drove onto the expansive cemetery where she's buried and got lucky finding the grave marked by a simple cross. Tentacles of Andrea’s tragic life continued after her death: in 2007 her eldest daughter Lorraine - then a heroin addict - was convicted of manslaughter after her child died by ingesting a lethal dose of methadone and in 2018 her youngest daughter Lisa died of cancer aged 36. I thought she may be buried here with her mum but there's no mention of her. Perhaps the ashes are here.
What a shame Andrea didn’t live on - we might have seen more mature writing and more films. She'd written a third play called Shirley so hopefully we'll see it as a film one day. At least there's a blue plaque on her house. She put Bradford on the map; now it's not all about The Yorkshire Ripper. Arousing the curiosity of a copse of council men pruning trees I took my cap off, did a salute and left with a wave. Good on her.
A small link is here...
Andrea's daughter outside her former home...
Andrea collapsed here...