Working with Andrea Dunbar on Rita, Sue and Bob Too: Jennifer Howarth’s story
Jennifer Howarth tells of her experience working with Andrea Dunbar on the film script for Rita, Sue and Bob Too and how the two writers became friends despite their class differences
I first met Andrea Dunbar outside the Royal Court theatre in London, where the original production of Rita, Sue and Bob Too was being rehearsed. I liked her from the start and we remained friends until she died.
It was a chilly autumn day. Andrea had on a short cotton skirt, a little cardigan, bare legs and ankle strap shoes. She was chain-smoking.
Film producer Oscar Lewenstein brought us together. He had bought the rights to the play and though not long out of National Film School, I was asked to co-write the adaptation with Andrea, and direct it.
We were in Sloane Square to see if Andrea and I – a middle-class woman born in Barnsley – would get on together.
She was with Jim, her boyfriend from the Cap and Bells pub, their local on the Buttershaw estate in Bradford. Jim was wearing a noticeable toupee. “Up Cap they call him Old Wiggy,” Andrea once told me.
The Cap was a regular haunt. When we worked together, Andrea would ring me from its payphone. I didn’t hear from her for a few weeks, and it turned out the pub had painted over my number, which Andrea had scrawled on the wall, during refurbishments.
After an uneasy meal in a Sloane Square restaurant, I suggested Andrea and I could talk in the local pub by ourselves. We got on fine.
Andrea Dunbar at home
I went to Bradford to meet her family on the Buttershaw estate. I had a cup of tea in the crowded living room with Andrea’s parents, younger siblings and her toddlers Lorraine and Lisa.
Andrea used to say, “Me dad’s got a stick to hit you with. He calls it Jacky” and Jacky was there in the corner. There was a casual acceptance of violence: too many people in too small a space. The older children lifted a menacing elbow to the smaller ones, and the smallest one lifted his elbow to the dog.
Leaving the house, Andrea and I walked the roads with Lorraine and Lisa. The estate was bleak; everywhere I looked were run-down council houses.
Oscar contracted us to write the screenplay together and put us up in his place in Hove, with its own shingle beach – we were staying in a millionaire’s house and writing about the slums of Bradford.
Drawing on real life experiences
We talked a lot at the house. Andrea told me she was always in trouble for fighting at school – in fact they were glad if she stayed away.
She did get on with her art teacher and tolerated drama class, though she refused to do any kind of acting. In desperation the teacher told her to write something.
“Don’t know what to write.” The teacher responded: “Just write a scene where a girl tells her parents she’s pregnant.”
She came in to school to write the play and sat at the back of the art teacher’s class. The teachers recorded it on tape and Andrea got one CSE, in drama.
Andrea was in a women’s refuge when her play was discovered. She had left home and had a child with a man who became abusive.
When the women’s refuge asked about qualifications, she said she had a CSE in drama and had written a play. A copy was seen by actor Liane Aukin who passed it to Max Stafford-Clark, the artistic director of the Royal Court, and his then partner Carole Hayman.
“Me dad’s got a stick to hit you with. He calls it Jacky”
‘Nobody’s got white carpet in Bradford’
The couple invited Andrea to stay with them in London and work on the play. The Arbor was staged at the Royal Court.
When asked what working at Stafford-Clark’s was like, she said: “Got told off for dropping ash on the carpet. Weren’t no ashtrays. Nobody’s got white carpet in Bradford.”
She won an award at the Young Writers’ Festival and started writing Rita, Sue and Bob Too about two teenage girls having an affair with a married man. It would become her most famous play.
In trying to adapt it for screen, Oscar and I would gaze in despair at the scrappy bits of paper Andrea produced.
“What did Max say when you didn’t give him any new writing?” Oscar asked, to which Andrea replied: “He said, ‘Get in that room and fucking write’.”
“Well, my darling, I’m saying get in that room and fucking write.”
We laboured on the screenplay of Rita, Sue but it was insubstantial and too short. Adding Andrea’s trouble at school and writing success didn’t work either. I persuaded Oscar to buy the rights to The Arbor and we used material from both plays.
Andrea and I worked together happily – we never ever fell out. She couldn’t do descriptions but had a memory for dialogue like a tape recorder. Andrea wrote in long hand and I typed everything up on my old portable.
If she didn’t like something, Andrea would say, “S’crap that” and we’d drop it. She talked freely to me but I respected her privacy; I have no idea who the original Bob was.
The final version took the best part of two years and neither of us earned much. We had misgivings about the casting and the ending, but by that stage it was clear the power was with the producer. I resigned from directing and I never regretted it.
She spent a lot of her life in the pub
Andrea and I kept in touch, and she rang me frequently when they were shooting. She didn’t want them to film on her estate and didn’t like the costumes: “Crap, them.”
For the opening of Rita, Sue and Bob Too, Andrea was brought to London for publicity. I was a successful producer by this stage and we met in the pub. It was late afternoon and she was drunk, and we were picked up by a couple of soldiers. “They think I’m a prostitute, me,” she said.
We kept in touch, but a few years later my life was busy and we spoke more occasionally. One morning I was about to meet with Dudley Moore for a film I was producing when I took a call from Andrea’s old boyfriend Jim. He told me she had died from a haemorrhage in the Cap and Bells. I wept. She was 29.
Andrea Dunbar had a tough life. She had raw talent, hard common sense and wry humour. She spent a lot of her life in the pub and that’s where she died. But I still remember her on that cold autumn day, lighting up a cigarette, looking sideways at the Royal Court and laughing at it all.