Andrea Dunbar: A genius from the slums

A new film revisits the short life and harsh vision of Andrea Dunbar. Its director, Clio Barnard, explains why the teenage playwright is more relevant than ever

They'll forget all about us by tomorrow," predicted the British playwright Andrea Dunbar when she enjoyed a precocious burst of success in the 1980s. She was nearly right: certainly, her fame subsided after her death at the age of 29, only 10 years after the Royal Court's production of her first play, The Arbor, written in her mid-teens. Nevertheless, Dunbar's reputation endures: partly because a dramatic voice so uncompromising isn't easily forgotten, partly because her unvarnished picture of breadline life in 1980s Britain is again beginning to look distressingly contemporary.

Now a new film directed by Clio Barnard, and also named The Arbor, shows that the tough world Dunbar knew is still very much with us, and that the legacy of deprivation carries on from generation to generation. You could say that The Arbor is the first British film of the Cameron era.

The third of eight children, Dunbar was born in 1961 on Bradford's notoriously tough Buttershaw Estate. She was 15 when she wrote The Arbor for a school CSE project, but it was three years before she submitted it to the Royal Court's Young Writers' Festival. The play was staged at the Royal Court in 1980, directed by Max Stafford-Clark, and Dunbar was immediately hailed as the real thing, with her uncensored vernacular and no-frills depiction of estate life at its harshest. Shelagh Delaney – herself a working-class teenager when her play A Taste of Honey made her famous in 1958 – called Dunbar "a genius straight from the slums with black teeth and a brilliant smile".

Dunbar's work was drawn from life. Her first play was set on Brafferton Arbor, Dunbar's street on the estate where she grew up, continued to live and eventually died; a place scarred by deprivation and racism. The Arbor's lead character identifies herself, when questioned by a policeman, as Andrea Dunbar. She gets pregnant, attends a school for unmarried mothers, loses the baby, argues with her family about her brother – killed in a car accident – then gets pregnant again by her Pakistani boyfriend Yousaf, who later becomes abusive. All this corresponded to Dunbar's own experience.

The Arbor was followed by Rita, Sue and Bob Too, about two teenage girls having an affair with a married man, and Shirley, both featuring vertiginous experiments with counterpointed dialogue. Dunbar was also hired to adapt Rita, Sue and Bob Too for the cinema. The 1986 film, shot on Buttershaw itself, was directed by the late master of British realism, Alan Clarke; it became a cause célèbre of 1980s British cinema, with its ribald backchat about condoms and sweaty "jumps" in cars.

Dunbar achieved modest fame. She had an Arena documentary devoted to her, and was widely interviewed in the wake of Clarke's film. She professed to be puzzled by the attention, commenting, "There's people in Buttershaw a lot more clever than I could ever be. I just stumbled across this writing by accident, whereas other people haven't had the opportunity to get out and do that." Dunbar never moved away from Bradford, where success arguably made things worse for her. In 1987, she told The Independent, "I still have

to get used to photographers and reporters, especially the ones that jump out of cars and stick a mic in my face... Is this what they call fame, I wonder?"

Dunbar's modest income – first from her plays, then £5,000 for the film script – also brought unwelcome attention from Social Security investigators. Rita, Sue... was attacked by the local tourist office for giving a "slummy, fake image of Bradford", and some Buttershaw residents were equally hostile. Dunbar claimed to take all this on the chin: "If they are attacking me, they are leaving some other poor bugger alone."

Even so, such pressures may have contributed to Dunbar's increasing drink problem, as well as her disillusionment about writing. In 1987, she commented, "The dreams I had are all finished. There were just one thing – as a kid, I always thought, one day I'll be on telly. I was, and after that, it were gone." In December 1990, she collapsed in her local pub, the Beacon, and died of a brain haemorrhage.

Clio Barnard's film is not a documentary about, or a recreation of Dunbar's life, but a fascinating hybrid. Herself from the Bradford area, the artist-filmmaker had her interest piqued when she read Rita, Sue and Bob Too reprinted with Robin Soan's 2000 verbatim play A State Affair, which revisited Dunbar's world. Barnard decided to look closer at Andrea, whom she first discovered through the British Library's audio archive: "I found it incredibly moving to hear her voice – the softness of it, and her youth."

The human voice remains central to Barnard's The Arbor, which emerges from two years of recording interviews – sound only – with members of the Dunbar family and others. Barnard then had actors lip-sync to their words; the result is an eerie detachment that strangely heightens the testimonies' emotional power. This is especially true of Manjinder Virk's exceptionally moving performance as Andrea's oldest child, Lorraine Dunbar, even though – or perhaps because – Virk decided not to meet or even look at photos of the real Lorraine.

The key to making the film, Barnard says, proved to be Lorraine, whose exceptionally grim life – in some ways a continuation of her mother's – became the film's other main subject. "I didn't know how autobiographical Andrea's plays were until I met her sister Pamela, who said that Yousaf in The Arbor was Lorraine's father. That felt very significant." It is Lorraine's story that gives the film its disturbing intensity.

Growing up among people who refused to acknowledge her half-Pakistani identity, Lorraine was raped at 14, exposed early to crack and heroin, endured prostitution and domestic violence, and was imprisoned for involvement in a robbery. In 2006, her two-year-old son Harris died after ingesting some of his mother's methadone: Lorraine was convicted of manslaughter. She is now out of prison and has started a new life; the extremity of her experience makes it all the more impressive that she was willing to expose her life so candidly on screen.

As for Andrea, says Barnard, her achievement is particularly prodigious given the challenges she faced, and so young. "Something I really admire Andrea for is that, in her letters to Max [Stafford-Clark], it's all about childcare. It must have been phenomenally difficult for her, with three young kids, to be coming down to London, attending rehearsals, writing scenes, with all the stuff that was going on around her."

Old local resentment has faded now. For her film, Barnard went to the Buttershaw Estate, where she staged scenes from The Arbor outdoors – on sofas on Brafferton Arbor itself – to a warm reception from residents. "People would just come and join in. What you don't see in the film is that, as soon as the camera cut, those sofas would be mobbed." A plaque in Dunbar's honour is going up on the Arbor this month.

But, the film suggests, Buttershaw has not necessarily changed for the better since Andrea's day, and hard drug use is considerably more entrenched. In Lorraine's words: "If Mum wrote the play now, Rita and Sue would be smackheads." The Arbor is a well-timed release, given the return of a cuts-crazed Conservative government. "When I was making it," says Barnard, "I didn't know that it would be like the Thatcher years again. I hope people will make that connection." She admits her film is harrowing. "I could have gone to Buttershaw and made a film that was completely optimistic; there are optimistic, positive things there too. But if the end of the film said, 'Actually, everything's OK', that would be a false reassurance."

Dunbar's own writing offers, if not reassurance, certainly a bold spirit of resistance: harsh as her fictionalised Bradford is, she suggests the possibility of endurance through humour and defiance, not to mention unashamed enjoyment of sex. Looking up contemporary reviews of the film of Rita, Sue and Bob Too, I came across this casual parenthesis from Hilary Mantel in The Spectator: "Why are some young lives such a tissue of misfortune?" It's a bitterly apt question considering what would later happen to Lorraine Dunbar. It may not be a question that Clio Barnard's film answers, but The Arbor does find a challenging and inventive way to ask it again.

'The Arbor' (15) is released on Friday. 'As it Goes', a series of Andrea Dunbar play readings, plus panel discussion, will be held at the Young Vic, London SE1, Wed to Sat, 020 7922 2922,

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste