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
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
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.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London