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, youngvic.org

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