Liz Kershaw: The estates of the nation

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The Independent Online

"If you read about what's going on right now in Oldham or Burnley, you feel frightened and aggressive towards those people. But now I can relate to them. This demystifies them," the theatre director Max Stafford-Clark told me after the timely airing of his double dose of gritty northern drama on Radio 3 last Sunday. He'd adapted Andrea Dunbar's early Eighties play, Rita, Sue and Bob Too specially for radio. It was followed by A State Affair, a new work by Robin Soans with a similar setting.

Originally written for stage and adapted for film in 1982, Dunbar's story is one of life on a rough council estate. Rita and Sue are 15 and desperate to leave school and home. Deprivation, domestic violence and drinking dominate their daily lives. And yet men, marriage and motherhood are still romanticised, mainly because they seem to offer the only means of escape. This is set in a time before cheap crack was the cure-all for terminal hopelessness. For these heroines, love is the drug when bonking Bob the builder puts the lust into their lacklustre lives.

Bob's just not getting enough from the wife. So whenever he gives the girls a lift home from babysitting, he pulls on to the moors and takes turns with them. While he fumbles around with one of them in the front of the car, the other waits in the back, watching and chatting. They may think Bob is brilliant, but the bond between these best mates is such that no bloke is going to come between them and they're quite happy to share him. Until one of them brags to another girl and their families find out. An ugly scene follows, Bob's wife gets to hear what's going on, and she leaves him to it. By then one of the girls is pregnant, and moves in with Bob. Her mate's miffed, but finds another fella. Life's not exactly lovely, but at least it's no longer boring.

You'd think all this would be a little too close to home for me to find funny. The actress Michelle Holmes who starred in the film version went to the same Rochdale secondary school as me. Perhaps she drew inspiration from girls as young as 12, who'd boast about how much sex and cider they were getting every night. There were no-go areas for nice girls like us: dark and dirty toilets full of the sickening stench of stale smoke and lurid graffiti. When I was asked to take a younger girl home to a notorious estate, the house was so filthy that I came out and threw up.

And yet Rita, Sue and Bob Too is a good laugh. Somehow it manages to be extremely realistic but not quite real. Rita and Sue aren't intimidating. They're pathetic and lovable. And poor Bob. He's a bit of a bugger but honestly, hasn't the bloke been been driven to it by his sex-rationing, simpering, supposedly sophisticated wife? The film version even has a bouncy ending. The radio play was definitely darker.

"The film is like Carry On Up The Council Estate," Max Stafford-Clark suggested. "Andrea [who lived on such an estate and died at the age of 29] really disapproved of the ending. She said it would never have happened, and that her ending is much truer." Depressingly so. In fact, this was outstandingly, disturbingly different from the usual run-of-the-mill radio drama.

Take the sound quality, the atmosphere. It was decided to record on location rather than use synthesised studio sound, and it shows that to make really gritty drama, you need more than a tray of gravel and a collection of other clapped-out props. "I'm inexperienced in radio," the director admitted. "So I discussed how to record it all it with the BBC producer Polly Thomas, and we felt that if it were on location, it would give it a livelier feel." (Could the Archers cast possibly consider getting out on to a farm occasionally?) "On location you get a density, a richness. For instance, in the opening scene there's a dog barking, which we would never have thought to put in. If a plane went overhead, well, you heard a plane going overhead or a car going by or some birds. It's just a fuller sound."

"How did they do the car scenes?" an intrigued friend was bursting to know. "Oh, they were recorded on Hampstead Heath," the director confided. "It was really funny, because the actors were used to taking off their clothes on stage, but found it really embarrassing when they were giving their all in the front seats on top of each other." (Now, you couldn't carry that off with a couple of coconuts.) "And we were crouched down in the grass listening on headphones and getting strange looks from joggers." Joggers? Why weren't they on the Pennines? "Oh, it's just that everyone's in London these days," according to producer Polly Thomas.

And how did they avoid the usual phoney accents? "The nucleus of that group were actors with whom I'd done the stage production," said Stafford-Clark of the casting. "Emily Aston who played Rita is from Bacup. Mathew Wait [Bob] is from Worksop. Sally Rogers [Bob's wife] is from Manchester." Which makes her Yorkshire accent even more stunning. And the vocabulary is spot-on too, because, so I was told, they had spent three weeks in Leeds.

The big row (between Rita and Sue's families when they find out about Bob's antics) was so realistic, I had to skulk inside from listening in the garden when it occurred to me that our neighbours would think it was me going at it hammer-and-tongue. "We recorded it in the courtyard of a block of flats. People were leaning out of their windows to see what was going on."

For the second play the writer, cast and production team went back to the estate where Andrea Dunbar had lived, and on which she based her play. "I wanted to see what it was like, 20 years on, with drugs being freely available," said Stafford-Clark. The actors interviewed locals to create their own monologues, which were then interwoven to create a catalogue of human misery. Addiction, adultery, wife-beating and child abuse, but no plot. This was more like a documentary than drama, and that made it doubly disturbing.

In fact, it was verging on voyeurism and made for very uncomfortable listening. No laughs here. I'm told the cast were all deeply affected by it, too. So was it suitable Sunday night entertainment? And what did the director think he was doing?

"I remember reading a series of newspaper articles about the underclass. Now I can't pass someone selling the Big Issue without buying one. I just know that they have a story to tell. I'd like to see more money for drug rehabilitation clinics. Everyone we spoke to told us how ineffective current rehab methods are. And they all agreed, including the police, that certainly cannabis, and even heroin, should be legalised, because it's not really the drug itself, but the criminal activity around it that's dangerous."

And what good can possibly come from exposing well-to-do Radio 3 listeners to this ghastly horridness as they turned off and turned into their nice, safe, cosy beds on Sunday night?

"I have no problem with doing plays for a middle-class audience. After all, it's them who can change things."