May 2017 marks the 30th anniversary of the release of Alan Clarke’s film Rita, Sue and Bob Too – a twisted comedic drama, set in Bradford, about two schoolgirls (Rita and Sue) who embark on a polyamorous affair with Bob, a married man they babysit for. Promoted as ‘Thatcher’s Britain with her knickers down’, the film is a bawdy comic farce and a snapshot of northern working-class life under an increasingly repressive Tory government.
Based on a play by Bradford-born writer Andrea Dunbar, Clarke’s cinematic adaptation pulls its audience into a chaotic world of booze, sex, condoms and council estates. Up until this point Clarke had been known for focusing on a particularly British violent masculinity. Scum (1979), a brutal borstal drama showcasing a young, fresh-faced Ray Winstone, and Made in Britain (1982), featuring an early outing from Tim Roth as a glue-sniffing, joy-riding skinhead trapped in a cyclical revolving door of re-offending and incarceration. Rita, Sue and Bob Too sees Clarke continue to deal with difficult themes rooted in working-class culture, but it’s a more gentle piece of work, softened by the heated but warm and humorous friendship enjoyed by Rita and Sue (Bob’s another matter).
If Rita, Sue and Bob Too leaves you wanting more, add these five film to your watchlist. Each offers either a similar setting or a big helping of the northern English grit and humour that makes Clarke’s film so special.
- Buy Rita, Sue and Bob Too on BFI Blu-ray/DVD
- Watch Rita, Sue and Bob Too on BFI Player
- How Bradford has changed in the 30 years since Alan Clarke shot Rita, Sue and Bob Too
My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)
Director Stephen Frears
Way before the list-making, nerdy bickering of High Fidelity (2000), Stephen Frears directed My Beautiful Laundrette – a romantic drama penned by Hanif Kureishi and set in south-west London during the 1980s. The protagonist, Omar (Gordon Warnecke), is a British-born Pakistani who’s given the grim job of managing his uncle’s run down, shabby launderette. While working there Omar finds himself falling in love with Johnny, an old school friend and reformed National Front thug, played by Daniel Day Lewis. As in Rita, Sue and Bob Too, Thatcher is an off-screen antagonist: the film’s events turn on Omar’s decision to run his uncle’s laundry business because of rampant unemployment and lack of opportunity – and not because of a passionate interest in washing machines.
Letter to Brezhnev (1985)
Director Chris Bernard
Letter to Brezhnev sees us back in Thatcher’s Britain, but this time the action takes us to Liverpool. Two Merseyside mates, Teresa (Margi Clarke) and Elaine (Alexandra Pigg), head into town for an alcohol-fuelled evening of fun, laughs and pulling. During their night on the tiles they meet Peter (Peter Firth) and Sergei (Alfred Molina), two Russian merchant sailors on shore leave. For Teresa the encounter is a bit of fun, but Elaine forms a genuine romantic connection with Peter and a serious romance begins to unfold. The parallels between Rita and Sue and Teresa and Elaine, four northern women trapped by their environment and looking for an escape, are there to enjoy in all their tragi-comic twists and turns.
- Buy Letter to Brezhnev on BFI Blu-ray/DVD
- Watch Letter to Brezhnev online on BFI Player
- How Liverpool has changed since Thatcher-era classic Letter to Brezhnev
East Is East (1999)
Director Damian O’Donnell
Rita, Sue and Bob Too examines the collision of culture when Sue briefly falls for Aslam (played by Kulvinder Ghir – later to find fame on the BBC’s sketch show Goodness Gracious Me). He’s a young Pakistani who works at a taxi rank on the estate and introduces Sue to his Urdu-speaking mum, taking her on a date to a Bollywood cinema. East Is East, a comedy drama following the lives of a family living in Salford in the 1970s, is a more thorough examination of this culture clash theme. The family’s domineering patriarch, George Khan (played by the great Om Puri), is an immigrant Pakistani chip-shop proprietor who is married to a local English woman. Their children each have their own unique challenge in dealing with dual heritage in the working-class north – again tragedy and comedy are issued in equal measure.
My Summer of Love (2004)
Director Pawel Pawlikowski
Although Bob lives in the same town as Rita and Sue, his world is almost as alien to them as Aslam’s. The garages and manicured lawns of his suburban, middle-class neighbourhood is worlds away from the ranting drunks and fighting dogs on Rita and Sue’s Buttershaw Estate. Pawel Pawlikowski’s film, My Summer of Love, focuses on the intimate friendship between Mona (Natalie Press) and Tamsin (Emily Blunt), two teenage girls living in rural Yorkshire. They too are from different sides of the tracks: Tamsin is a wayward upper-class teen recently suspended from boarding school; Mona lives with her brother Phil (Paddy Considine), an ex-con who’s renounced his former ways and found the Lord. Despite their differences, together they find an escape from the pressures of their family life, aided by the Yorkshire moors, mopeds and magic mushrooms.
The Arbor (2010)
Director Clio Barnard
Blurring the lines between documentary and fiction, Clio Barnard’s film The Arbor explores the tragic lives of Andrea Dunbar and her daughter Elaine. Andrea Dunbar wrote Rita, Sue and Bob Too in her early 20s and based the script on many of her own experiences. She suffered from chronic alcoholism and died in a pub from a brain haemorrhage at the age of 29. Elaine Dunbar also suffered from addiction and was jailed for manslaughter after administering a fatal dose of methadone to her infant child. Real-life interviews with key figures from Dunbar’s life were recorded, and then Barnard’s actors lip-synced along to the audio. The Arbor makes difficult viewing, offering the viewer a harrowing insight into the damaging effects of domestic abuse, poverty and addiction.