Rita, Sue and Bob Too: 30 years on, we talk to Lisa Pearce, daughter of the acclaimed playwright Andrea Dunbar
by Mark Davis
Thirty years after the film Rita, Sue and Bob Too became an unexpected smash hit and made a celebrity of its writer, 26-year-old Andrea Dunbar, Northern Life’s Mark Davis returned to the Bradford estate where he used to live, where the movie was shot, and where Andrea herself lived and died tragically young, to speak with her daughter Lisa Pearce. She spoke of her pride at her mum’s achievements, but revealed that like her mother she is about to die young.
When the film Rita, Sue and Bob Too, directed by Alan Clarke, was screened in Britain in August 1987 it was expected to take in a million pounds. This was a huge sum at the time, especially when the average semi-detached house was sub £20,000.
At the Berlin Film Festival in the March it was compared with the highly acclaimed Letter to Brezhnev. Variety, America’s leading showbiz magazine, said Andrea Dunbar’s work – “was in the finest traditions of British realist cinema.”
At the time, Andrea, then a working-class mother of three children (by different men) was aged just 26, but likened in appearance to a care-worn 40-year-old. She was interviewed by the Mail on Sunday in July 1987, just as her ability to weave magic with words was being universally recognised.
The film based on her screenplay was billed as “Thatcher’s Britain with her knickers down” and Andrea was dubbed “The genius from the slums, that defied all expectations.”
No one was more surprised about her success than Andrea. She told the Mail: “I don’t read owt, only ‘orror books and I don’t know any writers.” During the interview she appeared nervous and withdrawn, and admitted being devastated by the fact her work had already cut her off from the community she had written about so vividly. Talking about the resentment on the notorious Buttershaw estate where she both lived and wrote about, she said: “They hate me because they’ve got nowt. But if they are attacking me they are leaving some other poor bugger alone. I can take it.”
Looking back now it is clear to see she had taken a lot in her short life. She had an alcoholic father whom she hated, little education and was surrounded by unemployment. She had a stillborn child at 15, her first baby at 17 and never left the estate except for a pub outing to Belgium in 1983. The fact that she wrote anything at all was a miracle.
Sadly Andrea’s life was cut short when she died on the 20th December 1990 as a result of a brain haemorrhage. She was only 29 and ironically collapsed at The Beacon pub, the very place where she had written her plays. She died a day later at Bradford Royal Infirmary after the hospital turned off the life support system due to her being diagnosed as brain dead.
Brafferton Arbour in Buttershaw where Andrea lived was like downtown Beirut to me as a child. The Dunbar boys of my age were dirty, rotten, and hard, so were the Ramsdens. To me they were like wild animals. At Cooper Lane First School, not far from Buttershaw where I attended, they would roam the playground in packs and you never looked them in the eye for fear they would see your weakness and then you would be lost.
Around plot night the garden sheds, fences, and anything made of wood that disappeared locally would be found amongst the legendary bonfire night fire being prepared in the centre of the Arbour. One year we drove down in the Hillman Avenger into ‘no man’s land’ looking for my younger sister’s wooden slide that had gone walkabout the previous night and saw it wedged in about 15 feet high in the stack. On reaching home, my dad lifted the BT Trimphone to report it to the police before rubbing his chin, and after hesitating a few seconds he put the phone firmly back down. Hmmm, thought I, he was scared too. The pivotal moment had arrived when my dad and me first agreed on anything!
“I am really proud of what my mum did and people recognise me as having a famous mum”
Thirty years after Rita, Sue and Bob Too hit the big screen I met with Lisa Pearce, who is Andrea’s youngest daughter. At 36 years old she lives almost a spitting distance away from the house where Andrea lived on the Arbour, and where more recently a blue plaque has been erected to her memory. Lisa, a mum-of-three lives a very different life to what her mum knew and accepted. Surrounded by the love of her partner Paul and her two youngest children Euan age six, and Keeley age seven, everything should be rosy in the garden, but in life, fate can plays cruel tricks.
As the genius of her mother’s work is being celebrated thirty years on, when Lisa should be basking in that recognition she has been given the devastating news that everyone fears. Lisa, who was looking forward to the birth of her next child, was diagnosed with stage four stomach cancer and was given just three months to live at Christmas 2016.
Lisa told me: “I think my mum’s work is amazing, because she was so young. When she died I had just gone ten in November. They didn’t tell us until after Christmas that she had gone.
“We all wondered where she was but they didn’t want to spoil Christmas for us. At the time we were used to her travelling up and down to London because she was quite famous then, so in our mind that is where we thought she was.
“Losing my mum was really hard. At first I didn’t want to sleep alone. I always slept with my grandma or my sister.
“I always thought that she would come back and haunt me. I was scared of ghostly things. I used to think that although she wouldn’t want to hurt me as I was the closest one of the kids to her it would be me she would she would come to. Growing up I used to have this anxiety and attachment thing with her as we were really close.
“After mum died I lived on the Arbour until I was 17, then I left home. There were lots of split families. Don’t get me wrong, once they started drinking they would be scrapping amongst themselves but they always stuck together regardless.
“They were racist round here then so that is probably why she added Aslam, and that makes me think it might have been about her (Lisa’s eldest sister Lorraine’s father was Asian). Folk didn’t like it too because it seemed like she was slagging the estate off but do you know what to this day all people do is talk about her because she put Buttershaw on the map.
“These days they say good things about her. Back then I remember one occasion where she was sat on a bar stool in the Cap n’ Bells pub. I had just come out of school when this person we knew just dragged her off the stool by her hair and threw her to the floor and then walked out, and it was all out of jealousy. It’s still the same round here today.
“The Rita, Sue and Bob Too thing has never stopped being talked about but it seems to have a lot more interest now. My married name is Pearce so people do not associate me with the Dunbar name, but when I moved to Stoke after leaving home they would even talk about the film being on television. I confided in a mate about who I was and she told everyone. I
am really proud of what mum did and people recognise me as having a famous mum.
“When I found out I was poorly I didn’t let them in and tell them everything. They didn’t like it, so they started up rumours. Nobody says anything now and it’s all calmed down because they have something new to talk about now.”
Lisa originally put her sickness down to her pregnancy and was delivered a devastating blow when she went for a scan.
“I remember the nurse’s exact words ‘Can you just wait there? I need you to speak to somebody?’ ‘That’s fine,’ I replied, but it wasn’t fine because I thought there was something wrong with the baby. My head was spinning.
“The person that came to see me straight away was an Oncologist she said ‘We have found something and we can tell that it’s a tumour.’ They wanted to cut it out and give me treatment but I said “as soon as you open me up I’m a goner.” They gave me three months to live at Christmas and I am still going. I will fight the fight, I am going down hardcore because I know for a fact if I’d had chemo I would have gone by now. I would have laid vegetating in bed.
“I have bad days and good days. It hurts me to know I am poorly but I am trying to ignore it, but it gets to me more when I am on my own.
“I have got numbers written down on the fridge in case I am alone with the kids. Keeley knows how to use the phone and I have trained her how to react if mummy collapses. She is really good, always offering to help, like putting the clothes in the washer and asking if she can help me.
“When my mum died my brother Andrew was seven like Keeley but he can’t remember much about mum but I know if I died tomorrow Keeley would never forget me. I spend a lot of time with her and have built so many memories together.
“I have accepted that it’s going to happen but I am going to live each day as it comes and go down hardcore like I told you. I will carry on drinking, I will carry on smoking, no-one is going to tell me what to do. I just want to spend time with my loved ones really, that is the most precious thing for me. I have planned things, financially and even planned my own funeral.
“I have written individual letters for everyone with songs too. My mum, she dropped down dead and none of us got a letter and I don’t think at the time there were that many Christmas presents from her left even though it was the 20th December that she died. That might have been because she had been ill and complaining of headaches days before her collapse. I went with her to the doctors and they wouldn’t even give her any headache pills, they just told her to sleep.
“Even now to this day if I get a headache I panic. I had this fear of death and worried I would die before I was 29 because that was the age my mum died.
“I came back to Bradford to be with my partner Paul and I like being back in Bradford because I feel close to mum and I can visit her grave where her ashes are at Scholemoor Cemetery.
“I feel blessed having Paul. I love Paul but I have told him if he finds anyone else after I am gone I will come back haunt the bastard!
“My mum wasn’t feisty, she was quite soft and timid. She was an observer and I’m the same. I don’t judge a book by its cover. “I have always cried on mum’s birthday and around Christmas on her memorial days. She has been dead 27 years and she is still in my head and my heart. I can still hear her voice sometimes.
Lisa leans back laughing and tells me, “The last words she spoke to me were ‘**** off, I am skint,’ when I asked her for 10 pence for a Woppa bar!”
“I have some comfort in that mum’s eyes were given up for transplant and Grandma got a letter thanking her for the gift of sight from the mother of the girl that got them.
“There are so many times and not just with this illness, that I have wanted my mum, when my kids were born, when I got married and they were always the hardest days, but I always took a photograph of her with me. I was the same with my grandma when she died because when mum died Gran became my mum. Gran was the voice that kept everyone together.
“Sometimes I feel a presence at the side of my bed. I have told Paul whoever it is coming to the bed better **** off because at the time that I feel it, I think is this it? Is this when I am going? But I haven’t had that for a good few weeks now luckily. I think I will end up stuck in between worlds between heaven and hell!
“At the minute I am positive and cracking on, and that is why I am off to get a beer now. It’s dinnertime, do you want one?”