Nov­el­ist shines a light on the life of An­drea Dunbar

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AN­DREA DUNBAR, the un­mar­ried mother from Brad­ford whose de­fi­antly au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal plays made her, briefly, a re­luc­tant dar­ling of ’80s Bri­tish the­atre, saw facets of her life played out on stage and screen. Both The Ar­bor and Rita, Sue and

Bob Too! were pre­miered in Lon­don at that rar­efied cen­tre of edgy and avant­garde the­atre, the Royal Court. Later both pieces would form the ba­sis of the film of Rita, Sue…, dubbed “Thatcher’s Bri­tain with its knick­ers down”, which be­came a no­to­ri­ous cause célèbre.

A quar­ter of a cen­tury later a film of The Ar­bor would fur­ther ex­plore the roots of her muse and that ex­tra­or­di­nary jour­ney from the streets and boule­vards of a sink es­tate in Brad­ford. Now long dead – she suc­cumbed to a brain haem­or­rhage in 1990 aged just 29 – Dunbar’s story is be­ing told anew by the York­shire poet Adelle Stripe. Her de­but novel

Black Teeth and a Bril­liant Smile has been dubbed “kitchen sink noir” and un­apolo­get­i­cally presents it­self as “an al­ter­na­tive ver­sion of his­toric events”.

Stitched to­gether from letters and scripts, oc­ca­sional ref­er­ences, news­pa­per cut­tings, hearsay or frac­tured mem­ory, it is an un­de­ni­ably harsh yet fair por­trait of one of the UK’s most orig­i­nal voices.

As Stripe says be­fore the book be­gins: “It is not the truth and ex­ists purely within the realms of spec­u­la­tion.”

“My ini­tial in­ten­tion was to write a straight bi­og­ra­phy,” says Tad­cast­er­born Stripe from her home in Mytholm­royd, where she writes in an at­tic sur­rounded by vin­tage records. “But as I gath­ered more re­search ma­te­rial it be­came clear that I was re­ly­ing on her plays as the main source of pri­mary ev­i­dence, and as they were drama­tised ver­sions of her own life, they couldn’t be trusted as fac­tu­ally cor­rect.”

Stripe, 40, built a rep­u­ta­tion in the mid 2000s as one of a trio of poets called the Bru­tal­ists. What was to be­come the Dunbar project emerged from a long fas­ci­na­tion with her, a need to move away from po­etry and a ‘Eureka’ mo­ment as a teenaged TV viewer.

“I’ve of­ten won­dered why An­drea is barely men­tioned when dis­cussing the cul­ture of West York­shire,” she muses. “There has al­ways been an el­e­ment of snob­bery and to some ex­tent ig­no­rance to­wards her, which I hope is be­gin­ning to change. Pri­est­ley, the Bron­tës, Delius and Hock­ney are the ac­cept­able face of Brad­ford and are a form of safe her­itage for the tourist board. But An­drea is rarely dis­cussed.

“I think per­haps her un­com­fort­able truths were un­palat­able, but look­ing back on her plays now, they do show us an un­bri­dled ver­sion of work­ing-class life dur­ing the Thatcher era.”

Grow­ing up iso­lated in the hard­drink­ing cul­ture of Tad­caster in the 1980s, Stripe found par­al­lels be­tween the char­ac­ters in her life and those pop­u­lat­ing Dunbar’s world. “Her writ­ing led to my own doorstep,” she says tellingly.

Fur­ther­more York­shire Tele­vi­sion’s doc­u­men­tary In Praise of Bad Girls in 1989 gave Dunbar an un­prece­dented plat­form; it was her first and last ma­jor pro­file for TV. And it was a sig­nif­i­cant spur for Stripe.

“I had many ques­tions about who An­drea Dunbar was and what she achieved in her life­time. It quickly be­came clear that she had not been writ­ten about at length. And it was at that mo­ment I de­cided to find out the an­swers for my­self.”

In that YTV in­ter­view with an­other York­shire writer, Kay Mel­lor, Dunbar re­flected on how But­ter­shaw and her home on Braf­fer­ton Ar­bor had shaped her writ­ing. It was the peo­ple, she said, who in­spired her. She’d go to her lo­cal, The Bea­con, to talk to the reg­u­lars and hear all the gos­sip. The Bea­con lived up to its name: it was cru­cial to un­der­stand­ing who she was and what she rep­re­sented. She felt safe there and re­turned reg­u­larly.

Stripe adds: “She had no de­sire to es­cape it, even to­wards the end of her life when she was sign­ing on or work­ing on a pro­duc­tion line in a lo­cal fac­tory.” Black Teeth and a Bril­liant Smile –a

line taken from a 1987 Mail on Sun­day ar­ti­cle head­lined “Ge­nius straight from the slums” by Jane Kelly – has had the ben­e­fit of in­put from Dunbar’s fam­ily who were, says Stripe, “re­ally pos­i­tive and open”.

“I don’t know what they think about the book, but I hope they like it and un­der­stand that I am on her side.”

Af­ter four years’ labour the book was com­pleted ear­lier this year. Stripe points out that the tag of “kitchen sink noir” both re­flects the so­cial re­al­ist film move­ment of the 1960s and the scourg­ing of the North 20 years later via the crimes of the York­shire Rip­per. Some­what un­com­fort­ably the two go hand-in-hand.

“An­drea’s ver­sion of the North is clearly dif­fer­ent from the one cap­tured in the 1960s in Room at the Top, Kes and

Billy Liar. All three of her plays lack the moral con­ser­vatism of her kitchen sink for­bears but there are also many con­nec­tions.”

Stripe says the big dif­fer­ence is that un­like anti-he­roes such as rep­til­ian Joe Lamp­ton, who longed for a bet­ter life, or fan­ta­sist Billy Fisher, who ex­isted in his own bub­ble, Dunbar’s ex­pe­ri­ences didn’t in­volve flee­ing to a bet­ter ex­is­tence.

“The cru­cial dif­fer­ence with An­drea is that her char­ac­ters don’t want to es­cape. Rita and Sue are quite happy with the life they have.

“The noir el­e­ment comes from the bleak back­drop of Brad­ford in the late 1970s and ’80s. She wrote her first two plays at the height of Peter Sut­cliffe’s killings, and one of her friends, Mau­reen Long, was a sur­viv­ing vic­tim. I couldn’t ig­nore that: as a fe­male liv­ing in York­shire at that time, it must have been ter­ri­fy­ing.”

The book will be launched at Brad­ford Lit­er­a­ture Fes­ti­val on July 1 in the pres­ence of ac­tor and nov­el­ist Ge­orge Costi­gan, who played Bob in the movie. (Once much ma­ligned, it has just been given a 30th an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tion at the Na­tional Film The­atre in Lon­don.) Stripe hopes it will lead to a form of res­ur­rec­tion and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion for An­drea Dunbar.

“When I first started re­search­ing the novel I was on the fence in terms of my views of An­drea. As time went on I came out in favour of her, as that’s what the ev­i­dence and ma­te­rial sug­gested to me. In some ways she be­came my imag­i­nary friend, al­though I was care­ful not to make this a ha­giog­ra­phy. “The Ar­bor, Rita, Sue and Bob Too!

and Shirley act as im­por­tant so­cial doc­u­ments of the time [but] are still rel­e­vant in 2017. She is one of the most sig­nif­i­cant drama­tists of the 1980s and her work stands along­side that of Alan Bleas­dale, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach and Jim Allen.

“She’s one of York­shire’s greats and she de­serves more recog­ni­tion. I hope that my novel will go some way to re­assert­ing that.”

■ Black Teeth and a Bril­liant Smile is pub­lished on July 1 by Wreck­ing Ball Press and is avail­able for pre-or­der via wreck­ing­ball­

The light of An­drea Dunbar’s raw ge­nius was cru­elly ex­tin­guished be­fore she was 30. Now, says Tony Earn­shaw, a novel based on her life looks set to rekin­dle the flame.

REAL LIFE: Top, Adelle Stripe, who has writ­ten a novel on the life of An­drea Dunbar. Above, Michelle Holmes, Ge­orge Costi­gan and Siob­han Fin­neran in Rita, Sue and Bob Too!

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