THE GENIUS WE NEVER DISCUSS
Novelist shines a light on the life of Andrea Dunbar
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 wreckingballpress.com
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!