Andrea Dunbar was an English playwright who was brought up on and lived in an estate in the Yorkshire town of Bradford known as The Arbor. She began writing in her teens and quickly gained attention, including her first play getting produced on a London stage, but her home life was rather less sunny. The estate was an impoverished one and while it brought her rich material to draw on for her fiction, Andrea was suffering under the deprived circumstances she existed in and refused to leave behind even with her success...
If she is recalled for anything in Britain nowadays, it'll be Channel 4 continually playing the film she adapted from her plays, Rita, Sue and Bob Too - which she had mixed feelings about - on television from the time it was made in the mid-to-late eighties all the way up to the present day. It regularly drew healthy audiences thanks to its mixture of what was known as social realism and bawdy comedy, and for many it has rarely been bettered in its style, but its author's story was somewhat less well known. If anything, if you knew of Dunbar it would be because you had heard she had died at the young age of twenty-nine of a brain embolism brought on by alcoholism while in one of her favourite haunts, the local pub.
But director Clio Barnard decided to make a documentary of her life to educate those who only knew her through the film about what she was really like, the answers to that being somewhat less than respectable, although you would have been able to tell that from her writings. What marked this effort out was the highly unusual style Barnard adopted, joining the ranks of the likes of Persepolis and Waltz with Bashir as documentaries which tried out new ways of telling the stories of the real lives of their subjects, yet the method here was not animation. It was to cast actors as the people, and get them to lipsync to their recorded voices, as interviewed by the director.
You might think this had a distancing effect, but actually it operated on a curiously intriguing level, with every statement mimed perfectly by the actors, who must have been concentrating with quite some strength to make not only the words match but convey the emotions as well. And it was an emotional story, though perhaps not the one you might have expected going into this for the main topic was less Andrea, and more the life of her first child Lorraine (played by Manjinder Virk). She was the product of a mixed race union between Andrea and her father, and in a society which was still struggling to get over widespread racism, Lorraine seemed born to suffer - but was her mother to blame?
The main bone of contention would appear to be whether she should have risen above her background like her half-sister Lisa did (played by Christine Bottomley - they also had a half-brother, Andrew), or whether she was a victim of circumstances anybody would have fallen prey to. The key moment according to this was when she overheard, while pretending to be asleep, Andrea saying she wished Lorraine had been aborted and had never existed, and to hear the now-grown woman essentially say she agreed after all she had been through was desperately sad. Yet complications arose when you discovered what Lorraine had been responsible for later on, and you may well find yourself conflicted in your feelings towards her. The trouble here was that you had to question, no matter how well-constructed The Arbor was, whether you were invited to wallow in misery for an hour and a half with few consequences otherwise. Was it worth knowing this? The answer would be different depending on the viewer, but it certainly made Rita, Sue and Bob Too harder to enjoy from now on.