‘Rita, Sue And Bob Too’ (Blu-Ray/DVD) reviewed

❉  The passing of time hasn’t mellowed the impact of Alan Clarke’s 1987 film.

The BFI have released a newly restored version of Alan Clarke’s 1987 sex comedy Rita, Sue and Bob Too on dual format DVD and Blu-Ray, marking the classic British film’s thirtieth anniversary.

Siobhan Finneran and Michelle Holmes play Rita and Sue, two teenagers who live in the Buttershaw council estate in Bradford and babysit for Bob and Michelle, a suburban couple played by George Costigan and Lesley Sharp. One evening Bob, a flashy, white-suited chancer, runs them home in his car but, after a conversation about sex he diverts to the moors where he sleeps with them one after the other. This leads to a fractious three-way sexual relationship between the two teenagers and Bob, an arrangement that blows up in his face when a friend of Michelle spots them in a nightclub. He invites Rita to move in with him when Michelle inevitably goes to her mothers, which drives a wedge between the two teenagers, but an unexpected pregnancy and an abusive relationship bring them back together, and back to Bob.

I remember watching this on the television when I was younger, and finding it almost nightmarishly grim. This caused me to approach the DVD with trepidation. The passing of time hasn’t mellowed the impact of the feel of the film. The squalor council estate, almost fetishistically depicted in the opening of the film through long, loving track shots of eccentric locals and pollution-stained housing, still shocks, whilst the pragmatic promiscuity of the girls is still jarring. It’s also far funnier than I remember, but the comedy is constantly undercut by the motivations of the characters and the situations they find themselves in.

Start with Bob. Bob is a sleazy adventurer. He begins the film seedily grooming the two girls in the car, but this is twisted when the girls turn out to be keen and practical about the idea of screwing him. Bob then takes on a weird combination of advantage-taking adult and ‘cant-believe-his-luck’ innocent. The friction between the two roles and the way Bob moving between the two, is a source of humour in the film: Bob is often presented as either an inept lothario, or a staggeringly successful hypersexualised savant. This extends to his position in the film as well. Bob, logically, should be at the centre of the story, but instead the strength of the presentation of Rita and Sue push him to the margins, much as he is physically in the sexual encounters between the three. Rita and Sue are distinct characters, the former is more naïve, perhaps romantic, the latter more dangerous but less homely. The title of the film focuses on the ménage à trois, but it is really the friendship between the two girls that is central to the plot. Around these three title characters, the others orbit from the snarky and uptight Michelle to Sue’s racist, sozzled father, played with great comic physicality by Willie Ross.

The film was written by Andrea Dunbar, based on the estate she grew up and chose to live in as an adult. Dunbar began writing plays at school, and the film is based on a combination of her first two. The story of Dunbar’s early life growing up, like Sue in deprived surroundings with multiple siblings excuses the excesses of the film. Without a knowledge of Dunbar’s background, the film becomes a kind of prurient male fantasy, but with it, it becomes a richly drawn and picaresque insight into the, at times horrible and at times hilarious lives of the disenfranchised. The script is clever too. Rita and Sue babysit for Bob and Michelle, but the babies are, for much of the film, absent. This absence leaves room for Rita and Sue to occupy the position of Bob’s surrogate children but also infantilises him as well. This is a film in which all the characters are childlike, making the seedy scenes of perfunctory sex all the more inappropriate.

Lastly, there is a real sense of place and time to the film. Clarke’s unflinching direction and Dunbar’s intimate knowledge of the nooks and crannies of the Bradford estate mean that Rita, Sue and Bob Too becomes indelibly connected with the decay, the ‘managed decline’, of the north of England during the Thatcher years. At a distance of thirty years, there is a strange sense of history and pastness to the shots of burnt-out cars, brown field sites and dilapidating houses, but after the recent financial crisis and the age of austerity, and with the possibility of a second Thatcherite era dawning, on rerelease, this film feels nothing less than timeless.

Special features

  • New 2K restoration by the BFI from the original Super 16mm camera negative
  • Presented in High Definition and Standard Definition
  • Having A Ball: The making of Rita, Sue and Bob Too  (Jon Robertson, 2017, 69 mins): a newly filmed documentary with extensive cast and crew interviews
  • Textless opening sequence
  • Stills and Collections Gallery
  • Theatrical trailer
  • 36-page illustrated booklet with writing by David Rolinson, Andrea Dunbar and Max Stafford-Clark, and full film credits.

❉ ‘Rita, Sue and Bob Too’ (1987) Dual Format Edition – Blu-ray/DVD (Cat. no. BFIB1274) was released on 22 May 2017, RRP: £19.99. English language, with optional hard-of-hearing subtitles / original aspect ratio 1.66:1 // BD50: 1080p, 24fps, PCM 1.0 mono (48kHz/24-bit) / DVD9: PAL, 25fps, Dolby Digital 1.0 mono (192kbps)

❉ BFI releases are available from all good home entertainment retailers or by mail order from the BFI Shop Tel: 020 7815 1350 or online at www.bfi.org.uk/shop.

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