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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton


 The Arbor


Directed by Clio Barnard (2010)

In 1986 a film came out called Rita, Sue and Bob Too! It’s ribald, rough and witty entertainment telling the story of two teenage friends who share the affections of an older married man. It ends in tears, of course.

Rita, Sue and Bob Too! was originally a play by Andrea Dunbar who based it on events in her life on Bradford’s toughest housing estate, the Buttershaw. It was her second play. The first, which she started writing at the age of 15 and was performed at the Royal Court three years later in 1980, was The Arbor, also autobiographical.

This film is not the play but a… what? A drama documentary, I suppose, that tells Dunbar’s story and the story of her daughter Lorraine. The actors lip-synch words spoken by the people they play as they recall events and emotions, recorded in interviews with director Clio Barnard.

Much of the action takes place on the estate as it is today, pale flimsy houses bordering squares of scrubby grass where scenes from The Arbor are acted out in front of residents who pausing casually with the kids or bring out a garden chair to get comfortable.

In this way fiction and reality are overlaid one upon the other, layer upon layer, like the mattresses of that princess who could still feel the pea at the bottom, and we feel the pea most acutely, the true grit of the ugly uncomfortable real.

The Arbor is Brafferton Arbor, the unlikely name of the toughest street on Bradford’s toughest estate, where Dunbar continued to live until she dropped dead, aged 29, of a brain haemorrhage on the floor of the Beacon pub, where she spent most of her time and is featured in Rita, Sue and Bob Too!

The town planner or whoever it was who came up with that Arbor name was either having a cruel joke or they were trying to make it nice by giving it a nice label. There are no trees here. No sheltering boughs.

And why the American spelling? I went to my dictionary (not just to spell haemorrhage) and found that arbor also means “Axle or spindle on which something revolves”.

Human lives spin round this arbor, getting giddy going nowhere. Yet Dunbar did find the way out. She was briefly famous. We see her on documentaries, in newsreels, the family has high hopes. But she never left the Arbor, something holding her to that treacherous axel.

And she was fatally bound, too, to a lifestyle of drinking and getting beaten up by blokes, and having kids with different men and neglecting them, taking the handle off the door so they’d stay put, imprisoned, while she was down the pub.

Lorraine (Manjinder Virk) is a peculiarly sad child. Her father was an Asian lad who was soon gone and she not only gets all the racist stick but overhears her mother saying she should have had that abortion.

Lorraine also wishes she’d never been born, something usually expressed as a rhetorical conceit but here you believe she means it. And it’s the real Lorraine talking, remember.

She takes to drugs at an early age: dope, alcohol, crack, heroin, and is in and out of nick. Then, in 2007, she is convicted of manslaughter after her two-year-old son dies from drinking her methadone.

We see Lorraine at the end leaving prison clean and converted to Islam. We hope she’s all right.

And the Beacon has survived, too. I looked it up on the Beer in the Evening website. It doesn’t say much, but there was a comment from a visitor, dated last year. It says: “This pub is far rougher than it was portrayed in the film. Do not visit if you value your life.”

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