Born to Write and Die
by Lyn Gardner
A young Andrea Dunbar with her brother Tony. Image courtesy of the Dunbar family
Originally published in The Guardian, 4 July 1998
When, at 18, Andrea Dunbar wrote The Arbor, The Mail on Sunday called her the new Shelagh Delaney, "a genius straight from the slums with black teeth and a brilliant smile". Andrea objected vehemently about the black teeth. "The thing about Andrea", recalls a friend, "is she didn't bullshit in life and she didn't in her plays."
By the time she was 23, Andrea had given birth to three children, all by different fathers, and had written the award-winning Rita, Sue and Bob Too, a no-holds-barred slice of underclass life - "Thatcher's Britain with its knickers down". Like The Arbor, it was a big hit at the Royal Court, with audiences drawn by its notorious first scene in which two schoolgirls take it in turns to have sex with a married man in the back of his motor. The film director Alan Clarke, who had previously made Scum, got Andrea to write a screen version. Three years after the film's release, Andrea Dunbar was dead of a brain haemorrhage. She was 28 and left behind three children, three classic plays about northern life - her third, Shirley, was also premiered at the Court in 1986 - £45 in the building society, and a family at war.
Andrea Dunbar wrote about what she knew. What she knew was the Buttershaw estate in Bradford. Buttershaw is a Saxon name, a pretty name. When the Buttershaw estate was built in the late forties the people of Bradford used to take bus rides up the hill to wonder at its glories. By the time Andrea moved there with her seven brothers and sisters in 1971, it had become a dumping ground for problem families. Brafferton Arbor, the road where the family settled, and after which Andrea named her first play, was obviously christened by an idealist. By 1971 it was a sick joke. The wasteland around the houses was strewn with abandoned cars. Packs of dogs and toddlers roamed the estate. Neighbours slugged it out arriong the rubbish.
And despite her talent, Dunbar was also to become another turbulent Buttershaw life, full of fallings out and makings up with family and friends, of brief affairs and long days laid waste by drink.
The aggravation hasn't ended with her death. The rights to the plays and a trust fund set up for her children after a Royal Court benefit, have been fiercely contested between Jim Wheeler - who lived with Andrea off-and-on, and who is the father of her youngest child, Andrew - and the Dunbar family who brought up Andrea's second daughter, Lisa.
But the biggest loser in this sorry saga has been 19-year-old Lorraine, who was raised by foster parems, and who only met her Pakistani father for the first time five months ago. Eight-and-a-half months pregnant when I met her, and with a black eye from fighting with her best friend who she suspected of sleeping with her boyfriend, Lorraine lives in a women's refuge for her own protection. A tiny, lonely figure she feels rejected and abandoned by her family. ''I'm not bothered," she says defiantly. "I've gone without them for most of my life so I can manage without them now."
You look at this tough, spirited girl and you can't help thinking of her mother, a teenager herself 20 years ago, pregnant in a battered women's refuge. As they say in Buttershaw nothing ever changes. Lorraine says that she's heard of an unfinished play of her mother's somewhere and asks if I know anything about it. I shake my head sadly. She wants to finish it, to write herself.
"Buttershaw was shocking," says Andrea's mother Alma, now in her sixties and recovering from a stroke. "It was a battleground out there. Everyone was fighting with each other. Of course, it's better now that they've tidied it up." We gaze out silently over the desolate open space, to the boarded-up houses beyond. It's hard to imagine that it could get any worse.
"Time has stood still here. Not a great deal has changed since Andrea Dunbar was writing about the estate," says Lyns Parkins on, the local community advice worker. Parkins on doesn't believe in talking about unemployment. She talks about under-employment. She puts the figure for Buttershaw at about 60 per cent. "The reason Buttershaw doesn't work, is because it doesn't work," she says grimly.
Work wasn't uppermost in Andrea Dunbar's mind during her time at Buttershaw Comprehensive. She preferred to truant. But there were early signs of her gift for writing. Told, as a punishment, to write an explanation for her failure to yet again provide the necessary ingredients for a cookery lesson, she penned a witty and pertinent essay on the absurd irrelevance to her home life of a raspberry pavlova.
At 15 she became pregnant and left school, but the baby was still-born at six months and Andrea returned to school. It was for her CSE drama course that she wrote The Arbor, an entirely autobiographical account of her pregnancy, her parents' reaction and the baby's father's subsequent rejection of her. The lead character was called Andrea Dunbar. "I was a bit shocked when she showed it to me," says Mrs Dunbar. "We did swear, but not as much as she put in."
The CSE would probably have been the pinnacle of Andrea's writing career, but within 18 months she was pregnant again, being threatened by a boyfriend, and living in a refuge. Here, one of the workers got hold of The Arbor and showed it to a friend who, by a roundabout route, entered ir for the Royal Court Young Writers Festival. Directed by Max Staffod-Clark, it was a major success.
Leaving baby Lorraine at home with her mother, Andrea was summoned from Buttershaw and arrived at Sloane Square with a carrier bag full of beer. It was a kind of homecoming - she had been born at 10 Sloane Square, Bradford. There the similarities ended. Stafford-Clark soon discovered that the only wav to make her write was to lock her in a room.
Presented in a season called Short Sharp Shock, one of the Court's first frontline reports on Thatcherism, the play was once again a success although the first signs of Dunbar's unease at this strange new southern world were evident. "Why do they laugh so much," she asked Stafford-Clark. "I know it's supposed to be funny. But it'ent that funnv."
There were other pressures, too. She didn't see the point of London: "They all seem to think I should go down to London and be a bit of a prat. I don't mind visiting, but I don't like living there," she told a BBC Arena programme dedicated to her. Bur she also told the Bradford Telegraph and Argus that she was determined to "save enough money to get out of Buttershaw".
She never did save enough money, but at one point she did move a few miles down the road to Keighley. But Buttershaw was like an invisible thread alwavs drawing her back. Buttershaw was both Andrea's security blanket and her straitjacket. It was what she knew, it was her family and it was her raw material. Without Buttershaw she was just another writer looking for a good story. So she hung on tight to it, even when she felt it had rejected her and she worried that she had betrayed It.
Besides, where else would she have gone? She was a single parent with three small children. She needed the kind of informal support mechanisms that only home could provide. Four generations of Dunbars still live at Buttershaw, It is a difficult place to escape from. It is a place that is still full of Ritas and Sues and Andreas.
Rob Ritchie, the Royal Court's literary manager at that time, who started looking after Andrea's affairs and acting as her agent when the film Rita, Sue and Bob Too was mooted, says that he doesn't believe that she ever really thought of herself as a writer. "It was just something she did every so often. She was a son of tourist. I don't think she had real dreams about what she could do with her life, because her life was so much about just coping on a day-to-day basis. Which is what made her writing so good - it was culled directly from her life."
From May 1987, when the film premiered at the Brighton and Cannes film festivals, Andrea's life became increasingly difficult. It was provocative and the response was predictable. "A sexy shocker," said the Daily Express before putting the boot in, "An unmitigated abusive gloom, filmed with an inexperienced cast and an appalling script."
Bradford Council's tourist office, which had just launched a campaign called Bouncing Back With Bradford in an effort to improve the town's poor image, were not best pleased either by what it saw as "a slummy, false image of Bradford". They wanted to play up curry houses, museums, J B Priestley, Frederick Delius and David Hockney.
Andrea didn't care. In June in The Yorkshire Post, she launched a reasoned defence of her work. "It is not social comment. I cannot do anything about Bradford Council and can only point out the tourism office, but tourism doesn't start and finish on a large unkempt council estate. This is life, the facts are there. The guardians of our morals can stand back and gasp, but these things go on - maybe not in their circles, but certainly in mine. Young girls do get involved with married men. They do have affairs and abortions and nobody gives a second thought to it."
But if she didn't give tuppence about what the tourist office thought, she cared desperately about the reaction of the people of Buttershaw. Lyns Parkinson says reaction was split, with the older people appalled by Andrea's picture of the estate and the younger ones seeing it as a fair reflection of their lives.
But after all the excitement of having the film shot there, the backlash came. There were plenty who thought that Andrea had done them down, ripped off their lives. Some former neighbours of the Dunbars were quoted as saying: "The way it's been put over, it's as if that's what's happening with every family here, going from one bed to another. They named this estate as if this was the way of life here. She's hurt a lot of people."
Many believed that Andrea had made pots of money, an idea not dispelled by her habit of spending the day perambulating between the estate's two pubs, the Beacon and the Cap and Bells where she bought people drinks. Most estimates suggested that she made rather less than £8,000 from the film.
"She got fed up by the back end, all those people saying things about her," said her mother Alma. Daughter Lorraine is even more vehement: "I blame the film for her death. If it hadn't been for the film, she wouldn't have drunk so much and maybe she wouldn't have had the brain haemorrhage. If she had any money it always went on beer."
The pressure was building, and Andrea's personal life was also deeply troubled in the two years before her death. In December 1988 she was fined £75 by Bradford magistrates for claiming social security while receiving royalties and ordered to pay back £5,400 at £3 a week.
Her relationship with Jim Wheeler, always volatile, was under renewed pressure and she moved back to Buttershaw where she started living with another man. During the summer of 1989 she fell through a plate glass door, and had to have 60 stitches and plastic surgery on her face. But she and Jim got back together, and after 10 years of tumult, they finally became engaged. Even so, she was drinking heavily and became increasingly inwardly focused.
The BBC had expressed an interest in commissioning her to write a play and in the six months before she died, Rob Ritchie twice arranged lunches with commissioning editors in London for her. On each occasion he sent her the money for the train fare but she never showed.
"I think she felt that what she'd been doing instinctively as a writer had become subject to the demands of others," observes Ritchie. "I think the film of Rita, Sue and Bob Too was the point at which whatever dreams she might have had about being a writer collapsed. It unleashed all those problems for her family and the community that she was living in."
Yet she was undoubtedly trying to write, although from the scant evidence delivered up in a few carrier bags in Jim Wheeler's living room, there is no sign of the unfinished gems that have become part of family legend. Almost certainly, there are no plays for Lorraine Dunbar to finish. What Andrea had started was a novel adaptation, and the bare outline of another play. With the encouragement and help of Kay Mellor and a Yorkshire TV executive, she'd also developed a screen treatment known as The Moneylenders. She sent it off to Oscar Lewinstein, the film mogul behind Rita, Sue and Bob Too.
On the December 8, 1990, 12 days before she died, he wrote back. It was not encouraging: "I must admit to being disappointed. All your previous work has a special tone about it so that you would know it had been written by Andrea Dunbar even if you hadn't been told so. At the moment I cannot see anything very special about it."
On 20 December Andrea set out from jim's house for a day's drinking. She had been complaining of buzzing in her ears and headaches for the previous three weeks. She stopped by her elder sister's house for some pain killers, saying that she had "headaches I can't get shut of". Then she headed for The Beacon where she drank, mostly alone. During the afternoon, staff noticed that she had her head in her hands but initially thought she was upset. Only on closer examination did they realise that she had collapsed.
She was taken to Bradford Hospital and underwent three brain scans before being declared dead. Against the advice of hospital staff, Jim took the children with him to say a final goodbye to their mother. As they were leaving, Andrew, aged seven, asked why mummy was crying. "I looked back," recalls Jim, "and there was a tear drop in the corner of her eyelid."
The day before she died, Andrea wrote a note to Jim asking him to leave her some money for the Co-op. Underneath she had written a list. It went like this: "Bad points: feel very emotional. Only want to drink. Can't sleep and eat. Hate myself and the way I look. Want to destroy. No time for anyone. Not interested in life. Always tired. Good points: I am trying. Want to sleep. Want to eat. Want to be my normal self. Want to leave the drink alone. Want the kids to be okay." It's probably the last thing Andrea Dunbar ever wrote.
After she died, a local Bradford councillor proposed that there should be some kind of memorial to Andrea. Maybe a statue, though not of course, he hastened to add, as expensive a monument as the one the town erected to its favourite son J B Priestley. In the end, they settled for naming a room in the library after her.
While I was in Bradford I stopped by and asked a young librarian if they had any information on Andrea. "Andrea Dunbar? A local celebrity was she?" I suppose you could say that. Though I prefer to think of her as a natural born writer. A dead good one.
4 July, 1998