Clio Barnard

The Arbor

Premiered at Tribeca Film Festival, New York
25 April 2010

Video: An excerpt from The Arbor

1 minute 45 seconds
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Andrea Dunbar, the tenacious young playwright whose work was described as ‘Thatcher's Britain with its knickers down', grew up on the notorious Buttershaw Estate in Bradford. When she died tragically at the age of 29 in 1990, her daughter Lorraine was just ten years old. The Arbor revisits the Buttershaw Estate where Dunbar grew up, thirty years on from her original play, telling the powerful true story of Andrea and Lorraine.

Also aged 29, Lorraine had become ostracised from her mother’s family and was in prison undergoing rehab. Re-introduced to her mother’s plays and letters, the film follows Lorraine’s personal journey as she reflects on her own life and begins to understand the struggles her mother faced.

Artist and director Clio Barnard also grew up in the Bradford region and in making the film she wanted to revisit the estate to see how it had changed in the two decades since Dunbar’s death. The artist recorded audio interviews with Lorraine, other members of the Dunbar family and residents from the Buttershaw Estate over a period of two years. These interviews were edited to form an audio "screenplay" which forms the basis of The Arbor as actors lip-synch to the voices of the interviewees.

The Arbor premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival 2010 and was screened at the London Film Festival and across the UK from October 2010 winning:

  • Best New Documentary Film-maker at the Tribeca Film Festival 2010
  • Best British Newcomer & Most Original Debut at the London Film Festival 2010
  • Best Debut Director at the British Independent Film Awards 2010
  • Best Screenplay at the 2010 London Evening Standard Film Awards
  • Best Cinema Documentary at The Griersons 2011

Video: An excerpt from The Arbor. This video is also available to watch on Vimeo and YouTube

Image: Manjinder Virk playing Lorraine Dunbar and Christine Bottomley playing Lisa Thompson, Andrea Dunbars two daughters.


Writing: The Arbor was a Misleading Title

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An excerpt from Taking Stock: The Theatre of Max Stafford-Clark 

by Philip Roberts and Max Stafford-Clark

All theatres draw from a pool of professional writers. Any theatre takes pride in presenting new work by Harold Pinter or Caryl Churchill. But its focus on people who haven’t previously considered themselves professional playwrights is arguably the most important function of the Royal Court Theatre [where Stafford-Clark was Artistic Director from 1979 to 1993]. One way of becoming immediately involved in the grassroots was through the annual Young Writers’ Festival. This was a national competition open to any aspiring writer up to the age of eighteen. Plays by younger writers made particularly strenuous demands on the actors’ versatility. Talking cabbages featured in one play, and neurotic guinea pigs in another, while adolescence provoked a flood of gloomy dramas that invariably ended in suicide or unwanted pregnancies. Every year there were twelve-page bloody sagas on the death of Mary Queen of Scots, as well as vicious satires about eccentric schoolteachers.

But in 1980 there was one outstanding play: The Arbor. Written boldly in green biro on pages ripped from a school exercise book, it told the story of a Bradford schoolgirl who became pregnant on the night she lost her virginity. A family argument was depicted with brutal authenticity, and the final scene was heartbreakingly affecting and bleak. The principal character, just called ‘Girl’, had lost her baby and by accident meets the boy who had made her pregnant. The innocence of the mutual recriminations revealed how young the protagonists really were. I tried to get in touch with the writer, whose name was Andrea Dunbar, but she was in a Battered Wives’ Home in Keighley and communication was difficult. In the event, I was to know Andrea for the next thirteen years – and to be involved with her work for even longer: her best known play, Rita, Sue and Bob Too, which I directed for the Royal Court in 1982, was revived by Out of Joint [the company Max created in 1993] in the autumn of 2000.

The Arbor was a misleading title. A pack of abandoned and feral dogs roamed the centre of Brafferton Arbor, the crescent on which Andrea lived. But pastoral it was not. It was bleak. Some houses were boarded up, and some gardens were a tangled mess of grass and weeds, often featuring rusty bits of car engine mounted on breezeblocks; like the occasional battered caravan that also blossomed in some gardens, they were dreams of escape – hopeless male fantasies doomed to remain for ever in a state of stagnation. There were a lot of single mothers, but Andrea’s own father had stayed with his family, and his violence and feckless drinking had been the dramatic centre of Andrea’s childhood. In 1980 this was unusual: in most families the father had fucked off.

Read the rest of this essay.

Reproduced by permission of Nick Hern Books.

Max Stafford-Clark is a theatre director who first staged the work of Andrea Dunbar. He is also former Artistic Director of the Royal Court Theatre and co-founder of Joint Stock Theatre Company and touring company, Out of Joint.

Image: Woman sits on bed with crumpled pieces of paper. Still from The Arbor by Clio Barnard, 2011.


Born to Write and Die

Lyn Gardner on Andrea Dunbar
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Born to Write and Die

by Lyn Gardner

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." 

Read the rest.

Originally published in the Guardian, 4 July 1998. Published with permission.

Image: Manjinder Virk plays Lorraine in a still from The Arbor by Clio Barnard (2010).

Audio: Artangel Podcast 3, Memory

27 minutes, 20 seconds
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Episode 3 of the Artangel Podcast, Memory

In a many-layered tour through the subject of memory, Clio Barnard joins Susan Philipsz and Mike Kelley as they reflect on how the theme relates to her Artangel project. Barnard and her fellow artists consider ideas of personal, geographical, musical, architectural memory.


  • Poet Lavinia Greenlaw
  • Scientist Steven Rose
  • Historian Michael Sherringham
  • Violinist Paul Robertson
  • Author Rachel Lichtenstein
  • Music from The Arbor soundtrack by Molly Nyman and Harry Escott
  • An extract from Susan Philipsz's project Surround Me
  • Compositions by Felix Carey, Andrew Pekler and Ruaridh Law

Producer: Peter Meanwell

Also available to listen to on SoundCloud.

Image: Still fromThe Arbor by Clio Barnard, 2011. Robert Ems plays The Girl's brother, David.

About Clio Barnard

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Clio Barnard

Clio Barnard was selected as part of the 2006 Open call for proposals from Artangel and Jerwood which resulted in her film, The Arbor in 2010. She was later on the judging panel for both Open 2013 and Open 2014.

Barnard is an artist filmmaker whose work has shown in cinemas, international film festivals and galleries including Tate Modern, Tate Britain and MoMA, New York. Her work has been screened on Channel 4 and had several international broadcasts.

Clio Barnard’s work is concerned with the relationship between fictional film language and documentary. She has often dislocated sound and image by constructing fictional images around verbatim audio. In The Arbor actors lip-synch to the voices of real people, questioning documentary’s aspiration to collapse the distance between reality and representation. Her films include: Plotlands (Whitstable Biennale), Road Race(Film London), Random Acts of Intimacy (BFI/Channel 4) and Headcase (Arts Council England / Channel 4). Barnard is also one of the winners of the Paul Hamlyn Award for Artists and, for The Arbor, winner of the Best New Documentary Filmmaker award at the Tribeca Film Festival 2010.

Image: Actress Natalie Gavin sits on sofa in the centre of Brafferton Arbor on the Buttershaw council estate in Bradford in a scene from The Arbor by Clio Barnard (2010).


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The overall effect is devastating, as multi-layered and dissonant as a Schoenberg symphony, and a nightmarish impression of how the writer experienced both reality and performance. Barnard's original vision was justly rewarded with the best new documentary filmmaker prize. — Sebastian Doggart, The Telegraph, 21 May 2010

Selected Press

Verbatim theatre is a new form of contemporary political drama, in which the proceedings of some hearing or trial are reconstituted word-for-word on stage, acted out by performers. Now artist and film-maker Clio Barnard has experimentally and rather brilliantly applied this technique to the big screen, ventriloquising the past with a new kind of "verbatim cinema"... Barnard has created a modernist, compassionate biopic: a tribute to her memory and her embattled community. — Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian, 22 October 2010
The Arbor, by Clio Barnard, is a remarkable film: conceptually acute, brilliantly realised, impossibly sad. It explores the life and legacy of Andrea Dunbar, a hard-drinking working-class Bradfordian who died in 1990 at the age of 29, by which time she had written three plays which, in their bareknuckle social settings, caustic intelligence, and grimy vitality, were the link between Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey (1958) and Paul Abbott’s TV series Shameless. — Sukdhev Sandhu, The Daily Telegraph, 21 October 2010
The actors are puppets of sorts, reminders of the hands behind the film, and the impossibility of miming perfectly reminds us that they’re reporting, not reconstructing. — Dave Calhoun, Time Out, 21 October 2010
Artist/filmmaker Barnard is daring: actors lip-synch to recordings of Dunbar’s loved ones, while archive footage shows the real playwright. Inbetween, The Arbor is staged on her estate. It shouldn’t work, but it does: an artsy yet accessible insight into working-class life. Moving, bold, unconventional and impeccably staged, The Arbor is a worthy tribute to a powerfully artistic voice. — Anna Smith, Empire Magazine, October 2010

In The Artangel Collection

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The Arbor

The Arbor is part of The Artangel Collection. Following its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York in April 2011, The Arbor was screened at cinemas across the UK. It has since been seen at Tate Britain in February 2014 , at ICA in September 2015 and the Belfast Film Festival in April 2018.

  • Artist: Clio Barnard
  • Title: The Arbor
  • Date: 2010
  • Medium: Digital Video
  • Dimensions: Overall display dimensions variable
  • Duration: 94 minutes 
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Events: As it Goes

A series of readings and screenings at the Young Vic
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As it Goes

What we stopped here for, and what we talking about rubber johnnys for — Andrea Dunbar, Rita, Sue and Bob Too

For four nights only in October 2010, Andrea Dunbar’s inimitable, controversial and hilarious, brutally honest and deeply personal voice was remembered through a series of readings performed at the Young Vic.

To coincide with the release of filmmaker Clio Barnard’s award-winning film The Arbor, these events were produced to celebrate the unique power of one of the UK’s most distinctive and sorely missed playwrights. Each reading was accompanied by one of four new short plays inspired by Andrea’s work by teenagers from east London, followed by the screening of scenes from The Arbor.

On the final day of readings a panel discussion took place with Max Stafford Clark, Clio Barnard, Jo Carter and actors from The Arbor, with a reading of Robin Soans’ play, A State Affair (2000) which looks at life on a Bradford estate.

As it Goes was developed with the support of Janice and David Blackburn and Gilberto Pozzi. It was an Artangel Interaction commission in collaboration with Immediate Theatre and the Young Vic.

Further information about this event can be found via the Young Vic.

Still from The Arbor by Clio Barnard, 2011.  Lorraine recalled spending a day with her father.


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Who made this possible?


Presented by Artangel and UK Film Council in association with Jerwood Charitable Foundation, Arts Council England and More4. The Arbor is included in The Artangel Collection, a national initiative to commission and present new film and video work, supported by the National Lottery through Arts Council England and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. 

Artangel is generously supported by Arts Council England and the private patronage of the Artangel International CircleSpecial AngelsGuardian Angels and The Company of Angels.