There was a painfully poignant moment on the Buttershaw estate in Bradford yesterday when a blue plaque to mark the life of playwright Andrea Dunbar was erected on the council house where she lived until her death at the age of 29 in 1990.Who?
Most famous for her play Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1982), which was later adapted for the cinema, she was characterised as a writer who exposed the fallout of Thatcherism on the English working class.Ah. Her.
Dunbar's work was about domestic violence, alcoholism and underage sex; when theatre director Max Stafford-Clark returned with playwright Robin Soans to revisit Buttershaw in 2000, they picked up on the ravages caused by cheap heroin, addiction and prostitution. The latest instalment takes the family's story into the greatest tragedy of all: the death of Lorraine's two year-old baby son from a methadone overdose and his mother's subsequent imprisonment.Oh, wow!
Sounds like a real feelgood movie, Maddy. I’ll get the popcorn, shall I?
It is an unbearably bleak film to watch.Yeah, I figured it was no challenge to the likes of ‘The Full Monty’…
When challenged on this point, Barnard quotes the film-maker Michael Haneke's idea that we go to the cinema expecting to be reassured. She has absolutely refused to conform; indeed, she has provided a film which creates a desperate need for reassurance.Well, only in those who go to see it with the intention, I suspect, of feeling a need for reassurance…
It is all in sharp contrast to what has become a staple of British cinema – the cheerful, plucky English working classes as depicted most recently in Made in Dagenham.Would that be the same film your colleague, Jackie Ashley, thinks is wonderful, Maddy?
Both Dunbar's plays and Barnard's new film are about the failure of intimate relationships, and neither refer to the backstory of the decline of the Bradford textile industry – in which both Dunbar's parents originally worked – nor the rising levels of worklessness in the early 1980s. This is a puzzling omission because here is a chastening demonstration of what happens to the social fabric of a community when its employment patterns collapse. It doesn't lead necessarily to the determination and resourcefulness of The Full Monty, but to a bitter turning inwards, destructive of self and intimates, and to alcoholism and domestic violence.So it can lead to either. Wouldn’t it be nice to find out what tips a person one way or the other?
Maddy doesn’t seem inclined to find out:
… in a bitter inversion of the Billy Elliot-style account of one talented kid who manages to break free of his disintegrating community to achieve social mobility, Dunbar couldn't or didn't want to leave the family networks of Buttershaw, and found the theatre world she'd stumbled into critical and demanding. She turned to drink, failed to develop stable relationships and died alone in a pub as the result of a brain haemorrhage. Individual talent proved insufficient to transport her from one set of life chances into another; a reminder that social mobility is as often a cruel tale of exile and loss as it is of rags to riches.So once again, some people do succeed, and some don’t. How about we look at the reasons for that, and try to encourage the former?
But if two generations of tragedy were not enough, it is Dunbar's daughter Lorraine's story that leaves one speechless. Her father beat her mother; the first 18 months of her life were spent in a refuge for battered women; her childhood memories are dominated by her mother's alcoholism and death and by sexual abuse. By 11 she had lost her mother, by 14 she had found heroin and prostitution. Of her several prison sentences, she comments that prison is the only place where she has ever felt safe.And yet, people have come from the same backgrounds and made a success of their lives, refusing to give in to the bleak outlook that is often predicted for them.
The chances she had to create a stable life for herself were infinitesimally small, and hers is a crucially important story to hear at a time when the coalition government is briskly setting up sharp distinctions between the deserving and the undeserving poor.Right. The cuts, the cuts, the cuts! They are going to doom us all!
But the main political purpose of Barnard's film is more subtle. This is a story of tragedy, of inter-generational cycles of neglect and abuse, but Barnard scrupulously avoids apportioning blame. There were exemplary neighbours who did all they could to support Lorraine and her siblings. There is no finger-pointing at social services, no blame targeted at the many state agencies that have invested in Buttershaw's regeneration in the last 15 years. The neighbourhood is much more prosperous today, though, significantly, the increased material wealth has not helped ease social problems such as addiction.And why would it? This is poverty of the spirit, not of the purse!
Blame is the mechanism with which we deal with tragedy; if so-and-so had done X, Y wouldn't have happened. It may offer an easy narrative structure for journalists, but blame is an impatient response, points out Barnard, which "is too easy, and it doesn't help".Doesn't stop the 'Guardian' reaching for the 'Blame Thatcherism!' cudgel at every opportunity...
Her real target is not the failures of the state – which is usually blamed in cases of children dying from abuse – but the broader failure of understanding. Just as actual witch-hunts were never an effective way to deal with lonely elderly women, orgies of blame and disgust towards parents who abuse or those charged to intervene will not save a single child's life.We shouldn't be disgusted by those who abuse children (like this prize specimen), because, you see, they are victims too. Right?
Sorry, Maddy, that's not going to wash any more...