Who’s Laughing?

On Alan Clarke’s Rita, Sue and Bob Too, the death of Ian Brady, and what laughter might conceal

Ian Brady, with his girlfriend Myra Hindley branded by the British press as the ‘Moors Murderers’ after the bodies of four child victims were dumped on West Yorkshire moorland, died at 6pm on Monday 15 May 2017, minutes before the thirtieth-anniversary screening of Alan Clarke’s Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1987) at the British Film Institute (BFI), London. I learnt of Brady’s death only after the screening, on the 11 o'clock news.

After the screening, members of the cast and crew – George Costigan (Bob), Kulvinder Ghir (Aslam), Michelle Holmes (Sue), co-producer Patsy Pollock and producer Sandy Lieberson – convened on stage to remember the making of the film. Despite the friendly familiarity, it seems they had not discussed the intimate period that they spent together filming Rita, Sue and Bob Too on the Boulevard Estate in Buttershaw, Bradford, in the north of England.

Upon release, the film sparked incredulity among London critics who doubted the plausibility of its characters, setting and lives – something captured here by the introduction to the film, and the subsequent stories that were shared. But it wasn’t just the southerners: at its 1987 Cannes screening, an Italian critic who castigated the crew for their fantasy of a film caught a whack on the head from Pollock’s rolled-up copy of Film International as he left the gabinetto later. Rita, Sue and Bob Too was founded in actuality. The film was based on a 1982 play of the same name by prodigal screenwriter Andrea Dunbar, who grew up on a Buttershaw estate and while on shoot would point out the living models for the characters. Boulevard Estate residents featured in the film: the man manically jumping on the balcony, perhaps traumatised by World War II, had been on the northern stand-up comedy circuit, while it is Holmes’s own nan who dances in the sordid Black Lace gangbang scene. Residents worked as security guards on set. Those not gainfully employed dined from the catering truck. Every Friday night, after work was done, the crew got pissed in the estate social club.

At the BFI, Pollock laughingly recounted a shoot story that, even if she had known of Brady’s ‘topical’ death, seemed a non-sequitur. Noticing an ‘ugly’ lonesome local in the social, Pollock encouraged a cockney gaffer to give her a dance: ‘I’m not fucking dancing with that,’ he exclaimed, ‘she’s got a scar right across her noggin!’ The long, lateral scar parting her scalp had been inflicted by Brady. She was a survivor. Pollock and some of the audience laughed. What kind of laugher was this? Was Pollock’s story really a non-sequitur?

Rita, Sue and Bob Too?, 1987, film still. Courtesy: BFI

Rita, Sue and Bob Too, 1987, film still. Courtesy: BFI

Rita, Sue and Bob Too, 1987, film still. Courtesy: BFI

The friend I attended the screening with, film critic Anna Coatman, who grew up outside of Leeds, explained how the Moors became an even darker, haunted place in the wake of Brady and Hindley's arrests in 1965. Anna knew relatives of victims. Brady’s death, 15 years after Hindley’s, and Pollock's’s anecdote, brought their figures into profile in Rita, Sue and Bob Too. It is, after all, to the Moors that Bob, a cheating sociopath of a husband, drives Rita and Sue after their babysitting shift is over to talk them into sex. It is, after all, the scene for subsequent ‘jumps’, as the girls euphemistically call it. (In one of the film’s most genuinely creepy scenes, Bob emerges on the crest of a hill overlooking the girls playing tennis at school. Growing up in the era of the gated school, it seems unimaginable that ‘strangers’ could so easily gain access.)  

Cinema viewing produces a collective performative laughter from audiences that sometimes can become excessive as an expression of knowingness, particularly with a cult classic. Social laughter can be infectious. Rita and Sue’s aloofness (fright), the film’s comic timing and juxtaposition (distant cattle mewing on the Moors), and bonking make Bob’s predatory violence laughable. As Anna says, the film plays for laughter. So we laugh at Kevin, Sue’s father – his and his wife’s lives destroyed by alcoholism – as he calls her boyfriend, Aslam, a ‘black bastard’, ordering him never to come back to his flat ‘else I’ll smash them fucking black brains right off your black head.’ ‘I can’t help being a Paki,’ Aslam responds sweetly. ‘Yes you fuckin’ can!’ retorts Kevin.    

While the film may have dignified the working class in as much as it was not another gloomy representation of our friends in the north, it is far more ambivalent about feminism and race politics – social movements well established in the north of England by the mid-1980s. Aslam might be told he is a useless Paki, but he accepts this as fact. Rita and Sue are solicited by a predator adult, but they accept this as fact. What is the difference in their acceptances?

At what, and how, are we laughing when we laugh at sexual predators and casual racism represented in Rita, Sue and Bob Too? This is the question I put to the panel on stage. The film is not racist, Lieberson explained; Ghir said that ‘we could only laugh at racism’. ‘I don’t think the film is racist,’ I said. I think it's unique in that we as spectators are enlisted to laugh by editorial sleights, dark juxtapositions and the seediness of it all. But what forms of hate are masked by laughter? What traumas endure? Bob, after all, is a sexual predator. ‘It's the way it was back then,’ Pollock explained, echoing the mantra of the generational difference often repeated by Operation Yew Tree apologists. Rita, Sue and Bob Too is outstanding in this very ambivalence. (Martin Parr continues this legacy in his 1989 photobook The Cost of Living, in which middle England carries a similar strain of violence.) It accommodates a spectrum of identifications, from those who find the behaviour of Bob and men like him acceptable (we all know them) or the racism of Kevin funny (we all know them), to those who see it as a powerful and timely reminder of the violence animating Britain’s darkest imaginings.  

Main image: Rita, Sue and Bob Too, 1987, film still. Courtesy: BFI

Jonathan P. Watts is a contemporary art critic based in London.

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