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.

Most Read

Ahead of its South London Gallery performance, how Tom Phillips’s Irma – a work that questions the genre of opera...
With the opening of the 15th Istanbul Biennial this week, a guide to the best exhibitions around town
Ahead of the openings of EXPO Chicago and the 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial, a guide to the best exhibitions...
Florine Stettheimer, Beauty Contest: To the Memory of P.T. Barnum, 1924, oil on canvas, 1.2 x 1.5 m. Courtesy: Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut and Ettie Stettheimer
The Jewish Museum, New York, USA
Highlights of the exhibitions and performances taking place during Berlin Art Week 
Reflections, a favourite verse, and a new poem dedicated to one of the English language’s most renowned poets of the...
Nicole Eiseman, Sketch for a Fountain (Skizze für einen Brunnen), 2017, Skulptur Projekte 2017, bronze, gips, wasserbecken. Courtesy: Skulptur Projekte Münster
Various venues, Münster, Germany
Buoyed by Manifesta announcing it will dock in the port city in 2020, is Marseille becoming the new LA? 
Ahead of this year’s DC Open and gallery share Okey-Dokey, a round-up of the best shows across the Rhineland cities
From artist Enoch Cheng’s nocturnal balletics to fascist violence in Charlottesville, rethinking the political agency...
Opened 15 months ago but remaining empty until now, the inaugural show at the landmark Palestinian Museum in Birzeit
The dual sides to the city’s Cph Art Week
Queer cringe at the BBC and other diversity dilemmas
Marta Minujín, El Partenón de libros (The Parthenon of Books), 2017, under construction in Kassel as part of documenta 14. Photograph: © Rosa Maria Ruehling
On documenta 14 in Athens and Kassel
Chris Kraus’s biography of the first female ‘Great Writer as Countercultural Hero’
Remembering the artist whose occultist experiments transformed her body and biography into art 
In this microcosm of the disenfranchisement of ‘Late Great Britain’, what use is art?
Public debate around Confederate insignia has little to do with historical fact, and everything to do with collective...
A multi-faceted collaboration between Matthew Barney, Ragnar Kjartansson and the Iceland Dance Company reflects on...
What Luc Besson’s Valerian and a number of recent artists’ 3D films are getting right about our current reality
The removal of the Confederate monuments in Baltimore shows decisiveness after years of inaction – already they stand...
Yayoi Kusama to open her own museum; Confederate monuments removed in Baltimore; David Roberts Art Foundation to leave...
From a tribute to Straub/Huillet to Valerie Massadian’s portrait of teenage motherhood, the turn to real situations and...
Japan’s growing number of art festivals tread a precarious path between state-sponsored leisure-culture and soft-power...
Fifty years after the term was coined, a show in Samos reflects on ‘the unlikely liaison between love and politics’
Arsenale and Giardini, Venice, Italy
SoundCloud has been invaluable to the new music community for both documentation and discovery – now the audio-...
The extraordinary life of the late, great, gallerist and collector Alexander Iolas
Various venues, New York, USA
At a time of instantaneous information and fetishized immersivity, artists are evoking scent as an alchemical, bodily...
With her current show at Gasworks, London, the Kuwaiti artist shares some influential images
Romare Bearden, Pittsburgh Memory, 1964, mixed media collage and graphite on board, 22 x 30 cm. Courtesy: © Romare Bearden Foundation / DACS, London / VAGA, New York 2017
Successfully layering a broader socio-historical narrative onto a period of radical non-conformity, this is an...
With a strong surrealist strain, and including a welcome number of female artists, highlights from the 48th edition of...

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

May 2017

frieze magazine

June – August 2017

frieze magazine

September 2017