Clio Barnard's Talking Heads

By Omar El-Khairy, 10 February 2011
Image: Still from Clio Barnard's The Arbor, 2010

Caught in a web of anxious artistic and governmental agendas, the uncompromising figure of working class playwright Andrea Dunbar barely survives Clio Barnard's recent film about her life - writes Omar El-Khairy

If they are attacking me, they are leaving some other poor bugger alone

- Andrea Dunbar


Telling stories

The response to Clio Barnard's documentary about the life of the uncompromising working class Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar and her daughter Lorraine has been nothing short of breathless. Barnard has been lavished with a number of international film festival awards, including two - Best British Newcomer and the Southerland Award - at this year's BFI London Film Festival. The Arbor has been universally praised, not so much for its subject matter, but for its particular, hybrid form. Rather than setting itself up as a typical documentary about, or re-creation, of Dunbar's life, The Arbor's experimentalish structure involves a mix of verbatim theatre and voiced ‘memories' from interviews with members of the Dunbar family conducted over a two-year period. The construction of the film is indeed unusual with the interviews edited together to create an audio ‘screenplay', forming the basis of the film as actors lip-synch to the voices of the interviewees. Although The Arbor defies simplistic categorisation, there has been a surprising amount of fanfare surrounding the film and its techniques; particularly when one considers that Barnard is far from being the first film-maker to dislocate sound and image by constructing fictional images around audio.

Despite its static nature and lack of dramatic and political action, verbatim theatre - which requires actors to perform or ventriloquise recorded or transcribed interviews - has become increasingly popular in British theatre, particularly since the Iraq war and subsequent ‘War on Terror'. The popularity of such a form is symptomatic of the lack of politically bold and imaginative theatrical responses to both the state of the nation and the world at large since the 9/11 attacks. Nonetheless, asking actors to mime could still betoken the ambition to go beyond authenticity. At first, the effect of this unnerving detachment serves to heighten the testimonies' emotional power. However, much of this is premised on false dichotomies and cynical smokescreens. The effect is seen as compelling because it is presented as drawing attention to what is ‘real' (the audio interviews) and what is ‘fake' (the acting). If this problematic distinction is accepted, then the film is believed to dramatise the contrast between these two dimensions and so understood as questioning the veracity of everything we see and hear. This effect, it transpires, is what Barnard intended:

If you examine any documentary, you see how shaped it is, and how similar the narrative structure is to that of a fiction film. The lip-synching allows the actor to look directly down the lens at the audience: to acknowledge the illusion and break the fourth wall.


The negotiation between fiction and reality, she adds, is always tricky: ‘Drawing attention to that negotiation is a more honest way forward than relying on the technique to do the job and smooth out the tensions.'

Although aspiring to collapse the distance between reality and representation, as time lapses and viewers acclimatise themselves to Barnard's David Copperfieldesque magic trick, the film's game is truly up. The techniques used undoubtedly make viewers look and listen differently, but they are just as problematic as more traditional forms of stage or screen representation. If anything, Barnard's attempts to collapse this distance - through its very heightening - could be characterised as a decidedly self-centred and insincere project. In one of a minority of critical reviews, that only made it as far as the Guardian blog pages, David Cox rightly points out that:

the expropriation of the real participants' faces from those of sleeker drama school graduates becomes uncomfortable viewing. If people's speech is not to be trifled with, why should their appearance be? The logic of cinema surely implies that if anything, things should be the other way around. The archive images remind viewers of what's to be gained from seeing what people really look like. The archive clips of grizzled and raddled unfortunates highlight the gap between them and the posh, smooth-skinned performers goldfishing the speech of their contemporary counterparts.


The effect is to diminish credibility, rather than enhance it.

As well as this imagined collapse, Barnard also wanted the input - or at least visual, authenticating presence - of the estate's residents. Her solution is to illustrate the film with extracts from Dunbar's plays, performed in the open air, on the Buttershaw Estate where she was born, raised and eventually died a premature death. The irony is that Barnard's directorial choices not only serve to occlude the power of Andrea Dunbar's own voice, but also present a rather conventional and festishised ethnographic sketch of a working class council estate. Her methods seem to obscure its subject matter rather than illuminate it. Barnard fails to appreciate that performance is crucially different from everyday speech and life and that this should be both respected and celebrated. Of course, the disjuncture could as well be worked in the opposite direction, not toward an exposure of documentary artifice, but rather toward an embrace of its artificiality, one which might problematise the very possibility of authentic truth.

Image: Clio Barnard on the set of The Arbor

The Arbor is not a completely flawed film and does deserve some praise, but the flood of acclaim and Barnard's overflowing mantelpiece of awards points to something much more significant than simply the celebration of a director's seemingly innovative technique. It raises more fundamental questions around contemporary anxieties over the continued erasure of the voices of certain classes and communities, and how best to create seemingly non-exploitative methods of including the excluded into such art projects. When speaking about the dislocating effect of the film's form, Barnard said, ‘I wanted to maintain a sense of people speaking at one remove. Hopefully, it will remind the viewer that, however truthful a documentary attempts to be, it is always subject to the editorial decisions of the film-maker.' However, once one moves past the smokescreen of the film's form and techniques, one is left with the feeling that they simply reflect Clio Barnard's own hesitations and insecurities about the project as a whole and the obvious problems faced by trying to represent the unrepresentable - the wonderfully stubborn figure of Andrea Dunbar.

She wasn't talking about Brecht, she was talking about sex

Andrea Dunbar made her mark at the age of 15 when her first play, The Arbor, which she wrote as part of a school GSE project, was staged at the Royal Court theatre as part of their Young Writers' Festival in 1980. The Arbor tells the story of a Bradford schoolgirl who becomes pregnant on the night she loses her virginity. It is set amid the economic decline, rising unemployment and intensified racism of Thatcher's Britain. On the Buttershaw Estate, Dunbar grew up in the shadow of an abusive father, had a child by a Pakistani neighbour and, when that relationship collapsed, fled to a hostel for battered women. All of this was poured out in green ink and with incredible wit and perception in a school exercise book, and then eventually produced to critical acclaim by Max Stafford-Clark, the then artistic director of the Royal Court. Despite all the techniques and well rehearsed performances, the most moving, painful and joyous moments in the film are when Dunbar herself, through archival footage, is either on screen or can be heard. The scenes where she is reading from the personal letters she wrote to Max Stafford-Clark about her insecurities as a writer and the everyday hurdles of being a single mother and having to take care of her three children are some the most poignant moments in the film.

With the Max Stafford-Clark days long gone from the Royal Court, it would be unimaginable to witness a repeat of such bold commissioning in the current environment of funding obsessed and agenda driven arts programming. The particular changes at the Royal Court are emblematic of the broader shifts in the artistic community towards issues of representing race and class on stage and screen. The last decade at the Royal Court has seen a sharp move away from the radical new writing of the likes of Harold Pinter, Caryl Churchill, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Martin Crimp and Sarah Kane that it commissioned and helped nurture from the mid-1950s. With the new appetites and pressures of theatre literary departments, there is no longer room for the uncensored vernacular and no-frills depiction of working class life at its harshest that a playwright like Andrea Dunbar offers. With the dominant agenda of getting bums on seats, unashamed upper middleclass preoccupations and their penchant for navel gazing now dominate - along with a seasonal dash of working class, ghetto porn and/or international fetishes to complete the appetising consumption of the ‘other'. Thus, the likes of Polly Stenham and Laura Wade and their Birkin bag carrying characters take centre-stage, while the ghetto trash and liberal preoccupations with Islam and sexuality (or lack thereof) are tickled by the writings of Bola Agbaje and Alia Bano.

Image: Shot of a performance of Laura Wade's play Posh at the Royal Court, 2010

In 2000, director Max Stafford-Clarke, writer Robin Soans and a group of actors led by Gary Whitaker returned to Buttershaw. The result was A State of Affair, an uninspired piece of verbatim theatre that loses much of Dunbar's vibrant vision of life on a council estate. As Whitaker says, without any sense of irony, ‘the stories have been condensed and conflated, but the words are theirs'. And so they have. It is in this context that the latest misappropriation of Andrea Dunbar begins to unravel. Although Barnard's film makes use of her texts, most attention has been focused on the apparently unlikely background and upbringing for such a talented writer to emerge from, and not the work itself. In a 1980 BBC Arena feature on Dunbar, the interviewer politely questions her family on their doorstep, asking every member the same question; ‘Where does she get the writing from?' This equal measure of confusion and fascination remains a central preoccupation in most discussions of the playwright.

However, this popular representation of Dunbar works in sharp contrast to both her own words and work. While liberal do-gooders want to point to the horror of her life, for Dunbar herself her life and environment, although fragile and fraught with social deprivation, was still full of joy, recklessness and creativity. For Dunbar, writing about what she knew best was not some form of exploitation. In today's context, however, it is both the poverty of institutional imagination and the pressures of a new funding logic that drive writers from disadvantaged or marginalised communities to abandon using that inspiration as a source for subversion or enlightenment and instead deploy it as a way to garner attention - albeit both patronising and predatory - from agents, literary departments, artistic institutions and funding bodies.

Although her life was cut short at the age of 29, only ten years after the production of her first play, Andrea Dunbar was no one-hit wonder. The Arbor was followed by Rita, Sue and Bob Too, a play about two teenage girls who grow up on a Bradford estate and start an affair with a married man. The 1986 screen adaptation, shot on Buttershaw, was directed by one of the masters of British realism, Alan Clarke, and became a cause célèbre of 1980s British cinema. However, Dunbar disowned the project when the producers brought in additional writers to give the film a more upbeat ending in which the three characters all remain friends. Worse still, the film was attacked by the local tourist office for giving a supposedly ‘slummy, fake image of Bradford', and some Buttershaw residents, who thought the film portrayed them in an unflattering light, became equally hostile towards her. Despite both the shame and modest fame she achieved after the release of the film, Dunbar always remained puzzled by the attention she garnered, commentating, ‘there's people in Buttershaw a lot more clever than I could ever be. I just stumbled across this writing by accident, whereas other people haven't had the opportunity to get out and do that.'

I'm here to find out more

Clio Barnard's interest in Andrea Dunbar's life and work, and thus decision to dedicate over two years to recording interviews with members of the Dunbar family and others associated with her, has been somewhat brushed over. In all her interviews about the film, Barnard simply says her interest was ‘piqued' when she read Rita, Sue and Bob Too. However, this never comes across as convincing. In an interview at a screening of her film in the Czech Republic, Barnard stated, quite proudly, that she had seen the adaptations of Dunbar's work before she knew her as a playwright, and that she didn't really know about her life until she began making the film (about her life). Moreover, most commentators have systematically pointed to the fact that Barnard herself grew up in Bradford, but it is this sort of authenticating and parochial thinking that attempts to keep such work in its proper place; as if it cannot be under-stood or appreciated by anyone else without the need for official mediation or some form of authentic translation.

Image: Shooting The Arbor in Brafferton Arbor, Bradford

It is interesting that despite all the hype surrounding The Arbor, there has been little discussion about the film's funding and how it has come to influence both the film's content and form. The Arbor was one of four projects awarded a Jerwood/Artangel Commission - a major £1 million initiative set up in 2006. In association with Channel 4 and Arts Council England, the Jerwood Artangel Open called for ideas for ‘exceptional projects in relation to specific sites in the UK. Emerging artists from all disciplines are invited to imagine ambitious transformations of specific situations, urban, suburban and rural'. Furthermore, coinciding with the release of the film, Artangel also collaborated with Immediate Theatre and the Young Vic on a series of rehearsed readings of both Dunbar's plays, as well as the scripts of four teenage girls from Hackney. Unlike all the frustrating trickery of Barnard's film, it was a joy simply to hear Andrea's own words, on stage, as they were intended. However, what all theses schemes fail to realise - or more probably wilfully ignore - is that what made Andrea's work stand out was that she wrote for herself, not as part of some exercise for self-improvement workshops or the ideal of representing an imagined community. Rather than helping nurture talent, such patronising and ultimately alienating initiatives, aimed at the young and socially vulnerable, only serve to intensify the elite class vantage point.

In a Q&A session following the film's screening at the London Film Festival, Michael Moss, the film's executive producer, spoke of the decision making process as the film developed out of the audio edits of the interviews. Although Barnard said she found Andrea Dunbar's voice incredibly moving - ‘the softness of it, and her youth' - when she listened to tapes in the British Library's audio archive, it was the voice and story of Lorraine Dunbar, her eldest child, that was to become the centrepiece. The film's producers spoke of Lorraine's particularly grim and difficult life; she was not only raped at 14 and exposed to crack and heroin, but also endured prostitution, domestic violence and was imprisoned for involvement in a robbery. In 2006, her two-year old son died after ingesting some of his mother's methadone: Lorraine was convicted of manslaughter. The narrative thus turns its back on Andrea's uncompromising voice and chooses instead the bitter childhood memories of Lorraine. It catches up with her in the present day, ostracised from her mother's family and in prison undergoing rehab. Re-introduced to her mother's play and letters, the film follows her personal journey as she reflects on her own life and the struggles her mother faced when she was growing up.

Admitting that the film is a harrowing portrayal of not only a family, but also a broader community, Barnard argues, ‘I could have gone to Butterworth and made a film that was completely optimistic; there are optimistic, positive things there too. But if the end of the film said, "Actually, everything's OK", that would be a false reassurance.' The choice to make Lorraine the main character not only gives the film a rather disturbing edge, but it also cynically lures in audiences by presenting working class life through the typical tropes of delinquency, addiction and squalor. This orgy of sentiments, however, grates against the representation of the working class in much of Dunbar's own writing. Her plays aren't typical tales of ‘fighting against the odds', but rather make the seemingly extraordinary - to middle class audiences, distinctly ordinary - from inter-racial relationships and child pregnancy to the unabashed enjoyment of sex, drug addiction and alcoholism. Although her stories detail daily troubles with the state and police, her characters typically show a rebellious ambivalence, rather than either outright revolutionary fervour or a dejected wallowing in a life of misfortune. More-over, her characters likewise never really seek affirmation or sympathy from their audiences.

Image: Andrea Dunbar in the 1980s

Unlike the recent drive for more prole porn on the BBC, or Channel Four's This is England '86 - which is disappointingly inferior to the original, independently made film - Andrea Dunbar never reverts to melodrama. In this context it is easy to understand why Artangel's ‘directorial vision' for the project shifted to Lorraine. The strategic choice to prioritise the disaffected daughter - as well as the cynical use of her half-Pakistani identity to raise the spectre of race - not only allowed for the underbelly of funding bodies to be cockled and stroked, but also helped add another dimension of ‘awareness raising' that played to liberal concerns over social deprivation. In light of this, Artangel organised a screening of The Arbor in partnership with the influential Kids Company in October for invited members of the House of Lords. The producers claim that ‘the special screening aims to highlight the urgency of the film's themes to the parliamentary establishment, individuals with constitutional power to debate and veto government legislation.'

Where goes Andrea?

Although a series of official events have been organised around the UK release of the film, they all seem to be inspired by moments of self-congratulation and self-publicity, rather than any celebration of the life and work of a genuinely gifted artist whose life was tragically cut short by the pressures of Thatcher's Britain. If anything, the distancing devices used in The Arbor only serve to highlight the anxiety over the question of representing the excluded in contemporary British society. However, despite all this self-absorbed anxiety which, in the case of Barnard, has ironically led to critical acclaim and international awards, it could be argued that such processes have even more sinister repercussions. Rather than simply reproducing the status quo, such a project has served to further occlude and distort significant figures and dehistoricise crucial moments in our communal past. It is often mentioned that the film was partly made to hold up a mirror to a side of Bradford that Bradford itself did not want to see. However, Andrea Dunbar held up a much wider mirror; one that, despite all attempts, cannot be confined to the Buttershaw Estate.

Aside from the self-serving logic of funding bodies, it seems much is riding on the success of The Arbor. The amount of interest and uncritical praise the film has garnered cannot be explained away by its seemingly original formal methods. Instead, it points to a much wider trend for a certain kind of revisionism of class and class politics within the arts, and particularly film, in Britain today. These are films that play to all the heartwarming stereotypes of rough diamonds and strong communities mixed with a large measure of humour. The Arbor may not fit the prism of films such as The Full Monty, Billy Elliot and, most recently, Made in Dagenham (see p.86), but it does render under-referenced and unsettling voices from the past as now safe for consumption. In The Arbor, it is Andrea Dunbar's voice that gets lost and thus rendered open to manipulation. It is her entertaining and uncompromising voice that is slowly eroded by Barnard's editing, to the point where it is whitewashed and re-represented as something new. Barnard's talking heads may be attempting to deal with the elephant in the room - authentic representation - but they end up keeping it silent, unquestioned and ultimately unheard. Mainstream British cinema has thus become increasingly unrepresentative of the social and economic changes in British society over the past 20 years or so. The steady erasure of issues of class and class struggle has been supplemented with the flattening out of Britain's rich, messy and convivial history into a bland depiction of working class hooliganism, corporate-sponsored multiculturalism and straight-up ghetto porn.

‘They'll forget all about us by tomorrow,' predicted Andrea at the height of her success in the 1980s. To accompany the first public screening of the film, a blue plaque to mark the playwright's life was erected on the council house where she lived until her death. I doubt she could imagine anything so wet. The word precocious is often bandied about when speaking about her writing, but ‘precocious' hints at something premature or ripe before its time. Despite what all these celebrations imply, Andrea Dunbar is not an exception to any rule. Moreover, individual talent proved insufficient to transport her from one set of life chances into another; a reminder that social mobility is as often a tale of exile and loss as it is of rags to riches. Most unsettling for the liberal left was Andrea's complete lack of interest in breaking free of her disintegrating community to achieve social mobility. With all the attempts to resituate her life to fit the nation's more comfortable official narrative, I suggest we remember Andrea for her black teeth, brilliant smile and unrelenting dialogue.



Omar El-Khairy <> <> is a playwright, freelance writer and PhD candidate in political sociology at LSE. He resides in the gutters of the English language