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Andrea Dunbar: The teenage Bradford ‘genius’ who told it like it was

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Andrea Dunbar in 1980, the year her first play was staged

Andrea Dunbar was 15 when she wrote her first play, and her raw depictions of life on her Bradford estate caused a sensation. Now her own tragic life story is being told on stage.

Plays by teenage girls from northern council estates involving casual sex and domestic violence weren’t the norm at the Royal Court theatre in London in 1980.

That’s when Andrea Dunbar’s The Arbor made its debut. She had written the first version four years earlier in green biro on pages torn from a school exercise book.

After seeing it, The Stage newspaper’s horrified critic wrote: “If this is a true picture of working class life in the north, the outlook is grim indeed.”

While some were shocked, for Dunbar, it was just real life. Her life.

The main character was called Andrea, who, like the writer herself, became pregnant at 15, had a miscarriage, moved in with a man who beat her, and moved to a refuge.

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Siobhan Finneran, George Costigan and Michelle Holmes in the film version of Rita, Sue and Bob Too

Dunbar’s second play, Rita, Sue and Bob, Too, became her most famous (and infamous) work after being turned into a film in 1987.

But after writing one more play, Dunbar’s inspiration largely dried up and she died after suffering a brain haemorrhage in her local pub in 1990 at the age of 29.

She’s remembered as a biting, funny writer who put working class life on show without judgement or sentiment.

“Every word rings true,” says dramatist Lisa Holdsworth, who has written for Call the Midwife and Midsomer Murders, and has penned the script for the play about Dunbar’s life.

“Her work had that enormous authenticity. And she was unflinching – she never looked away, she never watered it down or put a nice spin on it. I cannot imagine Andrea compromising, ever.”

When The Arbor was staged, The Mail on Sunday proclaimed her “a genius straight from the slums with black teeth and a brilliant smile”.

The new play is titled Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile, adapted from Adelle Stripe’s biographical novel of the same name. It will be performed in a Bradford pub before a tour of community venues, including a couple on Dunbar’s own Buttershaw estate.

A separate BBC Radio 4 drama will also tell the writer’s story in June.

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Gemma Dobson, John Askew and Alyce Liburd in Out of Joint’s 2019 production of Rita, Sue and Bob Too

Dunbar wrote about what she knew. Rita, Sue and Bob Too, in which a married man lures his teenage babysitters into a casual love triangle, was partly inspired by her own life and partly by two raucous girls she overheard in the ladies’ toilet at Keighley Market.

“It was written before the idea of grooming even existed in this country,” Holdsworth says.

“The reality of how what sets out as something fun, and how two girls with bad home lives might want that attention and how it can quickly turn abusive and nasty and emotionally scarring, is a very modern take on it. I think it’s why that play still gets produced.”

The men in Dunbar’s own life – often abusive and domineering – have been cut out of Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile entirely. This play has an all-female cast.

Holdsworth explains that instead of showing the damage done by the men, she wanted to focus on the women who “not only are subject to that abuse but survive it, thrive after it, bounce back”.

There were men who had a positive impact on Dunbar’s life – like the English teacher who spotted her talent and encouraged her to write. Her work was eventually passed to the Royal Court by a friend of a worker at the refuge where Dunbar stayed.

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Lucy Hird (left) and Emily Spowage play Dunbar at different stages of her life

One question that often gets asked in theatre circles is – could Dunbar, a girl with clear talent but no silver spoon or foot in the door, get noticed if she was starting out today?

Holdsworth is also the deputy chair of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain, and recently gave evidence about this very question at the Houses of Parliament.

“Having spoken to a couple of sociologists and researchers, the truth is it’s always been hard, and it’s still hard,” she says.

“There was never a golden age when working class people were being listened to and elevated. There are outliers and I think Andrea was very much an outlier. She had the skill but there was a little bit of luck as well involved. But that’s true for every writer.”

The thing that has changed, she believes, is the time and resources schools have to nurture talent. The numbers of students taking GCSE and A-Level drama have dropped by a third in the last decade.

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Left-right: Playwright Lisa Holdsworth, author Adelle Stripe and director Kash Arshad outside Andrea Dunbar’s local pub

“The idea that a teacher would have time to nurture a talent outside of the curriculum, outside of SATs, and exams and league tables – I think that’s probably where it has got harder,” Holdsworth says.

“If there’s a fully-formed Andrea out in Bradford now, I really hope she’s being listened to.”

One organisation trying to listen is theatre company Out Of Joint, which has just toured a revival of Rita, Sue and Bob Too. Artistic director Kate Wasserberg launched The Andrea Project – a scheme to find young writers from difficult backgrounds around the UK.

“The voices are there and we just need to keep clearing the path,” she says.

“The first intervention in Andrea’s life was a schoolteacher saying, ‘You should write a play’. I’m sure there are many noble teachers who will find ways, but it’s less and less likely, and more and more difficult for that to happen in an educational system outside of private school.

“If you start cutting out an entire section of society because they haven’t got the money to join, you’re less likely to discover those geniuses.”

The Andrea Project has been run in Bolton, Sheffield and Northampton so far, and some of those participating teenagers are continuing to work on their scripts with their local theatres.

Even if they don’t turn out to be writing geniuses, Wasserberg hopes participants will pursue careers in the arts, or a lifelong interest in theatre.

‘Your voice is just as important’

Meanwhile, Dunbar’s life story continues to provide inspiration. Director Clio Barnard retold it in her Bafta-nominated 2010 film The Arbor, and Adelle Stripe’s book, its stage adaptation and Sean Grundy’s Radio 4 drama are now keeping her memory alive.

“She’s still a symbol of something to a lot of writers,” Holdsworth says.

“A symbol of – it can be done, perseverance will pay off, and your voice is just as important as someone with 15 degrees and all those people who come from a certain degree of privilege.

“The working class voice is just as important, just as entertaining, just as vibrant, just as literary as anyone else’s. So that I think is why she perseveres and hasn’t sunk into obscurity.”

Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile, produced by Freedom Studios, is at The Ambassador pub in Bradford from 30 May-8 June. Rita, Sue and Andrea Too is on Radio 4 at 14:15 BST on 7 June.

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Disney culls ‘Fox’ from 20th Century Fox in rebrand

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The 20th Century Fox logo will lose a word but retain the same look, according to reports

Disney executives have cut the word “Fox” from their 20th Century Fox film studio in an apparent bid to distance it from operations of the previous owner, Rupert Murdoch.

US media suggests Disney does not want to be associated with the media mogul’s highly partisan, right-wing Fox News network.

However, Disney has not clarified its reasons.

It bought the studio, with other media operations, in a $71bn deal last March.

20th Century Fox is known for producing some of the biggest films of all-time, including Avatar and Titanic.

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Variety magazine, which broke the news about the name change, said it had spoken to an unnamed Disney source, who said: “I think the Fox name means Murdoch, and that is toxic.”

Hollywood is known for being liberal, unlike the Australian tycoon.

Disney has also renamed Fox Searchlight Pictures, the arthouse arm, as simply Searchlight Pictures.

Staff emails were changed on Friday, from @fox.com to @20thcenturystudios.com or @searchlight.com.

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Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News has been a cheerleader for Donald Trump

The original 20th Century Fox company was formed in 1935 following a merger.

Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation bought it in the mid-1980s, and the Fox News channel was created in 1996, growing to become most-watched in the US.

News Corporation was later split into News Corp and 21st Century Fox – which Disney acquired as the parent company of various film and television studios, including the renowned 20th Century Fox.

The Murdoch family retained the news outlets in a spin-off company, Fox Corporation, which is run by Rupert Murdoch’s son Lachland.

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Variety says the 20th Century Fox studio’s well-known fanfare theme and searchlight logo will be retained.

Disney also runs 20th Century Fox Television and Fox 21 Television Studios. Any changes to their names have not been announced.

Disney is already a dominant force in US news, as the owner of the ABC network. It is also hoping to challenge Netflix with its own streaming service Disney+, which launched in the US last year.



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Jack Reacher author Lee Child passes writing baton to brother

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Lee Child has written 24 Jack Reacher novels

The author of the best-selling Jack Reacher novels is handing over the writing duties to his younger brother.

Lee Child, 65, reportedly considered killing off the 6ft 5ins vigilante hero, who is played by actor Tom Cruise in film adaptations.

But the writer said: “I love my readers and know they want many, many more Reacher stories in the future.”

His brother Andrew Grant, 51, who will write under the pen name Andrew Child, is already an established author.

Child, whose real name is James Grant, said he felt he was “ageing out” of being able to produce more of the books.

He said: “So I have decided to pass the baton to someone who can.”

He described his younger sibling as the “best tough-guy writer I have read in years.”

“We share the same DNA, the same background, the same upbringing,” he said, adding: “He’s me, fifteen years ago, full of energy and ideas.”

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There have been two Jack Reacher films starring Tom Cruise

The Coventry-born author said they would work on the next few novels together “and then he’ll strike out on his own”.

Child started writing after being fired from his job as a presentation director at Granada Television in 1995.

His first Reacher novel, Killing Floor, was published in 1997.

He has since sold more than 100 million books and Amazon has announced it is adapting the series for TV.

The novels, which are set in the United States, have been translated into 40 languages and adapted into two movies starring Cruise.

The protagonist of the book series is a former major in the US Army military police who roams the US investigating suspicious and dangerous situations.

Grant said he had been “blown away” by his elder brother’s first Reacher novel.

He said: “The more time I spent with him in each new adventure, the more I craved the next. So I know what it’s like to wait for the new Reacher novel.”

He added: “I understand what Reacher fans want – because I am one. And I’ll do my best to deliver for them.

“I’ll have to. Because my big brother will be watching.”

The Sentinel, the 25th Jack Reacher novel, is due to be published on 29 October 2020.



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Jazz musician Rex Martey signs record deal aged 82

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An 82-year-old south-Londoner has had his lifetime ambition come true by getting a record deal.

Rex Martey suffers from prostate cancer and needs dialysis three times a week.

He wanted a deal so he could leave a legacy and has been signed by record company The Animal Farm.

One of the songs on his album is dedicated to the cancer nurse who’s treated him for the last few years.

He has pledged a quarter of all sales will go to Guys Hospital.



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