Let’s reconsider the virtues – and vices – of ménage à trois: two daft coquettes, curious about sex (and swimmingly portrayed by dotty Michelle Holmes and the marginally more forthright Siobhan Finneran) and one very randy, upwardly-mobile married guy (George Costigan, taking his oily prick to new heights of arrogant entitlement). If we can set aside the titillation factor for just a moment, then Alan Clarke’s Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1987) is really a microcosmic critique of everything gone awry in Maggie Thatcher’s England – so advertised by the film’s publicity as being caught with its knickers down; juxtaposing the cookie-cutter dystopian projects of Bradford, looking as though they’ve recently experienced a nuclear winter (there’s narrowly a tree in sight) - and with all their slum prudery intact - with the affluent, architecturally copy-catted neighborhoods of the more affable middle class.
Okay, we’re about as far removed from the white picket fence as one can get. Neither Rita nor Sue come from happy – or stable – homes, though Sue’s chronically drunk dad, Kevin (played with saucy aplomb by Willie Ross) isn’t about to have a twenty-cent tart for a daughter. It seems even in a run-down council estate there are standards. Sue’s brothers (nondescriptly played by Mark Crompton, Stuart Goodwin, Max Jackman, Andrew Krauz and Simon Waring) are about what you might expect; goony, laconic and not above jotting down prospective bets for the track on her high school homework assignments. Honestly, does anybody in this household hold a job…well, except for Sue – working part-time for Luna Radio Kars where she ultimately meets – and briefly has a meaningless fling – with the volatile, Pakistani-playboy, Aslam (Kulvinder Ghir). Rita’s situation isn’t much better; shacked up in a decaying slum with a bunch of punk bikers as her flat mates. It’s a meaningless, fractured existence to say the least; yet one neither Rita nor Sue aspire to rise above. Giddy, white trash complacency seems to have replaced the daydreamer’s hopelessness.
Yet, director Clarke does more than suggest life on the other side of the tracks isn’t rewarding either; Bob caught in his loveless marriage to the shrewish, Michelle (Lesley Sharp); whose hysterectomy has left her wanting for that ‘lovin’ feeling’ towards her husband. Point taken: there are other issues in Bob and Michelle’s marriage that bear addressing – though neither is particularly interested in dishing the dirt, rather going through the motions; content to inflict and lick their wounds in private. There’s also an added oddity; while the couple employs Rita and Sue to ‘babysit’ we never actually see or hear the child in question, arguably, at the crux of Michelle’s brittle ennui and Bob’s incorrigible philandering. Nor does Rita or Sue seem to be all that interested in anything beyond head-bobbing music videos and body-bouncing bonks in the back of Bob’s snazzy red sports car.
Impropriety takes a backseat – literally – to the pleasure-seeking diversions this trio engages in with increasing nonchalance and frequency. It’s all fun and games until somebody gets pregnant and loses the baby. Or is it? Rita, Sue and Bob Too isn’t necessarily about either the conflict in these sexual interests – vacuous in the absence of romance – that result from using one man’s penis as a share-toy, or in the emotional ramifications yet to come from having one’s heart broken and vagina stretched; wreaking havoc on the proper marriage and temporarily impugning the deliciously improper – if wholly immodest – group participation. Rita’s last act pregnancy and penultimate miscarriage is a minor hiccup in the plot. Indeed, it changes nothing between these three…um…friends. Sexually transmitted diseases, AIDS, the social/moral corollaries that can – and briefly do – arise from jealousy between good mates: none of these very real factors matter to screenwriter, Andrea Dunbar, who’s based the film’s meandering scenarios on two of her own stage plays: Rita Sue and Bob Too (1982) and The Arbor (1980). Enjoy the moment. It won’t last. But don’t read too much into it. This seems to be the message of the movie.
The other time-honored cliché herein feeds into ‘you can have your cake and eat it too’. Bob is arguably living a red-blooded guy’s ultimate fantasy – two women at his beckon call – able to satisfy each in the same instant with a presumably well-endowed crotch (Rita refers to it as his sausage) that, like the Energizer Bunny, just keeps going and going – with only one minor misfire along the way (well, alright…two, if you count Rita’s pregnancy as an accident). Still, there’s no worrying about any of the real-life, and already mentioned complications that easily follow such laissez faire behavior; allowing the wrong head its dictates. Bob’s a bastard, to be sure, and a randy sod besides. It’s just his way, I suppose, but he clearly has very little regrets about screwing around on his wife. She just needs to get over it, or rather, get on top of him. In the context of Bob’s sexist overview towards all women in general, any warm body will do – even Michelle’s, so long as she’s willing.
Rita, Sue and Bob Too opens in the stark and near inhospitable projects of Bradford; a barren landscape of weather-beaten apartments where Britain’s societal refuse has been unceremoniously dumped and all but forgotten. We meet Sue and her slovenly, shifty-eyed dad, Kevin, the former clicking her heels in a forced march en route to Rita’s house, the latter barely able to stumble up the stairs after another all-nighter at his local pub. He’s a fine one to bitch about curfew; the great moral compass of the council estates, brain saturated with alcohol; master, not even of his own domain, much less a positive influence on this impressionable, yet fairly saucy young bird.
In short order, Sue collects Rita at her place; a dilapidated two-story overrun with motorcycles and month-old trash strewn about the yard. The girls power-walk the rest of the way to Bob and Michelle’s; an affluent couple living the dream on Bramham Drive in the burbs. Bob and Michelle have a baby – although we never see it – nor is the child’s welfare much of a concern to either Rita or Sue who have been entrusted to watch over the next generation while the couple is out painting the town red. Instead, Rita and Sue indulge their senses with free food and the TV cranked to music videos.
Upon their return home, Michelle instructs Bob to give the girls a lift to their neighborhood. It’s late. Silly, stupid, woman! Because Michelle is already aware of Bob’s predilection for very young girls. She caught him once before with their old babysitter. So is she really unable to conceive he won’t try the same modus operandi given half the chance and twice the opportunity?!? Apparently so. And Bob doesn’t waste any time, testing Rita and Sue’s knowledge of condoms and male genitalia, deducing they’re both virgins (which may or may not be the truth…after all, they certainly know how to get in and out of their knickers in a hurry), and plying them with the promise of a very good time in the reclining passenger seat of his car once he’s driven them out to the moors.
It all goes according to plan; first Sue, then Rita, each having their turn with Bob’s ‘sausage’; the rather base mechanics of the sex act frequently interrupted by some astonishingly funny bits of dialogue; most of it derived from Rita’s impatience at having to wait her turn. In no time at all, Bob’s rogered the pair silly; their giddy post-coital elation predictably capped off with shared cigarettes. By the time it’s all over, it’s nearly two o’clock in the morning. Sue’s crooked smile and belligerent denial anything more than babysitting has happened doesn’t fool Kevin for a minute. He’s all set to wrap his snooker cue around her neck – neither, Sue’s mum (Patti Nichols) who, nevertheless, takes her daughter’s side in the matter, preferring to spend her night on the couch as Kevin is perennially three sheets to the wind. After Kevin retires to sleep it off, Sue’s mother asks for the truth. Instead, Sue repeats the lie; her mum extremely disappointed by this lack of confidence in her.
If life at home seems inescapably bleak, then school is an interminable prison sentence by comparison; the girl’s teacher (Bernard Wrigley) more a warden than an educator. On a fieldtrip, one of Sue’s contemporaries, Sylvia (Joanna Steele) calls her out as a slag; an allegation that briefly incites conflict. No one suspects Rita of as much. Not long thereafter, Sue gets a job as a dispatcher for Luna Kars – a cut-rate taxi service where she meets Aslam (Kulvinder Ghir), a Pakistani driver who’s hot for her. Initially, Sue rebuffs Aslam’s advances, daydreaming instead about her next clandestine tryst and badinage with Bob, who turns up at the girls’ school during tennis practice, luring Rita away to one of his show houses. Suspecting something is remiss, Rita’s P.E. coach denies her leave. Of course, sexual frustration leads to temporary jealousy between Rita and Sue.
In the meantime, Michelle discovers an open packet of Durex condoms while ironing Bob’s khaki dress pants. Since it’s been some years since her hysterectomy, she immediately knows he’s been fooling around again – suspecting either Rita or Sue as her competition. Bob denies the accusation, choosing instead to twist the situation to suit his own means and blame Michelle for all their marital discord. He’s convincing enough for Michelle to allow the girls to babysit for them again. Michelle baits Rita and Sue with double entendre while she dresses for the evening, revealing Bob’s history of seducing very young girls. Both Rita and Sue play dumb; questioning Michelle further and even pretending to empathize with her situation to throw her off their scent.
Upon their return home, Bob and Michelle begin to bicker once again, this time in front of Rita and Sue, who find it mildly amusing. Michelle is consumed with anger, storming off to bed. To calm the situation, Bob instruct the girls they should walk home. He will not be giving them a ride tonight. Jilted and angry, Rita and Sue leave in a huff. Crawling into bed with his wife, Bob tells Michelle that if she were not so frigid he wouldn’t have to go looking for it elsewhere. She agrees, hinting to be more receptive to a little foreplay and fun. Instead, the minute the lights are turned off so is Michelle, ordering Bob to leave his tongue out of her mouth.
The next day, Rita and Sue skip school to meet Bob for their usual - to make up for the previous night’s all-around disappointments. He drives them to the same bluff on a sunny afternoon overlooking the village; a picturesque grassy knoll where he intends to recreate the moment of their first encounter. Regrettably, Rita becomes discontented when Sue prepares to ‘go first’ – citing Bob isn’t nearly ‘as good’ the second time around. In effect, she’s getting sloppy seconds. Sue gives in. But Bob is the real loser. He can’t seem to work up a passion for Rita - or Sue - this time around. No action today. So, instead Bob decides to take the girls to a fairly seedy nightclub, engaging in a conga line where it is quite permissible for the participants to press their crotches against one another as they gyrate along the dance floor. The trio works up a healthy sweat. Could this be the necessary foreplay to put the gas back in Bob’s tank? Not with the unexpected and most unwelcome appearance of Fat Mavis (Nancy Pute); a mutual friend of Bob and Michelle’s, who casually confronts him. Bob knows Mavis too well. She won’t wait to tell Michelle what’s been going on.
Sure enough, the next day Mavis relays her discovery to Michelle. The pair drives off in Mavis’ car, collecting Rita at her house before arriving at Sue’s apartment for a confrontation; engaging in a shouting match that draws Sue’s mum and dad and the neighbors out to witness this spectacle. Bob arrives, too late for damage control. While the neighbors cheer the parents, Michelle accuses the girls of being sluts. Sue counterattacks, telling Michelle if she weren’t such a frozen asset, Bob wouldn’t have to go elsewhere to get his kicks. Knowing this to be, at least partially, the case, Michelle turns on Bob. She trashes their house before packing a few things and leaving him for good.
Allowing the proverbial dust to settle, Sue goes to Rita’s the next morning so they can walk to school together. Instead, Rita informs her best friend she will no longer be attending. She’s been asked by Bob to move in with him instead. Rita also confides in Sue she is pregnant with Bob’s child. Sue is enraged – perhaps, partly because with a new baby on the way this means she has not only lost Bob but also her very best friend to motherhood. Alas, and for the best, this is not to be. Not long after, Rita miscarries and Sue and Aslam quarrel. He becomes violent, suspecting Bob is on the rebound and hot for his woman. Of course, he’s right. But it’s also nevertheless true that Sue has decided to remain faithful to Aslam – if only he wasn’t such a hothead.
Sometime later, Bob and the newly recovered Rita prepare to have sex on the living room floor when he inadvertently calls her ‘Sue’. Freudian slip, I’m sure. But it incurs Rita’s anger and ruins the moment between them. Believing Sue has been catting around with Bob on the sly while she was in hospital, Rita bursts in on Sue and Aslam, who is in the process of beating Sue for suspecting as much. Sue’s innocence is revealed and Rita comes to her best friend’s aid, disabling Aslam with a blow to the knee; Sue finishing the assault with a swift kick to his crotch. The girls hurry back to Bob’s house with Aslam pursuing them. Rita and Sue lock Aslam out. He is forced to flee after a well-intentioned neighbor has called the police to report a domestic disturbance. Later, when Bob returns, Rita informs him she has decided to let Sue move in. The mood between them is decidedly frosty and Bob suspects he has just taken on a pair of platonic roomies. However, when he finally makes his way upstairs, Bob discovers both Rita and Sue semi-naked in his bed, patiently waiting for him to rejoin the party. Nothing’s changed. They’re picking up right where they left off!
Despite its rather salacious subject matter, Rita, Sue and Bob Too is a fairly tame affair. Nudity is kept to a bare (pun intended) minimum; a few fleeting glimpses of Bob’s butt cheeks is about all we get; and thankfully so, since the crux of Dunbar’s screenplay is more cerebrally centralized, critiquing the complexities and fallout of making such an implausible ‘relationship’ work for all parties concerned. The ending, a freeze-frame of Bob preparing to leap like a frisky puma between Rita and Sue into the marital bed he once shared with Michelle, is a wee too optimistic and convenient. Given Bob’s track record, incapable of procuring any lasting or meaningful liaison for more than a few months, how likely is it he’s found lasting contentment this time around with Rita or Sue or both – or vice versa for that matter? Arguably, love is neither the answer nor the purpose of this excursion. Yet, it’s precisely the dead-end impracticality of their détente that renders the entire story a moot point at best.
Having read far too many biographies on Hollywood’s hoi poloi – no strangers to this sort of mattress surfing – I suppose I came to Rita, Sue and Bob Too a little more jaded than most; not nearly shocked or put off by its dipsy-doodle premise of sex between friends solving just about every problem. Ivan Strasberg’s cinematography is what you might expect; B-grade competent and pedestrian to a fault; white-washing the entire visual style with the same broad brush strokes of mediocrity. Bottom line: you aren’t watching this film for its technical proficiency, but rather for its performances and story. The triumvirate of Siobhan Finneran, Michelle Holmes and George Costigan make for some engaging badinage both above and between the sheets. Rita, Sue and Bob Too won’t win any awards, but it retains a modicum of wit, and an abundance of crassness – not the least of which is owed to Black Lace’s pop-chart and foot stomping, ‘Having A Gang-Bang’; an infectiously tart little ditty that helps anesthetize the senses until the film’s unlikely finale.
Film Four International’s Blu-ray via Twilight Time isn’t exactly a winner. Lest we forget Rita, Sue and Bob Too was originally shot on 16mm for broadcast TV in the U.K – hardly preferred to yield stellar clarity. Nevertheless, TT’s 1080p transfer is appropriately framed in 1.66:1, mostly free of age-related debris and artifacts, with no glaring instances of damage. Film grain is, of course, more prominently on display. Image quality waffles between fairly acceptable and some very soft focused shots in keeping with the limitations of 16mm. Colors are bland and contrast seems a tad weaker than expected. At times, the image just has a very digital look to it. There are a few edge effects too, mostly under the main titles. Don’t expect this one to look as razor-sharp or pristine as Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines and everything will be alright. The uncompressed DTS mono audio is remarkably vibrant: with a good solid balance between dialogue and music – surely not to disappoint.
Apart from TT’s usual commitment to providing an isolated music and effects track (this one featuring Michael Kamen’s underscore and Black Lace’s ‘Gang Bang’ in stereo), we also get an audio commentary from TT’s Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman. It’s genuinely entertaining but a tad light on backstage info, perhaps because – as Kirgo openly admits – she never heard of this movie before TT’s release. Still, you can’t beat the repartee happening between these two veterans – definitely worth a listen. Bottom line: Rita, Sue and Bob Too plays more like an R-rated Britcom than a legitimate movie – or even, movie of the week. It’s passable at best and slightly forgettable at its worst.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)