Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile, by Adelle Stripe, tells the story of Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar who is perhaps best known for the 1987 film adaptation of her second play, Rita, Sue and Bob Too. The book is “a work of fiction and is an alternative version of historic events”. The author has sourced her story from letters, scripts, newspaper cuttings and memories of those who knew Andrea before her death, aged twenty-nine, following her collapse in a local pub she frequented.
Andrea grew up on a run down council estate in the north of Thatcher’s Britain, where factory closures exacerbated the social problems caused by unemployment and limited options for residents. Her skill as a writer was recognised at school but not picked up until a chance meeting with a support worker, Claire, at a women’s refuge where Andrea was sheltering after her boyfriend, the father of her child, started beating her. Andrea was no stranger to domestic violence as her alcoholic father had regularly meted out vicious punishments.
Claire had a contact in London’s theatre land to whom she sent samples of Andrea’s first play, written for her English CSE. The potential of the work was recognised but required that Andrea travel to the capital city. Although excited by the opportunity, this dropped Andrea into a rarefied world that highlighted the stark divide between the lives of those in the north and south of England.
Andrea harboured a great deal of anger at the way she was regarded by the Guardian reading artistic Londoners she had to work with, especially when they edited her words. Having had three children by three different fathers she knew that she appeared to personify the ‘feckless working class’ of political rhetoric. Her gritty plays were written from dialogue she overheard, the life she experienced. Her peers from the estates did not always appreciate the way they were being portrayed.
The author presents Andrea’s story as a mix of diary entries, documentary style dialogue and updates. It is a humane and empathetic representation of a life the protagonist wished to improve but not escape. Living within the crumbling council estates was harsh but there was a sense of community. Andrea was supported by family and friends who were proud of the achievements she struggled to deal with. She fitted in here more than she ever could in London, a city whose influential residents have always, seemingly, failed to comprehend the realities of life beyond their accepted scripts and lived experience.
This story is amongst the best depictions of the north south divide in England that I have read. There is no attempt to glorify the hardship or to tap emotional responses, rather it is a story of a young woman whose messy life brought a degree of fame but rarely happiness. It highlights the reasons for the resentments, the chasm that appears to bewilder those based around London when others beyond the city disagree with their points of view. This is as relevant now as when Andrea lived.
My copy of this book was borrowed from the library.
Adelle Stripe will be appearing at the Marlborough Literature Festival with Mick Kitson on Sunday 30th September 2018. For more information click here.