Thirty-one years ago today there were two movies in New York area theatres about babysitters getting up to some outlandish extracurricular activities. One was the mass-market Touchstone Pictures item Adventures in Babysitting (1987), directed by Chris Columbus and starring Elisabeth Shue as a teenage Chicago child-minder who with her plucky young charges gets into some comically perilous situations while venturing into the downtown loop to rescue a friend. It was all in (relatively) good clean PG-13 fun. The other new arrival, from Great Britain, had more topical and more adult business on its mind. While rooted in a sadder socioeconomic council estate (i.e. housing project) setting, it too was jarringly funny, but unlike the Disney division’s multiplex-aimed caper, it turned the tables on its hardscrabble environment to become “raunchy and delicious…a winner” (Stewart Klein, WNEW-TV/New York). “A sex comedy virtually without sex, Rita, Sue and Bob Too! (1987) is as defiant of expectations as are its heroines,” Jay Robert Nash and Stanley Ralph Ross wrote in The Motion Picture Guide of this “shamelessly entertaining spectacle” (J. Hoberman, The Village Voice) about a disruptive, class-crossing ménage a trois, directed by Alan Clarke (responsible for the powerful landmark social problem films Scum (1979) and the original 1989 telefilm The Firm), that’s “acted to sly perfection” (Molly Haskell, Vogue).
Adapting two of her stage plays into her corrosively cheeky screenplay, Andrea Dunbar presents us with two non-airbrushed leading ladies: Rita (Siobhan Finneran) and Sue (Michelle Holmes) are unambitious, fun-loving BFFs who live with their less-than-loving families in a ramshackle council estate in Bradford. After babysitting one evening for middle-class couple Bob (George Costigan) and Michelle (Lesley Sharp) at their nattier suburban home, the girls are driven home by Bob, who proposes a detour to a secluded spot on the nearby moors – and the start of a wickedly naughty threesome that the happy-go-lucky teens – to Bob’s amazement and amusement – willingly embrace, by way of relieving the boredom of their nowhere lives. It’s an initially fun arrangement that becomes more complicated and challenging as uproarious and profane humor is juggled alongside clear-eyed portrayals of troubled families, depressed living conditions and patently selfish behaviors. The acting is spot-on down the line but, The Motion Picture Guide duo observes, “without the buoyant, energetic performances of Holmes and Finneran, the efforts of the others would have been wasted. Baby-fat sexy in tight sweaters and skirts, they are both optimistic innocents (appropriate for their age) and cynical smart alecks (right for their environment), and their premature world-weariness provides the film’s funniest lines and moments. With Costigan along for the ride, they don’t exactly triumph over the narrow possibilities of their lives, but they do fight to an irreverent standoff. They are down but not out. Although there are some slow sections, Rita, Sue and Bob Too! provides a number of good laughs and also more than a few empathetic winces.” Indeed, the material’s edgy legacy, unlike that of Adventures in Babysitting, has proven controversial in our enlightened #MeToo era, as you’ll discover in this David Barnett piece from last December in The Guardian about a planned 2017 revival of Dunbar’s original stage play that was cancelled in light of recent events. Read it here for proof that times change and yet don’t when “reporting from the frontlines:” https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/dec/14/royal-court-rita-sue-bob-too-andrea-dunbar-theatre-max-stafford-clark. With historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman on a frank Audio Commentary and Michael Kamen’s score on an Isolated Music and Effects Track, Twilight Time’s hi-def Blu-ray of Rita, Sue and Bob Too is available here:http://www1.screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/26866/RITA-SUE-AND-BOB-TOO-1987/.