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OPINION ‘It’s not the past I miss but communities with a future’

Watching the film version of Willy Russell’s Educating Rita on TV, JIM LEMAN was struck by how outdated it seems today

IN Willy Russell’s play, Rita is a married hair stylist in her twenties who wants to return to education.

She enrols at the Open University, where she is tutored by Frank, an alcoholic professor whose marriage has broken down but whose love of teaching is rekindled by Rita’s enthusiasm for learning.

But when Rita’s husband learns that his wife is more interested in education than homemaking, he becomes frustrated by her independence.

What makes the play and film very much of its time is that Rita is able to leave an oppressive domestic environment and flat share.

When the play was first performed in 1980, Trish would have been eligible for housing benefit and joined a course at any higher education institution for free.

She would have worked part-time perhaps, but only to supplement her student grant.

The Frank character is a dinosaur — there are virtually no tenured professors of literature any more and the possibility of taking academic risks from a position of security is gone.

The language used to describe those afflicted with alcoholism has changed but you will not be shown consideration and compassion if you turn up for work drunk.

You’ll be sacked and you will lose your pension — not that it is worth having — and it will not be a final-salary pension for sure.

Teaching even at degree level has largely been reduced to a grey standard pattern, as has television too.

At the time when Educating Rita premiered, there were four channels which produced plays such as Cathy Come Home or the Alan Bleasdale classics that resonate years later.

No-one pushes the artistic envelope in the way that Dennis Potter did.

Expanded choice in TV has reduced quality. British TV is now constant game shows, crap history shows about the Nazis and ultra-cheap antiques contests.

As for Rita’s community, it’s gone — baton-charged at Orgreave, its jobs outsourced to Asia, the shipyards closed and engineering works boarded up through lack of investment.

Housing estates have been gentrified away and the pub that she sang in is probably gone. If it’s still there perhaps you could, pre-Covid, while away an evening over your laptop as you use the free wi-fi and drink artisan lager from a thin glass.

Perhaps you could use your phone to job search over a flat half of Coke all day. It will be better than queuing to use the slow computer in the public library for sure, if you have one.

The harsh fact is that Ritas today face less social and economic mobility than they did 37 years ago.

Wages as a share of wealth are lower, her chance of home ownership a dream.

As for multiple choices for careers in the arts, forget it. The promise of a high-tech, high-skill, entrepreneurial economy underwritten by home ownership was just that — a promise.

Last November, Liverpool had an unemployment rate of 20 per cent. The docks are almost silent, the massive shipyards almost gone and those that remain are kept alive by Ministry of Defence orders. The merchant fleet being built is flagged overseas.

Can anyone imagine a hit 2020 film with protagonists being a hairdresser who falls in love with Chekhov and Keats and her drunken tutor being a troubled academic whose main dilemma is whether he dares to write supplementary poetry to his teaching?

If we did see such a thing, the teacher would be on a zero-hours contract and Rita would be wiping down tables in Nando’s while worrying about her loans.

Stuck at home with her awful husband, she’d be unable to move out and unable to find a refuge if need be — some 75 per cent of women today are unlikely to access one anyway.

It is not the past that I miss but communities with a future. I have no issue with service-sector jobs, other than that they should be stable, subject to union recognition, well paid with flexible hours, access to childcare for all and with hours adjusted to recognise technological innovation.

It would be far more realistic for a contemporary film to portray Rita as she gives up searching for a job in literary research or despondently ceases looking for another post as a librarian following redundancy.

We could watch her as she struggles with scissors and comb, renting a chair at slightly less than she makes each day that she is called in, in her efforts to become a hairdresser. Immiserating Rita, perhaps?


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