A Taste of Honey
Detonated by Tony Richardson's staging of John Osborne's vitriolic Look Back in Anger (1956) at the Royal Court Theatre, the newly christened kitchen sink dramatists waged their version of class warfare in play after play, novel after novel, and films based on many of them - Look Back in Anger (1959), Room at the Top (1959), The Entertainer (1960), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), A Taste of Honey (1961), The L-Shaped Room (1962), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) and This Sporting Life (1963). The language was rude and crude, the images gritty. Richardson (1928-1991) soon formed his own film company and was to win an Oscar® in 1963 for his jaunty, boppy time-travel to the 18th century with Henry Fielding's Tom Jones (1963). But, rightly, he's most remembered for Look Back in Anger, The Entertainer, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and A Taste of Honey.
The latter reminds us that the ranks of the Angry Young Men included a woman. A Taste of Honey was the first play by then-18-year-old Shelagh Delaney, with whom Richardson also wrote the screenplay. It stands apart from the others in another respect - it's more anguished than angry as it recounts the storm-tossed emotions of its central character, Jo, a teenaged schoolgirl who lives in Salford - next stop down from Manchester on the Manchester Ship Canal -- with her alcoholic survivor of a mother, Helen. On the wrong side of 40, and regularly flitting from shabby flat to shabby flat every time she can't pay the rent, Helen is no more than a step or two from desperation. Not exactly a prostitute, she relies on the kindness of strangers. She's in her element leading a sing-along around a piano in a pub, living off money she gets from a succession of "boyfriends." When a man a few years younger than she, Pete (Robert Stephens), starts talking marriage, she feels he's too snug a harbor to pass up. So she abandons Jo and goes off with him.
Feeling unloved and resentful at the way her mother's chaotic lifestyle keeps them forever on the run, with never a chance for the stability that might enable her to follow her dream of attending art school, she encourages the becomingly shy advances of a young sailor on shore leave, Jimmy (Paul Danquah). Her hungry heart, yearning for nurturing it never gets, soaks up his soft-spoken attentions. Richardson's documentary-textured camerawork turns lyrical when depicting the freshness and innocence of their puppy love against the grimy streets and smokestacks of Salford, where Delaney was born and raised. The young lovers are contrasted with the crude loudness and jadedness of Helen and Pete and their circle as the film does more than the usual opening up of a stage play. Extending the liberating camerawork and working class focus of the seminal British Documentary movement of the 1930s and '40s, its potent black and white visuals use the streets, docks, and mean, worn-out buildings (including the cramped brick houses known as back-to-backs, sharing a common back alley) in ways that do more than add authenticity. They turn Salford itself into a character in the drama. It's the kind of environment challenging anyone living there to push back against it, lest it grind you down. Yet from it arise flashes of fugitive poetry, as when Jo bids goodbye to her sailor, who grows ever smaller as the Barton Road Swing Bridge pivots him away from her to the freighter on which he's about to ship out.
Her woes multiply when her mother, clueless about Jo's liaison, returns to their cramped quarters and they resume the intense catfight that has long been their ongoing medium of exchange. Happy to hear that Helen is going off with her new lover, although angry at being ejected from a holiday excursion to the grotesque excesses of forced fun at Blackpool with Helen, Pete and another couple, Jo takes the bus home, moves out, gets a job in a shoe store, rents a dilapidated loft, and learns she's pregnant. Her new roommate, too impoverished to help with the rent, although he helps with everything else, is Murray Melvin's gay would-be textile designer, Geoff. He cooks, he cleans, he decorates, he keeps Jo's spirits up, although not when he takes it upon himself to visit a local gynecological clinic and returns home with a baby doll for Jo to practice on, only to have her dash it to the floor, saying it's the wrong color. Then Jo's mother returns, upping the vesuvian domestic ante even more.
Delaney and Richardson keep things at a boil, Delaney keeping to the forefront her determination to smash through the eyes-averted gentility of conventional British theater with her intensely felt takes on race, class, gender orientation and class antagonism. "Usually," Delaney said in an interview, "North Country people are shown as gormless, whereas in actual fact they are very alive and cynical." Nobody could doubt it after seeing A Taste of Honey. Jo was a breakthrough performance, and then some, for Tushingham, who initially left Richardson unimpressed. "A young girl called Rita Tushingham turned up from Liverpool with her mother," he wrote. "She wasn't very prepossessing. . . she was too fierce, too spiky, too hard-edged for what I was looking for. I said no. . .Still, that little hedgehog from Liverpool haunted me in some way." He tested her. "Five seconds later," he concluded, "a closeup of Rita with her all-speaking eyes was on the screen, and the search was over."
Richardson smacks us at regular intervals with close-ups of Tushingham's Jo glaring into the camera, sometimes with pain, mostly with defiance, down but never out. Like her mother. Dora Bryan, from nearby Lancashire, began in stage comedy, went on to a long career in film and TV, gets the star billing in A Taste of Honey. Richardson, himself a son of Yorkshire, knew what he was doing. The men come and go. The women, mother and daughter, are the strong ones here, and Bryan effortlessly holds up her end of the drama, making us feel the role is in her blood. Her lusty, slatternly yet upbeat Helen is in some ways a monster, but she's a monster with a big, undentable spirit and an iron heart, even if mother love is sometimes beyond her ability to generate. She may not be able to teach Jo anything about child care, but she's a cornucopia of survival skills. And Melvin's delicate, gangly Geoff is all Delaney needs to make good on her promise that homosexuality would be treated with accuracy and sensitivity. What keeps A Taste of Honey alive isn't its anger, but its ferociously loving celebration of working-class toughness.
Producer: Tony Richardson
Director: Tony Richardson
Screenplay: Shelagh Delaney (writer and play); Tony Richardson (writer)
Cinematography: Walter Lassally
Art Direction: Ralph Brinton
Music: John Addison
Film Editing: Antony Gibbs
Cast: Dora Bryan (Helen), Robert Stephens (Peter Smith), Rita Tushingham (Jo [Josephine]), Murray Melvin (Geoffrey Ingham), Paul Danquah (Jimmy), Michael Bilton (Landlord), Eunice Black (Schoolteacher), David Boliver (Bert), Margo Cunningham (Landlady), A. Goodman (Rag and Bone Man).
by Jay Carr
The Long-Distance Runner: An Autobiography, by Tony Richardson, William Morrow, 1993
Shelagh Delaney interview, 2 February 1959, Mid-Century Drama, London, Faber, 1960