A Taste of Honey Review
Seventeen-year-old Jo (Rita Tushingham) lives with her mother Helen (Dora Bryan), a woman fond of the bottle and liable to bring home a different boyfriend most nights. Successive landladies' objections to the latter mean that they frequently move from flat to flat. Leaving her mother and her latest flame Peter (Robert Stephens) one night, Jo meets Jimmy (Paul Danquah), a black sailor on shore leave and they sleep together. Finding herself pregnant, she moves out, her only friend a gay man, Geoffrey (Murray Melvin)...
Salford-born Shelagh Delaney was just eighteen when A Taste of Honey opened as a stage play. It created quite an impression, both for Delaney's young age as well as for the play's then-controversial content (sexual promiscuity, a mixed-race relationship resulting in pregnancy, alcoholism, homosexuality). A part of that is the age-old story that what one generation finds shocking the next will often take in its stride. Although Delaney has done other things (including the screenplays for Charlie Bubbles in 1968 and Dance With a Stranger in 1985, not to mention featuring on two Smiths record sleeves), it's fair to say that her debut work remains her best-known.
Delaney co-wrote the screenplay of A Taste of Honey with director Tony Richardson, and the film version sits squarely in the early-Sixties cycle of British kitchen-sink realism, often based on novels and plays from later in the previous decade. Richardson was a key director in this cycle, having begun by co-directing the Free Cinema short, then the features Look Back in Anger, The Entertainer and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.) That's a frequent pattern: what might be allowed in the more exclusive media of print or stage was not always acceptable in more mass-market media. That was the case with the cinema, even with the availability of the X certificate, which at the time restricted audiences to the over-sixteens. Although they may seem uncontroversial by today's standards, even coy, these films broke down barriers in their day. Melvin's entire role would have had to be toned down considerably if not eliminated outright only a few years earlier: it was only with Victim the same year, that the British film censor had allowed a film to even mention the word “homosexual” in its dialogue. And at the time there was an audience for films like this, which put ordinary people, often working-class people, centre stage. (In the audience were my parents, on their first date.)
Many of these films have northern settings, and A Taste of Honey is no exception, shot in Manchester and Salford, with an excursion to Blackpool. (Labour MP-to-be Hazel Blears, then a local girl aged five, makes a brief appearance.) If the movement had a signature cameraman, it's Walter Lassally, whose black and white work, influenced partly by documentary and partly by the then-current French New Wave, is exemplary. Lassally would go on to win an Oscar for Zorba the Greek and later became a regular DP for Merchant Ivory. (His autobiography Itinerant Cameraman is well worth reading.)
Rita Tushingham became a star as a result of this film, and her performance as Jo, a neglected ugly duckling gradually becoming a swan, holds the film together. She won a Best Newcomer BAFTA award for her work here. Also winning a BAFTA was Dora Bryan, who steals every scene not already nailed down and gives the film much of its comedy. Murray Melvin's work is sensitive, though today his role – and the way it is written – seems very dated.
What the film does not include is the song of the same name, much covered at the time. (The Beatles did a version, which is on their first album Please Please Me.) The film's title song is actually the children's song “The Big Ship Sails”, which is echoed in John Addison's jazz-based score.
Very much a character-led film, A Taste of Honey still holds up as a comedy-drama of a teenage girl's coming of age, well made and acted.
A Taste of Honey is one of four films released (separately) by Optimum as “60s Classics”. (There was an earlier release by the BFI, which is now out of print.) Optimum's DVD is a DVD-5, encoded for Region 2 only.
Three of the four Optimum discs are in the ratio of 1.66:1 but A Taste of Honey is the only one which is not anamorphically enhanced. It's certainly not a bad transfer, but it's too dark and over-contrasty. It could have been a little sharper if it had been widescreen-enhanced.
The soundtrack is the original mono, and is entirely fit for purpose. Given some strong regional accents, Optimum's policy of not offering subtitles on their English-language releases is particularly regrettable.
There are no extras, not even a trailer.
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