Woodfall - A Revolution in British Cinema: 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 young gay man, Geoffrey (Murray Melvin)...
If John Osborne had found a mentor with George Devine at the Royal Court, which first staged Look Back in Anger, it was Joan Littlewood and her Theatre Workshop who discovered Shelagh Delaney. Delaney, born in Salford in 1938, saw Terence Rattigan’s Variations on a Theme in the theatre in Manchester and thought she could do better. She was particularly critical of Rattigan’s portrayal of homosexual characters. (Ironically, Rattigan was himself gay, but constrained by a society where male homosexual activity was then illegal and by a theatre, then with an official censor, the Lord Chamberlain, which would not allow him to deal with the theme more directly than he could. Rattigan was one of the exponents of the “well-made play” that the new generation of playwrights were meant to be supplanting. As is the way of things, his best plays still survive, as do the best of the newer generations.) Delaney wrote A Taste of Honey in ten days and sent it to Littlewood, and it was premiered on 27 May 1958, with Avis Bunnage as Helen and Frances Cuka as Jo, when Delaney was still nineteen. The play was controversial due to its subject matter and its author’s youth, with its content including sexual promiscuity, a mixed-race relationship resulting in pregnancy, alcoholism and homosexuality. It was immediately bracketed with Osborne and the other Angry Young Men, mostly from similar working-class backgrounds to Delaney. However, Littlewood saw Delaney as standing apart from them, and not just because she was a woman: “She knows what she is angry about.” The play was very successful and travelled to Broadway, with Joan Plowright playing Jo and Angela Lansbury her mother. A Taste of Honey is performed to this day, and is reckoned to be the most-performed post-War play written by a British woman. Delaney wrote a second play, The Lion in Love, premiered in 1960, but that did not and has not had anywhere the same impact.
If what was then often called “kitchen-sink realism” was making itself felt on the stage, it was too on the cinema screen, and what an earlier generation found shocking a younger one was taking in its stride. By now, Woodfall had made three films. Original co-founder Harry Saltzman was to leave around this time, to become the co-producer of the James Bond films. After The Entertainer, Tony Richardson had directed a TV play for the BBC, A Subject of Scandal and Concern, which still exists in the archives. He had also gone to Hollywood to make Sanctuary, an adaptation of William Faulkner’s once-scandalous novel which had been previously filmed in 1933 as The Story of Temple Drake.
Back in England, Richardson collaborated with Delaney on the screenplay. Like many filmmakers, Richardson had taken note of the innovations of the French New Wave, whose films had been shown in the UK in the past two years, in particular the use of lightweight cameras and faster (black and white) film stocks allowing directors to take their productions out of the studios and into the streets. Having had a taste of Hollywood's ways of doing things, Richardson planned to make the film entirely on location, but financiers only allowed him to go ahead when Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was proven to be a success. So A Taste of Honey became the first British film with major-distributor financial input with no studio shooting. With the break with normal studio practice came a change of cinematographer from one who had come up by the traditional route to one with a different background. Freddie Francis was originally set to photograph the film, but when financing had been sorted out he wasn’t available, so Walter Lassally was given the job. A Taste of Honey was shot in Salford and Greater Manchester with an excursion to Blackpool, but some of it was made in London. Jo and Geoff’s flat was actually the Royal Court’s scenery workshop. Delaney makes an appearance in the opening scene: look for a tall (5’11”) woman standing on the touchline watching Jo and her fellow schoolgirls playing netball.
A Taste of Honey may taste of the kitchen sink, but there is more than a hint of fable as well, certainly aided by Walter Lassally’s black and white photography. Jo and Geoff make a home together, but there’s a sense that they are two damaged children learning to take on adult responsiblities, with a particularly big one being Jo’s advancing pregnancy. A choir of children sings over the opening credits and the several young children (future Labour MP Hazel Blears, then aged five, among them) act as a chorus, looking on at the drama unfolding in front of them and at times even driving the plot – at one point, telling Geoff where Jo is to be found.
Liverpool-born Rita Tushingham had only acted in rep by this point, and was eighteen when she was cast as Jo. Richardson was attracted by her eyes, which later gave a later Woodfall film its title: Girl With Green Eyes, even though that film like this is in black and white. (Financiers wanted Audrey Hepburn for the role, believe it or not.) As the neglected ugly duckling become a swan, Tushingham became a star as a result of this, a female equivalent to the newer generation of working-class male actors who also made their names due to Woodfall, Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay in particular. However, she is matched by Dora Bryan. Born in 1923, Bryan had been in films since the late 1940s, but this is her signature performance, and the one which won her a BAFTA Award. She had a long career, acting until 2006; she died in 2014.
As Geoff, Murray Melvin gives a sensitive performance in a sensitively-written role. It’s a marker of how the definition of acceptability had changed that his role would have had to toned down considerably if not eliminated outright only a few years earlier. Homosexuality had only reached British screens in 1959 with Serious Charge, and in the same year that A Taste of Honey was released, 1961, the British film censor had first allowed, with Victim, a film to even mention the word “homosexual” in its dialogue, which is something A Taste of Honey doesn’t do. But what is remarkable is that this, and the other content in this film, is presented entirely non-judgementally.
What the film does not include is the song of the same name. This was actually a musical theme composed for the original 1960 Broadway and rapidly became a pop standard, both as an instrumental and with vocals. The Beatles’s version is on their first album Please Please Me. The film's title song is actually the children's song “The Big Ship Sails Down the Alley Alley O”, which is echoed in John Addison's jazz-based score.
A Taste of Honey opened on 14 September 1961 at the Leicester Square Theatre. The young couple in the 2018 film On Chesil Beach go to see it, and no doubt other young couples did too – including my own parents, on their first date. The following year, Tushingham and Melvin won Best Actress and Actor at Cannes. At the BAFTA Awards, Tushingham won Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles, for which Melvin was also nominated. Dora Bryan won Best British Actress and Delaney and Richardson Best British Screenplay, and the film itself Best British Film. It was also nominated for Best British Film from Any Source, though lost to the Soviet Ballad of a Soldier. Over in the USA, Tushingham won a Golden Globe as Most Promising Newcomer – Female, though the film completely struck out at that year’s Oscars.
Shelagh Delaney did not write another stage play, but continued to write for the cinema, television and radio. Her later screenplays include The White Bus (1967), a long short or short feature directed by Lindsay Anderson, Albert Finney’s directing debut Charlie Bubbles (1967) and Dance With a Stranger (1985). Her photograph features on the cover of the Smiths’s single "Girlfriend in a Coma" and also their later compilation album Louder Than Bombs, Morrissey being an avowed fan of her and of this film. She died in 2011 of breast cancer, five days before her seventy-third birthday.
A Taste of Honey is Disc Four of the BFI’s box set Woodfall: A Revolution in British Cinema, released in separate Blu-ray and DVD editions. A checkdisc of the former was supplied for review. The disc is encoded for Region B only. The box set carries a 15 certificate. A Taste of Honey’s original X certificate appears at the beginning of this transfer: it now has a 12. For reviews of the other films in this box set, click on the tags below.
The Blu-ray transfer is in the ratio of 1.66:1, derived from a 4K scan of the original camera negative by the Criterion Collection. Some parts of it are softer than others, though that's likely inherent in the source: the combination of three different black-and-white film stocks, with finer or coarser grain depending on the one used, and the low light levels in some scenes resulting in wider camera apertures and hence a shallower depth of field (see below). But in other parts, the sharpness is spot on, and the blacks, whites and greys, and the contrast between them, look true.
The sound is the original mono, rendered as LPCM 2.0, and there are no issues with it. English hard-of-hearing subtitles are available for the feature but not the extras.
Those extras begin with a commentary. This features Rita Tushingham and Dora Bryan, recorded together, with comments from Murray Melvin recorded separately and edited in. Tushingham and Bryan clearly got on very well, and the latter especially is quite candid at times. It's here you find out that she isn't actually naked in her bathtub scene: she had knickers on (out of shot anyway) and her breasts were covered by a large Elastoplast. Melvin's comments are interesting but what he and Tushingham have to say inevitably overlaps what they say on the other extras on this disc.
Walter Lassally provides a video essay (20:31) on A Taste of Honey, made in 2002. This begins with a narration outlining his career before he takes over, speaking over clips from the film. Lassally was born in Berlin in 1926. Jewish by ancestry, his family moved to England in 1939 to escape the Nazis. After the War, Lassally tried to break in to the British film industry, managing to do so via transport films and other documentaries, and becoming a key part of Free Cinema, working with Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz, making his dramatic feature debut in 1954 with The Passing Stranger. This visual essay will be of particular interest to anyone interested in cinematography, though may be a little technical for others. Lassally used black and white Ilford film stocks, then most often used for newsreels and documentaries, on A Taste of Honey rather than the usual Kodak Plus X. In fact, he used three different stocks, against the advice of technicians of the time. The scenes of Jo and Helen’s home life are intentionally grainier than those set in Jo and Geoff’s home, and a third stock again was used for exteriors. Lassally tried to use natural light as much as possible, though this meant having the camera aperture as wide as possible in some scenes, such as the one in the cave.
Lassally features in the next item, a Q & A (15:20), with Rita Tushingham and Murray Melvin, moderated by Dr Josephine Botting at the BFI Southbank on 7 November 2011 for the film’s fiftieth anniversary. It's a fond remiscence from all three, though inevitably it does overlap with the other extras.
There are three new interviews with Rita Tushingham in this box set. In the first (14:42) she talks about how she was cast in A Taste of Honey and pays tribute to her costars and to Tony Richardson, without whom, she says, her career would not exist. She does talk a little about Woodfall's contribution to British cinema, but this interview is continued on the discs for Girl With Green Eyes and The Knack.
Murray Melvin (25:13) is interviewed in Theatre Workshop's archive in Stratford East, where he is in fact the company's archivist. He even shows us an original programme from the first stage production of A Taste of Honey. When the film was made, he was the most experienced of the cast, having played the role of Geoff in that original production and for a year afterwards. He was present when the prospective film Jos were auditioned, the last of them being Rita Tushingham. Melvin, still with us at eighty-five as I write this, is still working as an actor. He still has people telling him that A Taste of Honey, and his character in particular, changed many a young gay man's life.
Holiday (18:01) on the surface resembles Lancashire Coast, which you'll find as an extra on the Entertainer disc, not least because they were both made in 1957 and shot in colour by the same cinematographer, David Watkin. Holiday was made by British Transport Films and takes us round the sights of a Blackpool seaside holiday, on the beach by day and fireworks at night. Narration is kept to a minimum, with much of the soundtrack taken up by jazz standards played by Chris Barber and his band. The music enables the film to be edited (by Ralph Sheldon) in time to it, with divers hitting the water simultaneously with cymbals being hit. Some of the same theatre billboards appear in both films, though unlike Lancashire Coast Arthur Askey doesn't appear in person. Lancashire Coast was shot in 35mm, but Holiday was 16mm, often with a hidden camera. It is presented on this disc in 1.33:1 and that does look to be correct.
The essay in the BFI's book with this box set is by Cecilia Mello. This details the production from Shelagh Delaney's original play, to the film's inception, production and release. Inevitably, it covers much of the ground of the other extras, but there are a few details not mentioned elsewhere, such as the Daily Express's hardly flattering headline when Tushingham was cast: “Found: The Ugly Girl (once she was the hind legs of a donkey)”. It does talk about the way the film moves beyond simple naturalism into a world shaped by a subjectivity, Jo's. To this day, a female subjectivity, this film's male co-screenwriter and director nothwithstanding, is something that has to be fought for, in mainstream cinema at least, but that is something A Taste of Honey achieves.