Friday, 5 October 2012

Shelagh it was really something… A Taste of Honey (1961)

Murray Melvin and Rita Tushingham

This brave film broke new ground in the early 60s in its depiction of inter-racial love, homosexuality and family life on the brink of break down. Based on the play by Shelagh Delaney it also featured some of the same cast, the other-worldly Murray Melvin and the misfit queen, Rita Tushingham.

Delaney wrote the play when she was just 18 in the late 50’s and it shows incredible maturity and insight. It has withstood the passage of time pretty well all things considered…maybe the youthfulness of its writer provided inoculation against over-working and too much mature concealment. This is an honest statement and it still feels real when other period pieces may come across as over-mannered.
Rita Tushingham
This is helped in great part by director Tony Richardson's use of the locations and the actors.

Gritty, grimy Manchester (so much to answer for…) is the backdrop and these are streets Delaney knew all too well. The film opens with a bus ride across town, passing the city’s magnificent gothic town hall and other municipal splendours (surpassed only by those of neighbouring Liverpool…) en route to a tumble down garret in sunny Salford.

Throughout the city provides the backdrop from cobbled streets and chimney stacks to the swing bridge and the docks at the end of the ship canal smashed into the rock of southern Lancashire.

It’s hard to think of any studio shots and this is a great snapshot of real Lancastrian life. There’s even a guest appearance form the mighty Blackpool - all front and no trousers… a tower and three piers as if two weren’t enough!

Over this backdrop are cast genuine accents, from Tushingham (Liverpool) and Dora Bryan (Southport) which centre the film more authentically than the cod “northern” accents of many regional dramas of the time. Melvin was an exception here being London born, but he makes a decent fist of Mancunian and his “difference” is not to be disguised anyway.

"In a river the colour of lead..."

The actors also looked right and strikingly different in the case of Tushingham and Melvin… had there ever been such an a-typical leading couple in any British film? They are both bloomin’ brilliant.

Tushingham plays Jo, a seventeen year old on the cusp of leaving school and starting real disappointment. 
Her mother Helen is domineering and desperately in search of the financial and emotional anchor of a man. She’s played by a quite superb Dora Bryan who pitches the Lancastrian flippancy exactly right throughout… silly but hard as nails underneath.
Dora Bryan and Robert Stephens
She’s romancing a younger man of means, Peter Smith (a greasily-splendid Robert Stephens) who ends up becoming Jo’s wicked step-father. Unable to stand the sight of each other, Jo is cast adrift on a day trip to Blackpool and left to make her own way home via bus.

She meets a handsome sailor, Jimmy (Paul Danquah), who has previously helped her with a wounded knee. Jimmy is of mixed race – his family hailing form Liverpool – and not the kind of boy her mother would want her with. But they head back to the house and we know there will be consequences. After all, he “dreamt about you last night and fell out of bed twice…” I knew Morrissey loved the film but I hadn’t realised how he’d lifted whole chunks for The Smiths’ lyrics – a man of taste as well as charm...
Rita Tushingham and Paul Danquah
Helen goes off to live in bungalowed bliss with Peter leaving Jo to find a flat – even more run down than the places she’s used to with her mum. She takes a job in a shoe shop and it’s here that she encounters a young textile student, Geoffrey Ingham (Melvin). The two form a friendship … and offer the chance of a new kind of family. Geoff is gay at a time when homosexuality was strictly illegal in the UK and it’s hard to imagine the impact this character would have had on audiences at the time.

Yet Jo offers unconditional friendship and is wildly interested about what he “does” in his relationships. He’s too pushed down by social guilt to go into the details and his subsequent attempts to form a physical relationship with Jo may be an expression of his wish to be “normal”. But Jo doesn’t want that from him - she wants his friendship and his compassion. She accepts him for what he is.

Murray Melvin and Rita Tushingham
Geoff is steadfast and starts to provide Jo with home comforts, cooked meals and the love her mother only directed elsewhere. His creativity has the potential to encourage Jo’s own – she had a portfolio of thwarted artistic ambition from school…

As Jo’s pregnancy follows its course, Geoff is there to support her as she agonises over the mess her life has become…

Meanwhile Helen’s relationship with her soak of a husband quickly runs aground as he runs off with a younger model… Cast aside she returns to the only purpose she’s ever had. Finding Jo’s flat she quickly interposes herself between Geoff and her daughter and, in spite of Jo’s wishes, pushes him out… she wants to be the one to look after her daughter… what else has she left?

Murray Melvin and Dora Bryan
Geoff skulks off but you hope he’s not done with Jo… she’s still so young and with so much potential if only life doesn’t get the in the way. Somehow you feel she may overcome the teenage pregnancy and not repeat the mistakes of her mother. That’s the film’s challenge and Jo looks trapped at the end but if she is, it’s not quite in the way her mother was… maybe an art school future still awaits and enduring friendship with Geoff.   
A change was definitely going to come.

A Taste of Honey lingers…days after viewing. It’s timeless even when so obviously rooted in its time. The issues it addresses are still very much of concern, as equality of opportunity is knocked back years by recession and cold-hearted educational reforms.

Rita and Melvin are an eye-catching and ground-breaking couple who defined new types of individualistic heroes for British cinema. TheDVD is readily available from Amazon. Shelagh, it was really something…

Postscript:  Shelagh Delaney passed away this year having changed British theatre for ever as well as influencing Morrissey and The Smiths – he said that she was as “at least  50%” of the reason he writes and the band’s This Night has Opened My Eyes is a retelling of A Taste of Honey.

I saw Murray Melvin a few weeks past at the BFI looking hale and hearty – my wife remarked on his powerful presence! He’s a distinguished film and theatre scholar now but still acts occasionally as does Rita Tushingham, Garston’s finest!


  1. Replies
    1. It still feels pretty real when many other British films of the period don't. Genuinely ground-breaking.