Taste of Honey, A (1960): Richardson’s Version of Shelagh Delaney’s Play, Introducing Rita Tushingham (Cannes Fest)

In “A Taste of Honey,” director Tony Richardson depicts northern English working class in all the stark realism that had marked British film of the early 1960s.   The movie is part of a significant cycle in British cinema known as “Kitchen Sink” realism.
A Taste of Honey
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UK release window card
Based on Shelagh Delaney’s popular stage play (which was done in London and on Broadway), this offbeat tale centers on seventeen-year-old Jo as she leaves home to start a new life away from her promiscuous, alcoholic, irresponsible mother.
The film starts with an image of girls playing a game of netball in a school playground.
The story is set in a run-down, post-industrial area of Salford. Jo (Rita Tushingham) a schoolgirl of 17, lives with her self-centered, promiscuous, alcoholic mother, Helen (Dora Bryan). The two of  frequently argue, and rarely stay in one home for long. Dora tends to run up rent arrears, and is either evicted, or abandons each place without settling debts.

As they move into a shabby new flat, a young black sailor, Jimmy (Paul Danquah) offers to help Jo as she’s struggling with her suitcases. Helen brings a new man home after a night in the pub but her love life is curtailed as she must share a bed with Jo.

Jo grazes her knee in a fall, walking home from school. Limping along, she goes past the Manchester Ship Canal, where Jimmy happens to be coming off. He invites her onboard to attend to her knee, after which they go dancing and kiss for the first time.

A romantic relationship begins, but Jimmy’s ship soon sails and they part. Relations between Jo and her mother become further strained when her mother meets Peter Smith (Robert Stephens). When Jo trails after them, Peter gives Helen an ultimatum, she must choose him or Jo.

Helen remarries and moves to a suburban bungalow with Peter,  leaving Jo to fend for herself. Jimmy and Jo spend the night together before he boards his ship in the morning.

Rejected by her mother, Jo leaves school, starts a job in a shoe shop and rents a flat in old workshop. When she meets a gay textile design student, Geoffrey Ingham (Murray Melvin), she invites him to live with her. Together they make the workshop more livable.
When Jo discovers she is pregnant by Jimmy, Geoff is supportive, offering to marry her: “You need somebody to love you while you’re looking for somebody to love.”

With Jo heavily pregnant, Geoff tracks down Helen. Within minutes, the two have a row, calling each other whores. Helen offers Jo her home but the girl declines.

However, after few weeks her mother reappears–her rocky marriage has broken down and, ever needy, she plans on moving in with Jo and pushing out Geoff. Geoff leaves quietly, and Helen says Geoff has just popped out.

Jo is amenable to her mother staying–with the birth imminent she is frightened and feels a need for female company. She begrudgingly agrees to her mother moving in, granted that Geoff remains. While Jo sleeps, however, Geoff can no longer stay at the workshop, and with Helen watching, he packs his bags and leaves a goodbye note for Jo.

When Jo wakes up, she goes outside in the hope of catching him but sees only her mother, returning from with some bottles of beer. Geoff, hiding beneath the stairs, is hoping to talk to Jo alone, but, seeing Helen returning, he walks off.

The film ends with Jo standing in the street watching a group of children singing “The Big Ship Sails on the Alley Alley Oh.”  It is bonfire night, and a child gives her a sparkler.

Tushingham said in 2020 “A lot of the reaction was, ‘People like that don’t exist’–by which they meant homosexuals, single mothers and people in mixed-race relationships. But they did.”

As a result of the film’s tackling several taboos, it was banned in several countries.

The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther thought that “words are almost ineffectual to express the true quality and extent of eloquence in this picture,” as his paper named this film the best of 1962.  This choice over “Lawrence of Arabia,” shocked many in the film world, especially after David Lean’s epic swept most of the Oscar Awards that year.

Critical Status:
The film, which is extremely well-acted by the entire ensemble, received major awards at the Cannes Film Festival and at the British Film Academy.

Tushingham and Melvin won Best Actress and Actor at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival.

The film won Tushingham a 1963 Golden Globe for Most Promising Female Newcomer and got Richardson a 1963 Directors Guild of America award nomination.

Delaney and Richardson also won the Writers’ Guild of Britain Award.

A Taste of Honey was ranked at 56th place in the BFI Top 100 British films list, made in 1999.

The film made a modest profit of £29,064 for Bryanston Films.

The Criterion Collection released a restored 4K digital transfer of the film on Blu-ray and DVD on August 23, 2016.

End Note

The hit song, “A Taste of Honey,” written by Ric Marlow and Bobby Scott, is not directly related to the picture.

Cast

Rita Tushingham as Jo
Dora Bryan as Helen
Robert Stephens as Peter Smith
Murray Melvin as Geoffrey Ingham
Paul Danquah as Jimmy
Margo Cunningham as Landlady (uncredited)
Michael Bilton as Landlord (uncredited)
Hazel Blears and Stephen Blears as street urchins (uncredited)

See the trailer!

Credits:

Produced, directed by Tony Richardson
Screenplay by Shelagh Delaney, Richardson, based on A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaneyn
Cinematography Walter Lassally
Edited by Antony Gibbs
Music by John Addison

Production company: Woodfall Film Productions

Distributed by British Lion Films

Release date: September 15, 1961

Running time: 100 minutes

Budget £121,602 (about $200,000)