Tony Richardson’s acclaimed 1961 film version of A Taste of Honey is a notable cinematic example of Kitchen Sink Realism, the British cultural movement which depicted domestic situations of ordinary British people in deprived areas.
Written when she was 19 years old, British dramatist Shelagh Delaney had intended A Taste of Honey to be a novel but felt that theatre would be the best medium to address social issues that were ignored at the time.
The play was originally produced by the legendary Joan Littlewood, who had previously championed the works of Irish dramatist Brendan Behan. Littlewood produced A Taste of Honey at the Theatre Royal Stratford East to critical acclaim and controversy.
The film, like the original play, is set in the industrial wasteland of Salford during the 1950s where a seventeen-year-old working-class girl called Jo (Rita Tushingham) lives with her crude and alcoholic single mother Helen (Dora Bryan).
After marrying obnoxious businessman Peter Smith (Robert Stephens), Helen abandons her daughter. Jo would find some comfort from her romantic relationship with black sailor Jimmy (Paul Danquah), and a close friendship with a gay textile design student Geoffrey (Murray Melvin).
Life is hard for young Jo, but her troubles are only beginning.
The fact that A Taste of Honey even made it past the censors back in 1961 is a mystery today. The film was produced several years before the legalization of homosexuality, and it includes vivid depictions of childhood poverty, teenage pregnancy, surrogate parenting, and contains the first-ever inter-racial screen kiss in film history.
A Taste of Honey was not the only controversial British film released that year. Basil Dearden’s brilliant neo-noir Victim was equally controversial and groundbreaking for its sympathetic portrayal of homosexuality, but it did not even receive an American Production Code. Murray Melvin, who played Geoffrey Ingham in the film and on stage versions of A Taste of Honey, recently revealed that the late actor Dirk Bogarde told him that Geoffrey did even more to advance the cause of gay rights than his character, the tortured barrister Melville Farr in Victim. Both films are now regarded as enormously influential and persuasive narratives that helped change social attitudes.
Britain was a more racist and homophobic country back in the 1960s. Rita Tushingham, who made her screen debut as Jo, mentioned recently that many people back then refused to even believe that interracial romances, single mothers and homosexuals ever existed.
A Taste of Honey is brilliantly written by Shelagh Delaney and Tony Richardson and contains many great lines. The direction by Richard and the cinematography from Walter Lassally perfectly capture the sense of desolation and hopelessness of the setting.
Despite the subject matter, the gentle music score by John Addison works well. It must be noted though that many contemporary reviewers seem to praise the inclusion of the popular song “A Taste of Honey” from Bobby Scott and Ric Marlow, which is bizarre because this song is not featured in the film at all. It was apparently used as additional music in the 1960 Broadway play.
The impressive performances from Rita Tushingham, Dora Bryan, Murray Melvin, Paul Danquah, and Robert Stephens are memorable.
The play and the film versions of A Taste of Honey are often criminally overlooked today. To better appreciate their brilliance, audiences need to revisit the time when it was a real challenge to be black, gay, and a single mother. There is so much to learn about the struggles of being an outsider in an intolerant environment.
Shelagh Delaney was a proud inhabitant of Salford, but she also knew what it was like to be marginalized. She was from an Irish immigrant family in Salford and was aware of the challenges the Irish diaspora in Britain had felt in a time when they had felt marginalized. There are even references to being Irish in the screenplay and the original play.
After all these years, the film’s emotional power has not waned, and it provides a valuable document of a country in transition. A Taste of Honey is one of the best films ever made about being marginalized in society and ranks as one of the great films of the sixties.
Paul J. Bradley