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A Sensitive Cinematic Look at the Life of a Working Class English Girl

Shelagh Delaney was a rare female voice among the “angry young men” of '50s and '60s British literature, and wrote the play based on her own experiences growing up in Salford.

A Taste of Honey 

Rated: NR US; UK: 15
Director: Tony Richardson

Cast: Rita Tushingham, Dora Bryan, Robert Stephens, Murray Melvin
Year: 1961
Distributor: Criterion

PDVD: A Taste of Honey
DVD release date: 2016-08-23

There’s nothing special about Jo (Rita Tushingham, in her first screen role). Seventeen years old, she lives with her acid-tongued, slightly ridiculous mother Helen (Dora Bryan) in Salford (Greater Manchester), is a mediocre student in a mediocre school, is pathetic at netball, and is neither particularly pretty nor particularly popular. She’s exactly the kind of young woman, in other words, whose story would not have been considered worthy of cinematic treatment in Britain before the advent of the Free Cinema Movement, which focused on telling the stories of ordinary working class people. The Free Cinema Movement was a rough cinematic parallel to the literature of kitchen-sink dramas and angry young men as exemplified by John Osborne’s 1956 play, Look Back in Anger, whose premiere was directed by Tony Richardson.

Jo is the central character in Richardson’s 1961 film, A Taste of Honey, based on Shelagh Delaney’s 1958 hit play of the same name (Delaney co-wrote the film’s screenplay with Richardson). Early on, we see Jo and Helen, behind on the rent, fleeing their apartment for another that is equally cramped (the two women share not only a bedroom, but also a bed) and dingy. The bus journey between the two apartments takes them past many public monuments, including Edward Onslow Ford’s “Monument to Queen Victoria”, which recalls the glory days when the sun never set on the British Empire. It’s an ironic reference, of course, because there’s no glory for Jo and Helen in present-day Manchester, just a succession of grimy apartments and a life of put-downs and disappointments.

Jo has already learned that the deck is stacked against her, but unlike her mother, she’s not yet embittered by that knowledge. In fact, she’s remarkably open to experience, so when a young mixed-race sailor, Jimmy (Paul Danquah, also in his film debut) offers her kindness, she doesn’t recoil from his color. Nor does she resist their relationship becoming sexual, because life has taught her that you have to take your pleasures when and where you can. Predictably, Jo becomes pregnant, and although Jimmy truly cares for her, he also sails away on his ship, as sailors will.

When Helen gets serious about her sleazy suitor (Robert Stephens), there’s no room at home for Jo. She gets a job in a shoe store and moves into a much more dilapidated apartment, where she is soon joined by a shy young student, Geoffrey (Murray Melvin). He’s been kicked out of his last residence for homosexual behavior (a crime in Britain at the time), but Jo holds no such prejudices.

They become close (Jo says Geoffrey is like a big sister to her), and together they fix up the apartment and enjoy simple pleasures like a day trip to the countryside. As Jo’s pregnancy progresses, Geoffrey takes care of her, braving a visit to a maternity clinic where the expectant mothers eye him with suspicion, and even offers to marry her, both for the sake of propriety and because he’s genuinely concerned for her well-being.

A Taste of Honey offers a sensitive view into the life of a young working-class woman. Playwright/screenwriter Shelagh Delaney was a rare female voice among the “angry young men” of '50s and '60s British literature, and wrote the play and screenplay based on her own experiences growing up in Salford. Unless many of the male writers of the time, she understood, and could express in literary form, the oppression felt by young working class women, and held their dreams and aspirations as equally important to those of their male counterparts.

A Taste of Honey is also notable for its sympathetic portrayal of a gay character. In fact, you could argue that Geoffrey is not only the nicest character in the film, but that he and Jo enjoy the only truly caring and successful relationship in the film.

The digital transfer for the new Criterion release of A Taste of Honey was created in 4K resolution from a 35 mm negative, and the mono soundtrack was remastered from the original sound negative. Extras include Tony Richardson’s first film, the 22-minute documentary “Momma Don’t Allow”; a 1962 audio audio interview with Richardson, illustrated with stills and film clips (15 min.); video interviews, conducted in May 2016, with Rita Tushingham (18 min.) and Murray Melvin (18 min.); a 1998 video essay about cinematographer Walter Lassally (20 min.); a 2016 video interview with theater scholar Kate Dorney, who discusses the original 1958 theatrical production of A Taste of Honey (21 min.); and an excerpt from the television program Close-Up in which Shelagh Delaney discusses her childhood and adolescence and the experience of writing A Taste of Honey (15 min.). In addition the disc comes with illustrated liner notes including an essay by film scholar and producer Colin MacCabe.


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