In 1958, the British theater was rocked by a drama written by a 19-year-old named Shelagh Delaney. The play was called “A Taste of Honey” and it dealt with raw and powerful subjects which were not commonly found in British theater: interracial love (and sex), homosexuality, illegitimacy, talk about abortion and unapologetically promiscuous behavior. The play found its way to Broadway in 1960 and created a sensation there as well.

The 1961 cinema adaptation of “A Taste of Honey” fit perfectly into a film genre which had revolutionized British films at that time: the so-called kitchen sink drama, which detailed in neo-realist style a less-than-jolly-olde-England where the ossified class system and deteriorating morality contributed to a state of hopelessness, especially among the working classes.

Today, “A Taste of Honey” is not as shocking as it was when it first premiered (British censorship at the time restricted those under 16 from seeing it). But what emerges is still uncommonly powerful in its relatively simple tale of pathetic souls who are constantly betrayed by their own flaws and shortcomings. In many ways, the film is superior to the play thanks to the screenplay by playwright Delaney and director Tony Richardson, who pruned the text with such subtle skill as to create a streamlined work of intellectual and visual power.

“A Taste of Honey” involves the troubled and frequently toxic mother-daughter relationship between Helen and Jo. Helen is a 40-year-old with no visible means of support. She is a selfish, hedonistic being who sponges off the affections and loose cash of sleazy men. Her daughter Jo is a gawky and somewhat crass teen who has become bitter by Helen’s irresponsible behavior and decided lack of maternal instincts. It is not uncommon for Helen and Jo to sneak out of the boarding houses where they reside because of non-payment of rent, tramping with their belongings on municipal buses across the city to another dreary boarding house.

When Helen abruptly abandons Jo to accept the marriage proposal of an obnoxious character eight years her junior, Jo finds comfort with a black cook on a freighter ship. Their liaison is brief and he leaves for a long stint on the seas. Jo gets her own apartment and a job at a shoe store, and here she meets an art student named Geoffrey. He is homeless because his landlady caught him making love to another man (at this time in British history, homosexual relations was a criminal offense). Jo then discovers she is pregnant with the child of her black lover. Rejecting Geoffrey’s valiant offer to marry her, she nonetheless creates a de facto family environment with Geoffrey acting as surrogate father to both the child and to Jo (whose own father, ironically, was also a one-night-stand). But when Helen suddenly returns after her new marriage fails, it is unclear whether Geoffrey is able to maintain his place in Jo’s world.

The key to “A Taste of Honey” are the two women at the crux of the story, and the film’s success is linked to Richardson’s brilliant casting. As Jo, Richardson cast the unknown Rita Tushingham and it was the most serendipitous casting choice imaginable. With her large, haunting eyes and her willingness to be costumed as the embodiment of teenage awkwardness, Tushingham brings an uncommon depth and angst to the role. Her Jo is very much the product of her dysfunctional environment: irrational, impulsive, unable to maintain her self-respect vulnerable to any force that blows her way. Her performance is often painful to watch because she etches the tragic elements of the character’s weakness with a state of grace that makes it easy to forget she is acting.

But for Helen, Richardson took a gamble that paid off. It is the ultimate role for an actress in middle age: sluttish, overbearing, ridiculous, impatient, weak from within but giving the outward impression of a maternal lioness who is up to any challenge. Angela Lansbury brilliantly essayed the role on Broadway and Bette Davis expressed interest in doing the film. But Richardson went for an off-beat choice: British comedienne Dora Bryan, who was best known for frothy movies like “Lady Godiva Rides Again” and “Carry On Sergeant.” Bryan, who was not known for her dramatic skills, took the role with a magnificent fury. Her Helen was part victim, part victimizer, totally horrible in her selfish behavior, yet strangely sympathetic in her incessant failure to be a mother. It was the role of the lifetime and Bryan played in with magnificence. Her acting is truly one of the landmarks of 1960s cinema.

Richardson shot “A Taste of Honey” in grimy black-and-white on location in Liverpool, with a memorable extended sequence at the seaside resort of Blackpool. His pruning of Delaney’s text gave way to artistic and poignant sequences where dialogue was slim-to-nil and memorable visuals took control: Jo watching in solitary silence as the freighter bearing her lover sails off to sea, Jo spotting Geoffrey in the crowd at a religious procession by the fancy shoes she originally sold him, a wide stretch of open countryside with children running in feral play after Jo rejects Geoffrey’s well-meaning marriage proposal, and the devastating final shot where Jo stares into a sparkler as the neighborhood children build a bonfire and scamper in play while Geoffrey is forced by Helen to exit from Jo’s life.

“A Taste of Honey” was released in the US in 1962 by Continental Releasing, the same company that distributed last week’s Bootleg Files movie, “Light Up the Sky.” But with this film, Continental got its distribution strategy right: Richardson earned a DGA Award nomination while Tushingham won a Golden Globe Award as Most Promising Newcomer (she shared that with Patty Duke and Sue Lyon). Oddly, the film did not receive any Oscar nominations – but it is unlikely it could’ve won in the face of the “Lawrence of Arabia” juggernaut that dominated that year’s Academy Awards.

Richardson won his Oscar the following year for “Tom Jones,” but after that his career went into a slow decline. Subsequent features including “The Loved One,” “Charge of the Light Brigade,” “Hamlet” with Nichol Williamson in the title role and “A Delicate Balance” were not satisfactory and by the end of his career he was making mediocre TV movies in America. Tushingham enjoyed a brief vogue after the film’s release with starring parts in “The Girl with Green Eyes” and “The Knack” plus a key supporting role in “Doctor Zhivago,” but her star also faded by the end of the 1960s. Dora Bryan never had another film role of this caliber; in fact, she wouldn’t be in a film until a cameo in the 1966 comedy “The Sandwich Man.” Her subsequent career focus was primarily in theater and TV.

“A Taste of Honey” was on US home video in 1995, but that release is out of print. The film does not have any rights problems – it is even on British DVD, with Tushingham and Bryan providing commentary. Not unlike many classics, it probably fell off the radar and is waiting in a queue somewhere to be brushed off for US DVD viewing. Bootleg copies are floating around, mostly from private collectors, but be patient since “A Taste of Honey” will probably turn up sooner than later. And if you’ve never seen it, you’re in for a real treat!


IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on May 6, 2005 in Features by

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