Legendary Salford playwright Shelagh Delaney was just 19 when she finished writing A Taste of Honey and it was performed for the first time, 20 when her play was transferred to the West End, and 21 when she co-wrote the film version with director Tony Richardson – co-founder of the game-changing Woodfall Film Productions, the studio that spearheaded the British New Wave.
To have produced such an important work at such a tender age would be worthy of note even today, but when Delaney emerged onto the cultural stage in the late 1950s and early 60s – a young, northern, working-class woman in a sea of older, London-based, affluent men – her achievements were met with bafflement, often condescending in nature.
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An ITN interview from 1959 sees a plummy-voiced journalist ask sniffily, “How much help did you have in writing your play?” and “Your play has rather a sordid theme, where did you gather your information?” Delaney answers his second question with a wry equanimity, befitting of a woman determined to tear down the cultural establishment the man represents: “I just applied my imagination to my observation, that’s a safe answer…”
A Taste of Honey tells the story of Jo (played in the film version by Rita Tushingham), a 17-year-old white teenager, abandoned by her alcoholic mother (Dora Bryan) and cruel stepfather (Robert Stephens), and pregnant from a fling with Black sailor Jimmy (Paul Danquah). After Jimmy – unaware that she’s expecting – heads back out to sea, Jo makes friends with drifting gay artist Geoff (Murray Melvin), and they become an unconventional family. As the two find their clumsy way through her pregnancy together, it looks as if they may have found the happiness that had previously eluded them – until an unexpected reappearance from her mother unsettles everything once again.
Jo and Jimmy’s is generally accepted as being, if not the first (there’s a vanishingly quick peck on the cheek between John Justin and Dorothy Dandridge in 1957’s Island in the Sun), then one of the first interracial kisses in a feature film. And although the Dirk Bogarde-starring Victim (1961), released just a few months earlier, was also groundbreaking in its empathetic portrayal of homosexuality, Murray Melvin reported that when he met him at an awards ceremony, Bogarde said of Melvin’s performance as Geoff, “You did more for the cause in one scene than the whole of bloody Victim put together.”
A Taste of Honey broke a terrific number of taboos, and dealt with thorny subject matter like teen pregnancy, without judgement or sensationalism. It’s about human beings rather than ‘issues’; that it shows underrepresented people as having dreams and desires and inner lives, instead of overlooking, condemning or caricaturing them, is what makes the film still feel revolutionary.
Previous Woodfall features like The Entertainer and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (both 1960) had been moving away from shooting in studios, but A Taste of Honey broke ground in being shot entirely on location, and that vivid sense of place proved eminently useful in providing Delaney’s characters that extra dimension of authenticity. Captured by cinematographer Walter Lassally’s kinetic camera, the smoggy streets of Salford and the surrounding area – the oil refinery that dominates the skyline, the canals that serve as a backdrop for Jo and Jimmy’s brief courtship, and the young children that play outside the tenement houses – both give the film much of its life, and reflect a life back to the audience that had been little seen on the big screen.
Shelagh Delaney was not the only northern teenage talent who A Taste of Honey propelled to fame – the film also introduced the world to 18-year-old Liverpudlian Rita Tushingham. Jo is caught between childhood (she’s still scared of the dark) and bringing a child into the world herself, and Tushingham’s evocation of the fear, confusion and exhilaration of that time of life is lively and compelling.
Although she received plenty of unkind press concerned with her unconventional beauty (early potential backers wanted Audrey Hepburn for the role of Jo, which would have made for an entirely different film), almost every contemporaneous and more recent review seems entranced by her extraordinarily large eyes, endlessly watching and endlessly watchable. Tushingham would go on to be perhaps the most iconic female face of the British New Wave, headlining Girl with Green Eyes (1964), The Leather Boys (1964) and The Knack… and How to Get it (1965).
While the British film industry has become more diverse in the decades since its release, Delaney’s most famous cinematic work endures. Sixty years on, A Taste of Honey maintains a feeling of freshness and defiant vitality, with central themes – the resilience of the working class, friends becoming family, the terror of growing up – that are as resonant and engaging as ever.
A Taste of Honey is available on the 9-disc BFI Blu-ray box-set Woodfall: A Revolution in British Cinema, celebrating the 60th anniversary of Woodfall Films.