Kitchen-sink realism demanded of its actresses a new kind of physical performance: the performance of habitual activity. Lynn Redgrave, as Baba, empties cosmetics onto her dressing table. Tushingham, as Jo, takes a handkerchief from her head and knots it round a naked bulb. A young 17 and old before her time, Jo is a tomboyish Blanche Dubois, who never knew the high life, but mourns the loss of it anyway. Dora Bryan, as Jo’s mother Helen, towels herself dry after a bath. Rachel Roberts, as Brenda, makes eggs and bacon for Arthur, for whom playing husband in another man’s home is as pleasurable as the food on his plate. Mary Ure’s Alison in Look Back in Anger, though not of working-class origin, tends to never-ending laundry.
Mirror images give visual expression to Woodfall’s commitment to realism. When Woodfall women peer into mirrors, the spectator sees them as they appear to themselves; sees them exactly as they are. These mirror scenes affirm that there is no separation between the character and her representation; that every image confided by the camera is as frank and unscheming as a reflection.
Woodfall women primp and pout in mirrors, readying themselves for a romantic engagement – as Helen does in A Taste of Honey, passing a comb through her hair before a pleasure-trip to Blackpool. In Look Back in Anger, Alison converses with Jimmy in her toilet mirror, nursing the burn he inflicted – he now concedes – “on purpose”. Alison looks, but seems not to see, Jimmy so big and eclipsing a presence – behind her and in the mirror – that he comes between her and herself.
A Taste of Honey’s teenaged Jo seems none too interested in her reflection. That is, until a classmate comments that Jo and her mother, preparing to flit, are “like a couple of gypsies”, whereupon Jo quizzes the mirror: is she like a gypsy? what is she like? Her wordless observing as she lathers her face turns up no answer. Jo’s eyes don’t consume her image as some women’s do; a soap bubble usurps her attention, and her brows, a little knitted by the girl’s remark, relax.
Woodfall actresses excelled at nonverbal performance. Joyce Redman put to work every muscle in her face in the dialogue-less eating scene for which Tom Jones is famous, a performance that earned the actress an Oscar nomination. Clammy, never taking her eyes from Tom (Albert Finney), who sits opposite, she sucks her teeth, tongues the wishbone, mashes fruit against her lips, tilts back her head and tips the oyster into her gaping mouth.
Her Tom Jones co-star, Susannah York, was no less talented or rubber-faced. Sitting down to the harpsichord, York’s Sophie lours privately, pressing the keys without feeling, as her loutish father praises her heavenly abilities: “Ah, you play like an angel.” Later, John Addison’s ‘Love Theme’ plays over a four-minute montage of Tom and Sophie gambolling over her father’s estate. Sophie takes cuttings from a climbing rose, white petals catching in her laughing mouth; she rides a mare barefoot, and dances on the lawn with the spaniel watching; and, caught in a cloudburst, she bobs, jubilant, at Tom’s fetching her a flower from the full river.
What has an 18th-century inheritress have in common with working-class Jo of 1960s Salford? Only their capacity for play. Jo dances, arms wide, to Jimmy’s tomtom accompaniment and, posing as a flapper for amateur painter Geof, twirls her beads and grimaces. Pratting about, in the world of Woodfall, is not the preserve of men. Just as Arthur Seaton is “out for a good time”, so, too, is his lover Brenda, who wants tenderness and sex as well as to keep her family.
Woodfall is to be praised for individualising its women. It’s an achievement of particular significance for the working-class characters among them, liable, then as now, to be treated as homogeneous; as all alike. The collective works of Woodfall proclaim the multiplicity of working-class experience. No two existences are the same, they say. As Jo calls down to Geof, having marched out of the shade of the arches of Stockport Viaduct: “My usual self is a very unusual self.” Backlit by a big sky, throwing up her arms as though she would take off, she shouts for all the world to hear: “I’m an extraordinary person! There’s only one of me, like there’s only one of you!”
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