A Taste of Honey: Northern Accents
In 1961, when he made the wonderfully fresh A Taste of Honey, Tony Richardson was still in his early thirties but was already a major force in both cinema and theater in Britain. After a stellar career in student drama at Oxford, he had joined the BBC, but he was soon also writing film criticism and, in 1956, was one of the founders, along with Karel Reisz and Lindsay Anderson, of the Free Cinema movement, espousing a cinema free of commercial and political constraints and using a personal style to capture working-class life and popular culture, which had been ignored by traditional British cinema. That same year, he helped launch, with George Devine, the English Stage Company, with a similarly radical aim, privileging writers and thus promoting a theater that would be at the center of British cultural life. The company chose the Royal Court Theatre as its venue, and later in 1956, with its third play, Look Back in Anger—written by John Osborne and directed by Richardson—it achieved its ambition. That play ushered in a new era in British theater, often qualified as “kitchen-sink drama,” which featured “angry young men” railing at the confines of working-class and lower-middle-class life in the Britain of the fifties and early sixties.
Just before Look Back in Anger opened onstage, the Free Cinema movement had launched with a program of shorts at the National Film Theatre, including a documentary, directed by Reisz and Richardson, called Momma Don’t Allow, about a famous North London jazz club. The Free Cinema movement was never an organization. Its manifesto was written as notes for that historic first program, and it never produced anything as coherent as Cahiers du cinéma’s politique des auteurs. However, in the pages of the magazines Sequence and Sight & Sound, it promoted an enthusiasm for Hollywood cinema and for innovative documentary that was to influence profoundly British cinema in the early sixties. The films in that first 1956 program were mainly documentaries that chronicled aspects of working-class popular culture. There were to be five more such evenings at the National Film Theatre over the next three years, including programs of recent French and Polish cinema.
Richardson’s central involvement in the most fertile and interesting developments in his country of both film and theater has few parallels in cultural history. And he was determined to bring his two worlds together. After the success of the stage version of Look Back in Anger, he set up the company Woodfall Film Productions with Osborne and Harry Saltzman. The inclusion of Saltzman, a major film producer who was to go on to the Bond franchise, signaled a clear step away from the noncommercial documentaries that characterized the Free Cinema programs. The film versions of Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and his follow-up play, The Entertainer, provided Richardson’s and Woodfall’s first two projects, in 1959 and ’60, but they did not enjoy the same success as their stage versions. However, the cultural energy that Look Back in Anger released did find its way onto the screen in the next batch of Woodfall films, all capturing northern working-class life.
The first of these, which Richardson produced and Reisz directed, was Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), an unflinching portrait of a factory worker desperate to enjoy life to the full, featuring, in his starring debut, Albert Finney—the first of a series of actors in the period, also including Tom Courtenay and Richard Harris, who brought to the screen both a physical presence and a northern accent completely at odds with the dominant sounds and images of British cinema. This film was a success both critically and commercially, and Richardson and Woodfall decided to follow it with one set in Manchester that Richardson would direct himself. The script was an adaptation of a play that had already been a hit both in London’s West End and on Broadway (where Richardson had also directed it)—A Taste of Honey.
While A Taste of Honey (1961) fits neatly into the kitchen-sink description with its succession of grim apartments, the anger in this story is provided by not a young man but a young woman, Jo, played by the then unknown Rita Tushingham. This sets the film apart from the others with which it is normally bracketed—Woodfall’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962, also directed by Richardson), together with Lindsay Anderson’s 1963 This Sporting Life (produced by Reisz). And more unusually yet, the romantic lead is a black sailor and the most important male character is gay. This astonishing play was by an eighteen-year-old woman from the Manchester area, Shelagh Delaney, whose reaction to one of Terence Rattigan’s well-made and polite dramas was the conviction that she could do better herself.
Richardson not only produced and directed the film but also cowrote the screenplay with Delaney. Their script is faithful to the dialogue and plot of the play but explodes it out of the cramped settings of cheap apartments and into the rural and urban landscapes of industrial Lancashire. Free Cinema’s cinematographer of choice, Walter Lassally, renders the canals and streets of Salford, one of Manchester’s satellite towns, into an extraordinary composition of black-and-white photography. Some critics have dismissed these sequences as unmotivated by the plot, and it is true that they were quickly to become clichéd by the overuse of such shots in subsequent films. However, there is no doubt for this critic that Richardson succeeds in making the setting an integral part of the film, from the credit sequence, as we take a bus journey through the center of Salford, to the closing one, where a backstreet Guy Fawkes Day party, complete with bonfire and fireworks, provides the backdrop. In particular, the decaying industrial landscape is an integral part of the love scenes between Jo and her sailor. Indeed, the most moving shot of the film, bringing setting, plot, and character together, has Jo watching her lover on the deck of his ship as he, unaware of her gaze, sails out from the narrow canal to the open sea.
Tushingham was to win best actress at the Cannes Film Festival in 1962. The best actor award was carried off by Murray Melvin, for his performance as Geoffrey, the gay student who befriends and moves in with Jo when she is abandoned by her mother. Dora Bryan—a stalwart of British light comedy in a much more complex and difficult role than her usual repertoire—won that year’s best actress award from BAFTA for her performance as Jo’s feckless mother, Helen. Indeed, the level of performance in this film is of the very highest order, with Robert Stephens brilliant as the lecherous and drunken Peter, who marries Jo’s mother, and Paul Danquah charming as the flirtatious sailor who leaves Jo pregnant. There is no doubt, however, that it is Tushingham’s performance as a girl becoming a woman that captivates across the decades and continues to make the film alive today, when its daring portrayal of race and homosexuality has become commonplace. Tushingham was to become one of the major stars of British cinema in the sixties, with hits in both The Knack . . . and How to Get It and Doctor Zhivago, but the spiky, vulnerable Jo is undoubtedly her most memorable role.
The next year, Richardson followed A Taste of Honey with The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, which also found both box-office success and critical acclaim. And Woodfall and Richardson hit the jackpot in 1963 with Osborne’s period adaptation of Henry Fielding’s eighteenth-century novel Tom Jones, which garnered an astonishing ten Oscar nominations and won both best director and best film for Richardson. But neither Richardson nor Delaney would ever know such remarkable success again. Delaney would write the scripts for two striking British films, Charlie Bubbles (1967) and Dance with a Stranger (1985), but this is a surprisingly meager harvest for such a substantial talent. Richardson continued to make films, but from the early seventies he could not find funding in Britain, and he moved to Los Angeles, where he mainly worked for television and all but ceased working in the theater. He did direct two very considerable films later in his life, however, The Border (1982) and Blue Sky (released posthumously in 1994—Richardson died in 1991).
No writer has yet succeeded in giving real shape to Richardson’s unusually diverse career. His shift from London to Los Angeles, his central importance to both British film and theater history, and his determination to try a very wide variety of styles in his films seem to have posed too much of a challenge for critics and historians. A Taste of Honey and the other British films from the beginning of the sixties with which Richardson is linked were a significant part of a cultural wave that would place the northern working class at the center of British life for the first time in history. In 1964, the United Kingdom elected Harold Wilson, its first prime minister who spoke with the accents of the northern working class, and a year before that the Beatles had released their first album, Please Please Me, heralding the northern sound that was to dominate charts in both Britain and the United States. Please Please Me includes the song “A Taste of Honey,” which had been a byproduct of the New York stage production. This link between film and record symbolizes a whole cultural moment. By the end of the sixties, the Beatles had broken up and Wilson’s government had lost power.
But while the end of sixties optimism may explain both Richardson’s move to Los Angeles and Delaney’s surprisingly truncated career, A Taste of Honey has had a very important afterlife. Among others who have been deeply influenced by the film, both the novelist Jeanette Winterson and the singer Morrissey of the Smiths have repeatedly singled out A Taste of Honey as crucial in their own artistic formation. In 2014, the National Theatre in London put on a very successful revival of the play, and it is firmly enshrined in the British drama curriculum. Richardson still awaits the full critical tribute his talent deserves, but his determination to render working-class life in its material settings permanently altered British film and television. It is difficult to imagine Ken Loach’s work, to take merely one example, without Richardson’s bold experiments.