A Taste of Honey

Director: Tony Richardson
Screenplay: Shelagh Delaney and Tony Richardson (based on the play by Shelagh Delaney)
Stars: Rita Tushingham (Jo), Dora Bryan (Helen), Robert Stephens (Peter Smith), Murray Melvin (Geoffrey Ingham), Paul Danquah (Jimmy)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1961
Country: U.K.
A Taste of Honey Criterion Collection Blu-ray
A Taste of HoneyTony Richardson’s A Taste of Honey is one of the cornerstones of the British New Wave, whose so-called “kitchen sink” realism emerged from the Free Cinema documentary movement in the late 1950s. Like other European cinematic “new waves” of the time, particularly the French New Wave and Italian neorealism, filmmakers associated with the British New Wave rejected the restrictive, conservative values of traditional bourgeois cinema and called for films by socially committed artists that focused on the importance of individuals and the significance of everyday life, particularly life in the industrial, working-class cities in northern England, which had typically been left off the silver screen. Richardson had already established himself with his 1959 film adaptation of Jon Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger, which called the entire class system of England into question. Along with Jack Clayton’s Room at the Top (1959), Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), and Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life (1963), Richardson’s films were essential to establishing the look and feel of the new British realism.

Part of what makes the British New Wave so fascinating is that it was part of a larger movement in British literature, music, and theater in which liberal working-class values displaced the established bourgeois tradition of the preceding decades, which is why a number of the early films were adapted from revolutionary stageplays. A Taste of Honey originated as a play written by Shelagh Delaney, who at the time was only 18 years old. Unlike Look Back in Anger and so many other kitchen sink dramas, A Taste of Honey is told from a distinctly female perspective; rather than being an “angry young man” drama, it is an angry young woman drama, which means that the film’s protagonist is doubly isolated and disaffected—not just financially and socially, but also in terms of gender.

The story is set in the factory town of Salford in Manchester in North West England, which is where Delaney was born and raised. The protagonist is Jo (Rita Tushingham), an 18-year-old who lives in a dilapidated apartment with her mother, Helen (Dora Bryan), whose carefree sexual proclivities and lack of social rooting offers Jo a dangerous precedent that she seems almost doomed to repeat. Jo and Helen have a difficult, charged relationship, the fires of which are fueled by Helen’s clear disinterest in being any kind of a mother figure (she is more interested in finding her next lover) and Jo’s desperate need for maternal guidance and affection. Her life of constant rejection has left Jo angry and bitter, which we see in the film’s opening sequence during a school basketball game. It isn’t long before Helen has developed a relationship with Peter Smith (Robert Stephens), a younger man with better finances who has even less interest in Jo than her mother does. Searching for something—anything—Jo has a brief romance with Jimmy (Paul Danquah), a black sailor who must eventually leave her, after which time she gets a job, moves away from Helen, and strikes up a comfortable domestic partnership with Geoffrey (Murray Melvin), an insecure young homosexual whose attraction to Jo reflects both his own sexual confusion and the complex sexual dynamics of mid-century England. When Jo discovers that she is pregnant by Jimmy, Geoffrey attempts to become a husband/father stand-in, but Jo’s own conflicted feelings about becoming a mother—the very thing that has caused her so much pain in life—makes any kind of stability impossible, especially after Helen re-enters her life.

At the time, A Taste of Honey was a boundary-pushing, taboo-breaking experiment in social realism. With its frank depiction of dysfunctional family dynamics, teenage sexuality and pregnancy, and the difficult realities faced by homosexuals in a repressive environment, the film (like the play before it) willfully and provocatively pushed buttons. The characters, especially Jo and Helen, bicker and fight and jab at each other with rough, colloquial language that has real bite.

The film made a splash at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival, with newcomer Rita Tushingham and Murray Melvin both sharing in the awards for Best Actress and Best Actor, respectively. Tushingham went on to become the “face” of the British New Wave in films like The Leather Boys (1963) and The Knack... and How to Get It (1965)—a kind of female, British equivalent to France’s Jean-Paul Belmondo or Jean-Pierre Léaud. With her slightly odd, intensely expressive look that painfully conveys her character’s awkward attempts to act out a form of adulthood she doesn’t understand, Tushingham was an inspired choice to play Jo, who declares herself to be “extraordinary” even though the film is at constant pains to show that her burden in life is her utterly ordinary nature. She is sometimes a difficult character to like, as her emotional register is so unstable and she lashes out at Geoffrey in exactly the way her mother lashes out at her, thus completing the cycle of dysfunction that she will likely pass on to her own child.

The film’s fundamental tragedy is that, by the end of the film, rather than escaping her dour circumstances, Jo succumbs to them. Much of the film is quite powerful in depicting this endless loop of social and familial breakdown, although some of the mannered performances and aesthetic discord hamper the film’s effectiveness. Described at the time as both a comedy and a drama, there are points where it is difficult to tell what tone Richardson is going for, as the visuals paint a despondent portrait of industrial England as a social and emotional sewer (a point that is reinforced constantly by the dialogue—when Jo threatens to throw herself into the river, Geoffrey advises against it since it’s “full of rubbish”), but the musical score by composer John Addison is often upbeat, lively, even jaunty, but not in a way that makes for meaningful aesthetic conflict (it is one of the film’s most badly dated elements). There is real power in A Taste of Honey, especially in its underlying themes about the cyclical nature of familial dysfunction, which comes out in both Jo and Helen’s dialogue about their unwillingness or inability to truly love someone, which ironically undermines the film’s saucy marketing tagline about “a young girl’s passionate love of life.” There is passion, to be sure, but almost no real love, except from Geoffrey, who is ultimately turned away because of it.

A Taste of Honey Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.66:1
AudioEnglish Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
Subtitles English
  • Video interview with actor Rita Tushingham
  • Video interview with actor Murray Melvin
  • Audio interview from 1962 with director and co-screenwriter Tony Richardson
  • Excerpt from a 1960 television interview with playwright Shelagh Delaney
  • Interview from 1998 with cinematographer Walter Lassally
  • “Remaking British Theater: Joan Littlewood and A Taste of Honey” featurette
  • Momma Don’t Allow (1956), documentary by Richardson
  • Essay by film scholar Colin MacCabe
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateAugust 23, 2016

    A Taste of Honey makes its high-definition debut in a beautifully restored 4K transfer that was made from the original 35mm camera negative. Walter Lassally’s superb black-and-white cinematography truly shines, with excellent contrast, black levels, and shadow detail. The moody, grayish shots of the industrial-urban landscape maintain significant impact, while the interiors and close-ups of the actors benefit from the transfer’s sharp detail and clarity. There is a strong presence of grain in the image, which is wholly appropriate and reflective of how it looked theatrically in 1961. The monaural soundtrack was remastered from the 35mm original soundtrack negative at the British Film Institute’s National Archive, with additional restoration work being performed by Criterion. The result is a smooth, pleasant track that is lacking in signs of age and wear, with decent depth and good fidelity. Dialogue is well presented, and John Addison’s musical score sounds quite good.
    Criterion has put together an impressive list of supplements to help contextualize this landmark British New Wave film. First up we have two new video interviews, one with actor Rita Tushingham (18 min.) and one with actor Murray Melvin (18 min.), both of whom discuss their experiences working on the film and the effect it had on their subsequent careers. Also included is “Remaking British Theater: Joan Littlewood and A Taste of Honey,” a 21-minute featurette about the film’s stage origins built around an intriguing interview with theater scholar Kate Dorney (Played in Britain: Modern Theatre in 100 Plays). There is also quite a bit of material culled from the archives, including a 15-minute audio interview with director and co-screenwriter Tony Richardson from the 1962 Cannes Film Festival, a 15-minute excerpt from a 1960 television interview with playwright Shelagh Delaney, and a 19-minute interview with cinematographer Walter Lassally from 1998. Finally, the disc includes Momma Don’t Allow (1956), a Free Cinema short documentary about youth culture and the Wood Green Jazz Club that was co-directed by Richardson and shot by Lassally.

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