Jo (Rita Tushingham) is 17 and in her final year at school, living in Manchester with her belligerent ghoul of a mother, and moving between flats to avoid paying rent. To escape from her humdrum life she takes solace in the shape of Jimmy, a sailor who temporarily docks in the city, and also in her.
The film is an adaptation of the 1958 stage play of the same name, written by Shelagh Delaney. Remarkably Delaney was only 18 years old when she wrote the play, and 21 when she adapted it – along with director Tony Richardson – into the screenplay.
Wait, scrap that. It’s extraordinary that she was 18, because it is astonishingly well written. Not only does it have a superbly sculpted over-arching story – with several sets of fascinating relationships – but, like other British Kitchen Sink works of the era, serious contemporary issues are invoked: poverty, alcoholism, racism, sexism, homelessness, homosexuality, non-marital pregnancy, and (a lack of) parenthood. And although many of the film’s references have dated – shopping at a “Woolworth’s” for instance – these issues are just as biting today. And all from someone who was 18.
And on top of that, Delaney’s writing is brilliantly funny. We are stuck in black and white, grimy, drizzly Manchester – particularly bleak, even for Manchester standards – yet her dark humour lights up the film.
Much of the comedy comes from the best drawn of the aforementioned relationships, that between Jo and her mother. Her relationship with her daughter is strained throughout, and it would be easy to focus on their tensions. And while the latter is entertaining in her outrageous objectionability, she is not certainly not one-dimensional. They are each reliant on the other, financially and emotionally, and both seem silently aware of this. And while she may not have the self-restraint to correct her own faults and fallibilities, she is capable of the self-awareness to see them in her daughter, and to try and prevent her picking up the hideous traits from her mother’s side.
And on top of the excellent script, the performances are there to match it. Murray Melvin as Jo’s effeminate confidant Geoffrey deserves particular mention, the only cast member taken from the original 1958 play. Although his homosexuality from that version is downplayed in here – not even being mentioned – it does not take much supposition given his vocal intonations, demeanour, and choice of Italian shoes.
Despite the focus on Delaney, the film’s director is Tony Richardson. Perhaps the single most important driving force in British kitchen sink cinema, his résumé includes ‘The Entertainer’ (1960) and ‘The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner’ (1962), as well as the very first British kitchen sink film, ‘Look Back In Anger’ (1959).
That film suffered from sticking too closely to the original play, and as a result – despite the many great attributes – it never escaped an aura of theatricality. Crucial to the success of A Taste Of Honey is that it does break any such atmosphere. As Jo and Jimmy wander through railway arches, canal towpaths, brick houses and cobbled streets, there is a beauty to the authentic urban backdrop.
Most notably, there is one scene where Jimmy and Jo say goodbye at a turntable bridge. And as the bridge turns, we get a panoramic vista shot sweeping across the Manchester skyline. Down below on the river, on-board a passing ship, two people appear to act out an alternate reality where they remain together, reminiscent of the passing gondolas in ‘Don’t Look Now’ (1973). We have moved far beyond a straight theatrical adaptation.
Shelagh Delaney never achieved the same level of acclaim again. Yet in a single production, she created something so exceptional and influential that her name is rightly remembered. And for that she should take a bow.