Shelagh Delaney wrote the play at nineteen, in 1958. It quickly found a producer and an audience, skipping from little theater to London's West End to Broadway-- a production that featured Angela Lansbury as the protagonist's mother. Delaney disliked the classification of the work as "Kitchen Sink Drama," but it inevitably gets described as an example of the genre. A Taste of Honey features run down settings, places still showing the destruction of the Blitz. It checks off several boxes that would have seemed realistically edgy at the time: a teen pregnancy, an inter-racial relationship, a neglectful, alcoholic parent, and a gay artist. Delaney wrote other plays, but this appears to be the one people recall. The lasting fame owes something, no doubt, to the film adaptation.
It's 1961, the same year Victim became the first British film to use the word "homosexual," and, like Victim, the big-screen Touch of Honey feels progressive for its time. Teenage Jo (Rita Tushingham) strikes out on her own, finds a job selling shoes, and cheap accommodations to call home. Her fling with a sailor (Paul Danquah) has left her pregnant. Jimmy the sailor promises he'll be back. We're not especially sure whether to take him at his word. His face slowly fades from Jo's memory. He's a Black man from Liverpool. This film likely represents the last time in British history that a Liverpudlian accent didn't immediately evoke The Beatles.
Jo meets and takes in Geoffrey Ingham (Murray Melvin-- who originated the role on stage), a sympathetic young gay man. He has no place to go; he's been kicked out of home and his subsequent rental. As I said, A Taste of Honey feels progressive for its time. The film passes no judgment on Geof, but we also see no signs of romantic or sexual relationships. Our protagonist throws any number of stereotype-based jokes his way, before affectionately declaring him her big sister.
The original, stripped-down script gets expanded by Delaney and the director, Tony Richardson, with fascinating location shooting. We see the less swinging side of England, black and white, run-down rental spaces. Singing children play around a cluttered, clogged canal. The children behave like a strange chorus, and seem to know the location and doings of everyone in the neighbourhood. We go to Blackpool, and it appears, at least, that the film simply used real attractions and the people running them.
The film's ending remains ambiguous and rather bleak, though it holds out slightly more hope than the play.
The play has been revived a number of times into the present century. The Smiths reference both the playwright and this work specifically in their lyrics and album art.
Evocative and haunting, occasionally funny and often grim, A Taste of Honey stands as a portrait of one run-down corner of mid-twentieth century Britain.
Director: Tony Richardson
Adapted by Shelagh Delaney and Tony Richardson from the play by Shelagh Delaney
Rita Tushingham as Jo
Murray Melvin as Geoffrey Ingham
Dora Bryan as Helen
Robert Stephens as Peter Smith
Paul Danquah as Jimmy
Michael Bilton s Landlord
Eunice Black as Schoolteacher
David Boliver as Bert
Margo Cunningham as Landlady
A. Goodman as Rag and Bone Man
Veronica Howard as Gladys
Moira Kaye as Doris
Herbert Smith as Shoe Store Proprietor
Rosalie Williams as Nurse