I’m an extraordinary person! There’s only one of me, like there’s only one of you. We’re unique! Young! Unrivalled! Smashing! Bloody marvellous!” (Jo and Geoff in A Taste of Honey)
“Now? We’d probably have to make it via reality TV.” Rita Tushingham and Murray Melvin dive enthusiastically into the idea of looking back at the social and political legacy of their seminal film about troubled youth. Still with their beautiful, natural profiles, you immediately recognise Melvin’s poise and Tushingham’s girlish face-pulling. They often seem like giggling teenagers, recounting sneaking in to try to watch, as director Tony Richardson viewed the daily rushes, and falling downstairs. “We ran away!” Or recalling the time they were invited to the British Ambassador’s residence in Prague, and started impersonating parrots.
Tushingham and Melvin photographed at the British Film Institute, London Southbank Nov 1st 2011 (All photos copyright Samira Ahmed)
But they can be disapproving grownups, too. (Melvin is particularly appalled by the current fashion for pant-baring lowslung jeans among the youth of today). And 50 years on from the seminal kitchen sink drama, they’re scathing about what they see as the corrosive effect of modern consumerism on young people. “Does David Cameron know we’re here?” he jokes.
The tropes of kitchen sink drama – gritty Northern industrial landscapes shot in moody black and white and tales of unwanted pregnancy – have become so clichéd in the years since abortion was legalised, that the huge impact of A Taste of Honey could be forgotten. The original play was written by 18 year old Shelagh Delaney and became a huge hit on Broadway, too, starring Angela Lansbury. The 1961 film was X-rated. Set in Salford, the tale of Jo(sephine) a lonely, neglected teenager, tackled teenage pregnancy, mixed race relationships and feckless parenting (Dora Bryan and her dodgy boyfriend Robert Stephens). The most sympathetic character is Jo’s gay friend, Geoff, at a time when homosexuality was criminal. “But I wasn’t gay,” points out Melvin. “The Lord Chamberlain wouldn’t have allowed it. So it was all between the lines.” Melvin recalls pulling out of a South African production of the play when he found out the part of the black boyfriend was to be played by a white actor in blackface.
Murray Melvin had worked his way up from tea boy at Joan Littlewood’s famous Theatre Workshop Company at London’s Stratford East Theatre to play the role of Geoff on stage, reprising it in the film. Tushingham had similarly joined the Liverpool Rep as a backstage odd job girl after writing many pestering letters, graduating to playing such parts as the back end of a horse and a rabbit. Was it a working class rabbit? “It was a rabbit with a very large arse” she retorts. She turned 19 on the first day of shooting A Taste of Honey. Neither ever went to drama school. The demise of the backstage route is one they believe has eliminated entry to the trade for most working class youngsters.
Both agree that Rita’s character Jo, a lonely girl, who gets pregnant by a sailor, would probably be a lot younger today — maybe 12 — because of the much greater sexual and consumer pressure on children, but they believe the issues are just as relevant. “People still come up to me and ask if I was in A Taste Of Honey,” says Melvin. “People still relate to those class issues.”
“Because the [characters] are not in a time capsule,” Tushingham adds. “Younger people are touched by that now. 50 years ago you wouldn’t have had so many kids in that situation [teen pregnancy]. It’s so sad.”
Melvin declares: “If Shelagh’s play arrived on the director’s desk of the Theatre Royal today he’d have a look and say, “Pass it over to social services.” A Taste of Honey was political. The characters were carefully formulated, as you weren’t allowed to be openly gay.” The two exchange a list of homophobic slurs: “It was poof, pansy, queer – awful words.” Melvin recounts with fury a recent homophobic murder in London. His recent role as a villain in Torchwood has led to unexpected revelations about the enduring impact of entrenched homophobic attitudes: “18 months ago I was at a Doctor Who convention when a teenage boy came up to me and said, “I wanted to come and thank you. You changed my life. I got A Taste of Honey on DVD and watched it and realised, I’m not bad am I?” I was in tears.”
Trailblazers as they were, the journey through the sixties after their acclaimed multi-nominated breakthrough was a challenge: “I was offered so many pregnant roles,” says Tushingham, with humour. “And I was offered so many poofs,” adds Melvin. “I told them all, “I’ve done the ultimate one.””
Tushingham and Melvin got to have some fun in the George Melly-scripted Swinging London parody, Smashing Time with Lynn Redgrave. Interestingly it’s theCannes-award winning The Knack and How to Get It (whichseemed a similar play on her innocent in the big city to ATOH) that now looks like a period curio, complete with jokes about rape.
As for Melvin: “What was I doing in Alfie?!” I suggest perhaps it was deliberately subversive to cast him as the best friend to Michael Caine’s macho misogynist. Melvin credits director Lewis Gilbert for not stereotyping his young actors. “He put me in HMS Defiant with Dirk Bogarde and Alec Guiness,” he smiles. Watching the big historical epic, released just a year after ATOH, gives you a sense of the seismic shift taking place in British theatre and film making.
Would young viewers realise that today? That until the 60s regional and working class actors had to talk with Received Pronunciation on screen and stage?
Melvin says:“[Joan Littlewood’s] Theatre Workshop Company was the first to put working class regional voices on stage. To give the working class back its dignity, so we were no longer just PC Plod or figures of fun.” Tushingham gurns and mimicks a skivvy.
“Joan would not let you put on a [posh] voice.,” he continues. “Because Shelagh sent that play to Joan, [then based in Manchester] they heard that music in the dialogue.”
“Osborne was starting,” says Tushingham. “But something like ATOH allowed us all to happen. When you look back at the 50s we wouldn’t have been in any of the shows. Remember when we did A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Tony Richardson at the Royal Court and the critics were floored by it? All those regional accents, like James Bolam’s.”
In a way both feel they were luckier than young actors starting out today.
“The Establishment have fought back now,” declares Melvin, as we discuss how films like Fish Tank are labelled and confined to the arthouse circuit while middle class TV critics wallow in Downton Abbey’s strange nostalgia. He remains actively involved with the Theatre Royal Stratford East, where he’s currently compiling an archive of its 120 year history, and has arranged screenings of ATOH for local schoolchildren.
Tushingham says of the early 60s: “It was a welcoming time. There was an energy. We need to do more to encourage young people to discover what’s inside them. The consumerism is not the point…50 years on we still have the same emotions as we did then, but we are being sold more.”
This post was originally written for The Spectator magazine blog. Photos copyright of Samira Ahmed. No reproduction without permission.
Rita Tushingham and Murray Melvin will be at 50th anniversary screenings of A Taste of Honey taking place in Liverpool this weekend and London’s BFI Southbank on Monday November 7th. Book BFI tickets here
Stereotypes in Northern working class drama (2009 Guardian theatre blogpost)