Post-1977, a phrase that entered the lexicon of music critics everywhere to describe the impact of punk rock after it burst onto an international stage was “scorched earth”. Anything that came before this counts for nothing, went the theory. Nothing after this will ever be the same again. Whether that sentiment was accurate or grandiose delusion is a matter for endless debate, but two decades earlier, for a few years at least, it felt like a similar seismic shift had occurred in the world of British theatre and film. A group of disaffected young working and middle class writers, largely independent of each other, began producing work that became defined by its opposition to the Establishment, and were labelled the “angry young men”. But the greatest of the angry young men was a woman. Shelagh Delaney could even pinpoint the moment when she felt this dissatisfaction with the status quo, whilst watching a production of Terence Rhattigan’s ‘Variations on a Theme’ at Manchester Opera House. Specifically, she felt it showed “insensitivity in the way [it] portrayed homosexuals”, so she sat down to try and do better. The result, written in ten days when she was just eighteen, was A TASTE OF HONEY.
At the same time the British film industry temporarily abandoned making movies about toffs slapping each other with gloves and began to ascend on its own new wave of social realism. Tony Richardson’s film version of John Osbourne’s play LOOK BACK IN ANGER kicked things off in 1959, and by 1960 he’d already followed it up with THE ENTERTAINER, another Osbourne adaptation. Perhaps the most successful transition from page to screen came with Karel Reisz’s SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING (1960), with its memorable central performance of Albert Finney as the very angriest young man, Arthur “don’t let the bastards grind you down” Seaton. Ironically, just three years later Richardson would cast Finney in his comical adaptation of TOM JONES (1963): it would win the Academy award for best picture, and between it and DR. NO (1962) pretty much put an end to the dirt and grime of the kitchen sink era.
A TASTE OF HONEY begins with an early morning flight from a landlord seeking his rent arrears. Teenage Jo (Rita Tushingham) and her mother (Dora Bryan) abandon their pokey flat in a terraced house perched on a hill above a valley full of factories and chimneys, to the safety of an almost identical pokey flat on a slightly steeper hill. During their escape we get a glimpse of the “Dark Satanic” Manchester of the early sixties, maybe the greyest images ever to be shot in black and white. The film is the story of the young teenage girl struggling against her background, her class and ultimately her sex. She is a misfit who seems to be attracted to a succession of fellow misfits. Against the backdrop of the Manchester Ship Canal she begins a romance with a black sailor, her “Prince from darkest Africa”, whilst her alcoholic mother remarries a much younger man resembling the spiv from Dad’s Army, swept off her feet as she is by “a bungalow with bay windows. And crazy paving!”. Jo finds herself alone and pregnant, but is befriended by homosexual art student Geoff (Murray Melvin) who wants to mother her and even at one point proposes marriage. All this was shocking stuff at the time (as if to really rub it in, Jo declares to her disbelieving mother “We share everything. We’re Communists too!”), and the film still packs some of that impact now, but what sets A TASTE OF HONEY apart from its kitchen sink contemporaries is that it’s written from a female perspective: Delaney was not much older than her protagonist at the time. As Morrissey biographer Mark Simpson wrote: “It isn’t a play about an angry young man, but a vaguely anxious young girl – a much more universal subject, since most of us are vaguely anxious young girls at some point in our lives.” Children are never far away in the film, from the nursery rhymes used as recurring musical themes to Jo’s obsession with the dirty children she sees in the streets all around her.
I’ll bash its brains out. I’ll kill it. I don’t want his baby, Geoff. I don’t want to be a mother. I don’t want to be a woman.
What I love most is Delaney’s use of language. The screenplay, which she adapted herself, veers from tragedy to comedy in an instant, but always in an authentic voice that had not been heard on stage or film before. On her death last year at the age of 72, her most high-profile fan, one Steven Patrick Morrissey, put it like this:
A genuine poet has passed through the world. Shelagh Delaney exercised a wide influence with the shock of plain language, and shafts of satiric wit, into a severe and donnish 1950s world where working-class people had thus far been assumed to be simplistic, flag-waving cannon-fodder. Her writing was a magnificent confession of life as it was commonly lived in her hometown of Salford, with all of its carefully preserved monotony. She was attacked for immorality, which, then as now, is proof that you have hit on something.