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In the spring of 1958, one play would shake the foundations of British theatre and the future of British cinema. The play in question is A Taste of Honey, a groundbreaking coming-of-age drama that started its life in the mind of an eighteen-year-old Salford girl named Shelagh Delaney. Drawing on the gritty reality of northern working-class life in Britain, Delaney completed her play in a fortnight before sending her rough draft to the renowned theatre director Joan Littlewood.
Littlewood saw potential, and the play was homed and perfected by both women before it premiered at the Theatre Royal Stratford East on the 27th of May 1958. A Taste of Honey was unlike anything seen before it as it unpicked the unspoken barriers of representation built up over time, its sheer power and honesty helping to kick start the ‘Kitchen Sink’ movement in British theatre, TV and film.
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Set in the 1950s, Delaney’s story centres on Jo, a seventeen-year-old working-class girl, and her unreliable mother, Helen. Jo begins a romantic relationship with Jimmy, a black US sailor, briefly in port while her mother disappears with a younger man leaving Jo to fend for herself. But as Jo and Jimmy’s relationship deepens, Jo finds herself pregnant, and Jimmy proposes marriage before going back to sea. However, as Jimmy departs, Jo is left to face the prospect of becoming a single mum – the social taboo of her predicament wrapped in social isolation and racism.
Searching for a safe place away from home, Jo finds lodgings with Geoffrey, a gay man she knows. However, when her mother returns, Jo’s newfound security, belonging and love is threatened by discrimination, isolation and fear. Delaney’s play placed issues of racism, homophobia, sexism and class centre stage and, in turn, tore up the rulebook of British theatre, upsetting many in the process. However, for audiences, A Taste of Honey offered something radical and real in construct. As a result, A Taste of Honey would find itself immortalised on screen in 1961; however, its themes concerned censors, and as a result, it would earn itself an X rating. Yes! According to censors, themes of teenage pregnancy, racism and homophobia were just as disturbing as the shower scene in Psycho! Interestingly another groundbreaking movie in 1961 would also suffer this fate, Basil Dearden’s Victim.
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Directed by Tony Richardson, already a significant force in British cinema and theatre, the pre-production process would work alongside Delaney in creating a vibrant and accurate journey from stage to screen. Richardson brought a passion for the British ‘Free Cinema’ Movement, where filmmakers actively challenged the class-based discrimination rife in the media. As a result, Richardson’s adaptation allowed Delaney’s play to break free of the ‘single set’ staging of its birth and fully embrace Northern British culture and urban life. Richardson would bring Jo to life through Rita Tushingham, lacing her coming-of-age journey with a raw honesty that would inspire Kes (1969) and Cathy Come Home (1966).
A TASTE OF OF HONEY (1961)
A Taste of Honey is also a groundbreaking moment in gay representation on screen. While William Wyler floundered in bringing lesbian relationships to the screen in The Children’s Hour (1961) due to the US Hays Code, Richardson ensured Geoffrey sat proudly at the heart of A Taste of Honey. In the hands of Richardson, Geoffrey is a rounded, complex, real gay character who would provide early 60s cinema audiences with their first relatable gay lead. Like Victim (1961), Richardson and Delaney ensure no lazy clichés in Geoffrey’s journey alongside Jo. Geoffrey is a young man forced to endure the homophobia surrounding him as he lives his life discreetly in public and openly in private. Here the relationship he builds with Jo sits on a foundation of trust and belonging, with both young people outsiders in a society of instant judgement and oppression.
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A Taste of Honey was a groundbreaking coming-of-age play and movie that explored the interface between diverse equality characteristics. Here themes of sexuality, sexism, race and class merge to demonstrate the multiple layers of social oppression inherent in many communities. But it is within its discussions on the shared experiences of minority groups that A Taste of Honey truly excels as Delaney and Richardson place British society and its class construct under the microscope for all to see.