Jo (Rita Tushingham) is about to leave school for good, and she'll be glad to see those days behind her, but she still has the here and now to worry about as she lives with her single mother Helen (Dora Bryan) in a bedsit. Or rather, she used to live there as once again Helen insists on doing a runner from their accomodation so she can avoid paying the rent she owes: out the window they go, settling on a different flat somewhere else in Manchester, but on the way she happens to meet sailor Jimmy (Paul Danquah) who helps them with their bags...
Shelagh Delaney was only eighteen when she wrote the original play of A Taste of Honey, a groundbreaking work which ushered in the so-called kitchen sink dramas of the late fifties and early sixties in Britain, along with a new wave of playwrights and filmmakers; her work was an obvious choice for filming, and Tony Richardson decided he was the man to do it. They wrote a script, then set to shooting on the streets of Manchester, with some in a dilapitated flat in London. The results were widely acclaimed at the time, winning prizes at Cannes and the BAFTAs and becoming a renowned movie around the world for its matter of fact dealng with then hot-button topics as illegitimate pregancy, love between different races, and homosexuality.
Watching it now the naysayers are wont to point out that what may have been startling in its day has been diluted by decades of soap opera and the television drama which followed dutifully in its footsteps, and even more than this others have accused it of being patronising towards its characters, as if observing them from an ironic distance, the middle classes wallowing in the working classes' lifestyle for a hundred minutes whereupon they can return to their own lives. But if you actually settle down with it, there's none of the clucking of tongues that its denigrators may have led you to expect; no, these people aren't perfect, but there's an affection for the characters which is plain to see, no matter that they're not always acting in the best interests of others.
Really this was the tale of Jo's coming of age, but Richardson makes it clear while she and those around her may have grown up in years, mentally they still have to find their place in the world, and lack the consistent self-awareness necessary to make the best of things. For this reason children are always in the background, playing or singing to underline the immaturity of everyone from Jo's petulant regard for her mother, to Helen's rebounding through life from man to man, dragging her daughter behind her until she has to accept that Jo might be outgrowing her. Though as the ending illustrates, even that doesn't mean she won't be hanging around, difficult to shake but then again, she's the only real family the girl has, and we can perceive the amount of conflicted emotional pain she puts her through.
Jimmy isn't the answer to Jo's problems, but he offers her "a taste of honey" for a while as their romance lifts her spirits, though poignantly he is not able to stay with her because in spite of genuine love he still has to leave on his ship, and although he vows to be back this is the sort of film where noble promises such as that cannot help but be broken. Therefore Jo is left pregnant and falling out with Helen's latest boyfriend (Robert Stephens), leading her to that derelict flat and the next man in her life, Geoffrey (Murray Melvin), who may be gay but that doesn't mean he won't to look after Jo, and the baby when it arrives. Again, the theme of abandonment looms large, and with little certain in the heroine's life she comes to realise she has to enjoy any good times which go her way while they last, however briefly. Although this could have been unforgivingly bleak, the script had many funny lines in bittersweet fashion and acutely delivered performances, making this one of the finest of its downbeat kind. Music by John Addison.
[Available as part of the BFI's Woodfall box set on Blu-ray and DVD, which includes these fully restored films: