Sunday, 26 September 2010
I recently watched Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey again; I wanted to watch it again as I'd been talking about landmarks in gay cinema with friends, of which A Taste of Honey is certainly a major one. It was originally written as a play that was first staged in 1958; this was adapted into a film and released in 1961.
I first saw it about five years ago, and found it very depressing. I know that kitchen sink dramas of the time were meant to be gritty and real, and dealt with the ordinary events of everyday life; but this film felt, to me, at odds to that. The story is simple enough:
A selfish forty year old woman does a ‘moonlight flit’ with her awkward seventeen year old daughter named Jo. We learn that Helen, the mother, has had a string of boyfriends and regularly leaves Jo on her own. Helen has a younger boyfriend named Peter, he and Jo do not take to each other at all. Jo meets a black sailor, Jimmy, and while her mother and Peter get married and leave her on her own again, she finds comfort in Jimmy’s arms. Jimmy buys Jo a ring from Woolworths and asks her to marry him, but explains that he’ll be away from six months or more.
Jo leaves school, gets a job in a shoe shop and rents a large flat. She befriends a young gay man named Geoffrey, and the pair soon become best friends and Geoff moves in with Jo. Jo tells Geoff that she is pregnant, and Geoff tries to kiss her and asks her to marry him. Geoff and Jo form a kind of parental unit until Helen arrives back on the scene, at Geoff’s request that she come and see her daughter. Helen then pushes Geoff away and out of Jo’s life.
It’s beautifully shot, and there are loads of beautiful framed scenes and great dialogue… but I can’t agree with other reviewers who have called it a comedy, or that it leaves them feeling hopeful. There is only the tiniest amount of hope in the story, that Jo will not turn out like her mother, and that her mixed race baby will have a better life than she had – but there is an equal chance that (without Geoff’s influence) the whole cycle will begin again. The taste of honey of the title is exactly that, just a tiny taste; a few brief months of happiness and tenderness. While Geoffrey lives with Jo and ‘takes her in hand’, that is the first time she's had a family member that she can depend on. Geoff is a mixture of friend, father and mother; Jo herself is unsure of his role and calls him ‘big sister’.
There are two very defined mother figures in the film, and two father figures. Helen and Jo are two very different mothers; one is at the end of her journey as a mother, her daughter is now becoming a mother herself. Helen does not want to be a grandmother, any more than she wanted to be a mother. Peter is a terrible father-figure, and Jo does not know how to behave with him as she has never experienced a father figure. Helen still chooses Peter over her daughter, and only returns to Jo when Peter has kicked her out and gone off with a new woman. The other father figure is Geoff himself - a caring man who wants to be a good father. When Jo asks him "Do you want to be the father of my baby, Geoff?" the way he answers 'yes' is heart-breakingly poignant.
The film is important as it was the first time a gay character was portrayed as the good guy, and not given an unhappy ending as was the norm (e.g. The Leather Boys, 1964) at the time. Of the main characters, Geoff is the most well-rounded. He is artistic and creative, nurturing and fatherly, and desperate to have what heterosexual people have: a partner, a home, a family. His devotion to Jo transcends friendship; I think it represents his strong paternal instinct, to both Jo and her unborn baby. Fathers in the 60s did not bake cakes or clean the house, that was seen as the mother's role; Geoff is portrayed as being a mother-figure through his baking and cleaning. Looking back we can see how sexist this is, fathers are now not only expected to perform those tasks, they are permitted to enjoy them!
Geoff is the only likeable character in the film, and for that I salute Shelagh Delaney. I wish Geoffrey Ingham lived in the 21st Century, he’s the kind of gay man I aspire to be.