Subverse Britannia II: A Taste of Honey

This Sunday, Dr. David Forrest will be discussing the 1961 film A Taste Of Honey at the Showroom in Sheffield. Here are some of his thoughts on the film.


a-taste-of-honeyThe British New Wave cycle has been repeatedly criticised for an apparent tendency to poeticise and over-romanticize its working-class subjects. Certainly the reflective, lyrical and politically ambiguous style of the New Wave was in stark contrast with the films of Ken Loach, who would begin his directing career just four years after the release of Taste of Honey. Critics are right, though, to suggest that the films were overly preoccupied with masculinity, and that is perhaps why A Taste of Honey still feels relevant: its focus on a female character distinguishes the film, not least because Jo (Rita Tushingham) rejects completely the easy categorisation associated both with her gender and her social class. Like other (male) New Wave protagonists Jo is ambiguous, complex, intelligent and avowedly alternative in her world view: simply, quite different from the rest, in a challenge to hitherto uniform and collective representations of the working classes. That these oppositional qualities come together in an awkward, offbeat schoolgirl only heightens their radicalism: the possibilities for easy sociological analysis of Jo’s character and predicament are rejected precisely because of the character (and the film’s) resistance to narrative and, by extension, social conventions.

taste_of_honeyThe film is also notable for its exploration of an ‘underclass’ (rather than working-class) milieu. Unlike other examples of so-called working-class realism, the industrial work place is not foregrounded within the film’s narrative. Jo and her mother live absolutely at the economic and social margins, perpetually flitting between lodgings to the extent that the beginnings of Jo’s economic independence (acquiring a job at a shoe shop and crafting her own home with her friend, Geoffrey [Murray Melvin]) take on all the more power because these acts of agency and autonomy contrast so sharply with her mother’s own path.

This recognition of the existence of an underclass space of worklessness adds substance to the film’s deeply poetic treatment of space. The lyrically foregrounded Salford landscape seems to work as both a concrete manifestation of Jo’s own confused and disturbed coming of age story and, more broadly, as an elegiac document of a changing Britain. While not entirely hopeless, the spaces at the edge of the city that so dominate the film offer a window into an increasingly fragmented age of economic and social insecurity and uncertainty. In this way, A Taste of Honey is perhaps the formative moment in an unofficial cycle of British cinematic narratives which concern young, emotionally conflicted, lonely protagonists moving through evocative and politically charged industrial and, latterly, post-industrial landscapes: Jo can be seen in the same light as Kes’s Billy Casper (David Bradley), This is England’s Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) and Fish Tank’s Mia (Kate Jarvis). They are marginalised young people attempt to find meaning and a sense of identity in conflicted, liminal landscapes and spaces; not growing up, but making do.

––Dr. David Forrest


A Taste Of Honey is the first film in the Subverse Brittania collaboration between Dr. David Forrest, Dr. Matthew Cheeseman and Paul Bareham. The films are on the 10, 17 & 24 November and describe an arc through 1960s film: from the kitchen sink (A Taste of Honey) through the snappy, swinging style of the mid-sixties (The Knack …and How to Get It) to the jaded realisation that success and fame lead to loss (Charlie Bubbles). As with the first series of Subverse Brittania, the films have been selected to explore the shared ground between social realism and fantasy. Not only do they describe trends in British filmmaking, they also describe British society in the 1960s.
Each screening is introduced and then followed by a discussion. The course is interdisciplinary, constructed by three curators with different interests. As such, the material is exploratory: it does not seek to teach established film studies themes, but to suggest new alignments and readings. The input of those attending will be essential. And after the last session, we’ll stop trying to think about desire and submit to a night of hip, esoteric British music in the Showroom Bar, all released between the dates of the films, 1961–1967.
Tickets and more information: 

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