I just had a chance to watch A Taste of Honey, which I had recorded back in April when Gloria Steinem was the TCM Guest Programmer. I didn't realize until I checked to see if it was available on DVD so I could do a full-length post on the movie that the movie was in fact just restored and received a Criterion Collection release within the past week. So yes, it's going to be pricey. But it had better look better than the print that TCM ran, which looked jumpy.
Rita Tushingham stars as Jo, an adolescent close to school-leaving age who lives in the lower-class section of one of those old English industrial cities in the days when the cities still had heavy industry; think the promotional video of Sheffield that kicks off The Full Monty as an example. (The movie was filmed in Manchester, although I don't think they actually mention the name of the city anywhere with the exception of one boat with Manchester in the name.) Jo's mother Helen had her out of wedlock, and is making a living, such as it is, by sleeping with men, moving from one grimy room to let to another since she's always behind on the rent. At least she has her eyes on a more stable man, Peter (Robert Stephens), however.
Jo and Helen have to move house right at the beginning of the movie, and as they do, they meet a black man Jimmy (Paul Danquah) who helps Jo with some of the luggage. Jimmy is a sailor, and Jo runs into him again, at which point she begins to fall in love with him as she's never been with a man before and what else is there for her to do in life. Jimmy presumably hasn't been with a woman for a while, what with all that time on the boat. They don't get to spend all that long together, though, since the boat is eventually going to sail.
Helen, meanwhile, decides to marry Peter, leaving Jo with the dilemma of what to do with her life. Fortunately she's gotten herself a job in a shoe shop, and is able to get a room of her own, even being able to pay for it in advance. She can't stand Peter, and the feeling is mutual. There's one big problem, though. Jimmy got her pregnant, so it's not as though that place is just going to be hers alone after nine months or so. Thankfully for her, she's about to get a bit of help. One day at the shoe store, she sold a pair of shoes to Geoffrey (Murray Melvin). The two run into each other at a parade and spend a day together, with Geoffrey winding up at Jo's place. The thing is, he doesn't have a place to go back to. Much as Helen's landlords would throw her out for having gentleman visitors, Geoffrey's landlord threw him out for having a gentleman visitor. Yes, this means that Geoffrey is gay.
Still, he decides to live with Jo, and even help her through the pregnancy. He's even willing to marry her since the baby needs a father; this even though there's only a friendship and no love. Jo, all the while, has no idea what to do with her life. And then Helen shows up, having been dumped by Peter. She's willing to help her daughter through that pregnancy, but there's the question of what Geoffrey is going to do. Helen doesn't much care for Geoffrey.
I have to admit that the plot of A Taste of Honey is something I didn't find terribly gripping, and the story just seemed to end suddenly as though the writers had no more ideas. But I'd still recommend the movie. That's partly down to the strong performances. These are a bunch of people who have screwed up their lives pretty badly, and are trying to make their way through life as best they can. The actors generally pull it off.
But there's another reason to watch the movie, which is because of its place in the cycle of "kitchen sink" movies that were made in the UK in the early 1960s. Director Tony Richardson uses the lower-class parts of Manchester to excellent effect, at he very adeptly shows the tough conditions not only in the characters' apartments, but that the city as a whole seems to be going through. I don't think any of the Hollywood studios could have come up with the American equivalent of this on their backlots. Even something like On the Waterfront, which was filmed largely on location in Hoboken, New Jersey, doesn't look this inglamorous. It wouldn't be until the 70s that Hollywood started to get to this level.