Friday, 22 April 2016

A Taste Of Honey - Shelagh Delaney


There's a wonderful clip up on YouTube from 1959 of Shelagh Delaney being interviewed by a reporter on the ITN News and it shows just what Shelagh was up against in those days and how she dealt with it with a naturalness that was totally charming.
It's essentially a clip of class war being waged, with the aggressor being the reporter but Shelagh being the one who wins hands-down on all levels. The reporter, talking with a huge plum in the mouth, is accusatory, condescending and belittling; as stiff as a board and sounding almost like a caricature of a public school-educated got-it-all.
Live and let live I say because the reporter in the clip can't help where he was born and how he talks, just as I can't help where I was born and my Bristolian accent but I do wonder if people like him go home to their loved ones and talk in the same manner to them? I can't see how they wouldn't and it makes me a little sorry for them in their frightening, uptight, pent up, living hell lives. No wonder they're so full of hate for 'the lower orders' when they see that even when living in slum estates with no money and no opportunities, a working class life is still better than theirs.

Shelagh Delaney was born and raised in Salford and though she was entered into a local grammar school at the age of 15, her future - just like everyone else's from her working class community - was hardly bright. There were no chances in life for her to rise above her station. She herself described it once as like being 'tethered', like horses to posts. Shelagh, however, had a flair for writing and at the age of 19 she wrote a script for a stage play and sent a copy of it to theatre director Joan Littlewood. The play was staged at Littlewood's fringe theatre, the Theatre Royal, in Stratford, London and was an immediate if not controversial success.

A Taste Of Honey features just 5 cast members, all of them being working class characters. It's the story of a seventeen year-old girl called Jo living with her mother in a squalid rented flat in Salford. Jo's mother, Helen, is feckless and apparently out only for a good time with any man with a bit of money she might encounter. Jo and her mother's relationship is based entirely upon insulting each other which in the play leads to some sparkling displays of dialogue. Jo can't wait to leave school and get herself a job so she may be able to afford a place of her own, whilst her mother can't wait to bag any man with the means to help get her out of her impoverished position.
Jo's mother meets such a man in the form of 'brash car salesman' Peter but Jo can see through him immediately and knows he's just a womaniser only interested in her mother for one thing. Peter views Jo as merely an in-the-way nuisance.
Her mother and Peter go away to Blackpool for a week leaving Jo alone in the flat. Jo, however, has met a boy, a young black sailor from Cardiff who promises to return after his six months at sea to marry her.
Jo becomes pregnant; the boy never returns from sea and Jo takes up living in a new flat where she's cared for by a homosexual art school graduate by the name of Geoffrey Ingram. In the meantime, her mother has gone on to marry Peter though when the marriage fails she returns to Jo under the pretext of coming back to care for her whilst she has the baby. Geoffrey is ousted from the flat by Jo's mother and life looks as though it's going to return to how it once was - only with the addition of a black baby.

Up until the staging of A Taste Of Honey, such characters had never before been depicted in a theatre production. A good many critics hated it but others such as Graham Greene and Kenneth Tynan praised it to the skies though more importantly - to Shelagh in particular - it was appreciated by ordinary people from working class communities such as cleaners and bricklayers.
As we know, the play was made into a film starring Rita Tushingham as Jo and Murray Melvin as Geoffrey, and is now viewed as a classic of British 1960s cinema. I remember watching the film once with my Mum when I was just a little boy and both of us very much enjoying it though at such a young age, I wouldn't have really understood what it was about.

On reading the book of the stage play now, I see that one of the major themes of the story is 'escape' - as opposed to 'escapism'.
Jo is trying to escape from her dysfunctional home life. Her mother, Helen, is trying to escape from her circumstances, whether that be social or economic or from her responsibility as a parent. Peter is trying to escape to a better life through marriage and owning a house in a better area. The sailor boy is escaping his life as a black man in Cardiff. And Geoffrey is trying to escape his homosexuality by living with a pregnant girl and taking on the role of surrogate husband.
Come the end, however, they all go back to the life and the circumstances they were trying to escape. They all, in a way, return home.

Any critic worth their salt back in 1959 should have been able to recognise the dialogue employed by Shelagh in A Taste Of Honey was far better than anything else in any other play at that time - and that it was all just typical working class language. It would have told them that the language of the uneducated and uncultured was more interesting, more expressive and more vital than the language of the so-called educated and cultured.
They should also have been able to recognise the themes underlying the play such as the one that I pick up on now - 'escape' - and recognised Sheila's play had depth and meaning. All emanating from an uneducated, working class teenager in the north of England. And to cap it all, in those days when a woman's place was still felt by many to be in the kitchen, it was from a girl as well.
No wonder they hated it.

Over the years, Shelagh Delaney and her play A Taste Of Honey has gone on to influence and inspire a huge number of artists and writers, especially those from a similar background as her. Famously, she was a major influence upon Morrissey who not only used lines from the play such as 'I dreamt about you last night, fell out of bed twice,' (in Reel Around The Fountain) but also put Shelagh's picture on two of The Smiths' records (Louder Than Bombs, and Girlfriend In A Coma).
One of my favourite pieces of sampling appears at the start of Never Gave Up by Chumbawamba and lo and behold, it's taken from the film of the play:
'Geof: You're just feeling a bit depressed, that's all. You'll be your usual self once you get used to the idea.
Jo: And what is my usual self? My usual self is a very unusual self, and don't you forget that, Geoffrey Ingram. I'm an extraordinary person. There's only one of me like there's only one of you.
Geof: We're unique!
Jo: Young!
Geof: Unrivalled!
Jo: Smashing!
Geof: We're bloody marvellous!'

At one point in the play, Jo starts singing a song and it's In The Pines, sung years later by (among other people) Nirvana at their MTV Un-plugged session: 'Don't you lie to me, where did you stay last night? In the pines, in the pines where the sun never shines, I shivered the whole night through.'
There's a line as spoken by Helen in there that could so easily be classic John Cooper Clarke: 'The only consolation I can find in your immediate presence is your ultimate absence.' And then there's other lines such as 'I'm not frightened of the darkness outside. It's the darkness inside houses I don't like,' that would make other writers humble.

A Taste Of Honey was like a mini-earthquake causing the tectonic plates of British culture to shift ever so slightly, leading if not to the destruction of the old order then to some structural damage being caused. It was an unselfconscious blow against established mores and conventions, opening up to the disempowered a window to empowerment that had hitherto been firmly held shut. Shelagh Delaney is (or should be?) a national heroine. I know her native Salford nowadays recognises and acknowledges this fact and now so too - at the other end of the country - does someone down in Exmouth.
John Serpico

Shelagh, take a bow

1 comment:

  1. I love this post, John. That TV clip is wonderful; as you say, she's so natural and real, unlike her interviewer.