Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Teen spirit: Shelagh Delaney, restlessness and Angry Young Women

There is a great documentary about the writer Shelagh Delaney in which she comes across as a remarkably poised, articulate, self-confident young woman, with forthcoming opinions on everything from housing and town planning to the education system. Ken Russell filmed the short documentary Shelagh Delaney’s Salford in 1960, just short of Delaney’s 21st birthday — and two years after her debut play, A Taste of Honey, a bleakly comic look at life in mid-century Manchester and Salford, debuted.

Now seen as a classic of twentieth century drama, in 1961 A Taste of Honey* was adopted into the British new wave cinema movement when it was adapted for the big screen by Tony Richardson. Unlike those films, though, filled with the frustrated, brooding males of the so-called angry young man generation who were trapped in sooty northern towns and struggling against the life awaiting them — following their fathers into the local factory or, if they were lucky finding work an office and settling eventually into marriage and domesticity — it’s unusual in featuring a female protagonist, the sharp witted Jo, played with huge, bright, steady eyes by Rita Tushingham. We see Jo trying to transcend her circumstances and avoid repeating the mistakes of her 'semi-whore' mother Helen (entering into relationships with unsuitable men and moving round a series of substandard dwellings). After she follows in her mother's footsteps by falling pregnant, though, Jo doesn’t dare “plan big plans or dream big dreams for this baby”, because she fears she can predict her child’s future already, foretold by the pattern of her mother, who also got pregnant her first time and ended up raising the baby alone.

A Taste of Honey is full of sexual desire but, unlike other young women in films of the period, who generally play secondary roles and are presented as often hesitant partners to male sexual urges, Jo stands out as being curious and inquisitive about her own sexuality. Despite fantasising about marriage and later inventing a fairytale about her 'Prince Ossini', she knows that she may never see Jimmie, the black sailor passing through the city to whom she loses her virginity, again, but is eager to live in the moment and explore her sexuality.

In Ken Russell’s portrait, you get the impression that the young people of Delaney’s generation were keen for a new, better way of living and finding their own way in life rather than that which was expected of them. The films of the new wave showed a Britain on the verge of great transition — moral, social and cultural — touching on uncomfortable and then risqué topics around sexual desire, homosexuality, adultery, prostitution, illegitimacy, abortion, domestic violence, misogyny, race and class relations, as well as environmental changes — whole areas of cities were being rebuilt to clear lingering Victorian slums and fill the gaps left by war-time bomb sites.

This new urban environment is explicitly mentioned in Shelagh Delaney’s Salford. Delaney takes Russell's camera on a tour of a Salford that is, in some ways, dying, crumbling and full of the old — derelict churches and abandoned pubs — yet in other ways very full of life — its markets, docks and children. Films from the period, such as those of the Free Cinema movement from which the British new wave was born, are full of and celebrate the young, showing children at play both in the street and their playground rituals. They are the future, it is implied, and they are going to grow up in a different world.

Although A Taste of Honey shows a traditional, densely populated working class area of crammed rooftops, Delaney speaks from her modern family home and describes how her own family were moved out to a new estate. She raises concerns about the time it takes to build communities in new estates, as well as the provision of amenities such as theatres, and suggests this transition in ways of living has led to an overriding sense of 'restlessness' in the city. This restlessness permeates her plays, she admits, and is especially evident amongst the young. As she explains: “Children [young people] want to go somewhere…they’re tethered and they’re jerking about waiting for someone to cut the tether saying let me go.” She describes a generation who are lost and ‘don’t know what to do’, explaining “they stay where they are and come to a compromise or they fight it or try to get away." She admits: “When I was 17 I was in a terrible mess. I didn't know what to do. I knew I wanted to do something but what? I thought I could write but so many aren't lucky.” In A Taste of Honey, Jo,who is on the cusp of leaving school and entering the adult world of work, clearly wants to make her mark on the world and be noticed (as her mother remarks, upon discovering self-portraits by Jo, "I suppose you've got to draw yourself — nobody else would.").

Delaney identified three distinct generations in her plays — the young, the middle aged and the old. A Taste of Honey is built around the tension between Jo and her mother, Helen, played in the film by Dora Bryan, who live on top of each other — not for Jo the luxury of a room, or even a bed, of her own, in which to develop her independence. Together, however they comprise a great (tragi)comic double act. One of the best moments in Tony Richardson's film is a hilarious bath time exchange between the generations, who don't, or pretend not to, understand each other:

“I hope to be dead and buried by the time I reach your age. What use can a woman of your age be to anybody? Just think, you’ve been living for nearly forty years.”

“Oooh I know, I must be a biological phenomenon.”

“You don’t look forty — you look more of a well-preserved sixty.”

Six years after A Taste of Honey was released, another new wave director, Lindsay Anderson, had a go at another of Delaney’s works, a short story entitled The White Bus, which again centres around a restless young woman. The film starts by showing the central character at her dull typist’s job, where she daydreams about hanging herself, before she escapes to Manchester on a train. Whilst wandering through a deserted cityscape of rubble and past a part-demolished church, a white bus drives past with the words 'See your city' on its side. She then embarks on a surreal bus tour around Manchester and Salford with a disparate cross-section of society — old, young, ethnic minorities, old-fashioned dignitaries such as the mayor — which shows the old — vast, vacant plots of rubble — being replaced by the new — high rise blocks of flats on stilts in areas like Kersal, with a celebratory voice over about how tower block living will solve social ills (like the slums whose residents they rehoused, however, these 1960s housing solutions are now, too, long gone). The bus visits the sights of Manchester, from fiery industry to municipal facilities such as the museum, art gallery, central library and a park. It flits in and out of colour like a dream, to a soundtrack of wonky fairground-style music. Towards the end, after watching an uncomfortably realistic bomb raid reennactment, the other bus passengers turn into mannequins — could it all have been an elaborate fantasy, an escape from real life?

Shelagh Delaney’s Salford is all about finding romance and escape where you can — at the side of canals or by the frothy, scummy river ‘if you can stand the smell’, on vast ships moored on the ship canal, in the cover of darkness provided by hulking railway arches, on the hills overlooking the city and in the black caves below, even in cheap rings from Woolworth's. Tony Richardson turned Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey script into a very beautiful film, with moments of humour, hope, love, friendship and even exuberance, with a protagonist who is by turns vulnerable and full of bravado (at one stage she declares "I'm not just talented — I'm geniused".). In an exchange with Jo’s best friend Geof (played by Murray Melvin), a homosexual artist who, ironically provides the only real role model and steady presence in Jo’s life, and enters a relationship with Jo that is almost like that of an overfamiliar, long-suffering married couple, Jo announces “my usual self is a very unusual self. I’m an extraordinary person” and the two proclaim whilst skipping through the bleak cityscape:

“We’re unique!”
“We’re bloody marvellous!”

Delaney’s words live on in popular culture and continue to resonate with young people today — in the bedrooms of lonely teenagers, at alternative discos, in guitar tabs pored over by hopeful musicians — thanks to being immortalised by one frustrated young man who did go on to find fame and fortune and his own route out of the city. Morrissey claimed his career was at least 50 per cent inspired by the writing of Shelagh Delaney and borrowed, amongst many other references, the line ‘I dreamt about you last night and I fell out of bed twice’ for the Smiths song Reel Around the Fountain**. In 2008, the Royal Exchange Theatre reinvented A Taste of Honey for the twenty first century, set to pop music — Northern Soul, the Smiths, the Happy Mondays and Oasis, going right up to the Ting Tings. The story has stood the test of time because it's full of a teenage spirit, born of a desire to find your niche in the world, that is universal.

*A Taste of Honey is my favourite ever film.

** My favourite Smiths song even before I knew of the Shelagh Delaney connotations, from the debut album (when the Smiths were at their best, in my opinion).

The White Bus
film isn't widely available but can be purchased on ebay for £5, and is well worth it.


morag said...

a taste of honey is my favourite ever film too, it had such an impact on me when we studied the play at school, i was just thinking the other day how it may subconsciously have influenced my love of manchester. thanks for writing about it, if i can find it i'll send you a zine article i wrote about delaney (the lrm logo is called sheelagh in her honour) x

The Shrieking Violet said...

Yes please to zine article! I really want to read more of her writing, but it doesn't seem to be very easily available apart from A Taste of Honey! x

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