Tony Richardson (1928–1991), like Karel Reisz and Lindsay Anderson, came out the British Realist school of directors. With the great commercial success of Tom Jones in 1963, however, he moved on to a varied, multinational career. He also did a great deal of work in the theater, both in London and America, and Andrew Sarris suggests that Richardson’s stage direction is superior to his movies. I think it would be hard to make a case for Richardson’s films being either stylistically or thematically consistent.
In spite of the acclaim for Tom Jones, I would suggest that Richardson had already reached his peak with A Taste of Honey and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Richardson had an inclination, if not a gift, for adapting literary works. Ultimately, he would use novels, not by just Henry Fielding, but Evelyn Waugh, Jean Genet, Marguerite Dumas, and Vladimir Nabokov, and countless plays ranging from Shakespeare to Richardson’s contemporaries. A Taste of Honey, his collaboration with Shelagh Delaney on the adaptation of her play, is both very funny and poignant, although I personally could do without the recurring infestation of a singing chorus of neighborhood children. (Richardson had originally directed it on the stage.)
There is some sense in A Taste of Honey that Richardson is not oblivious to the visual qualities of cinema. He was aided in this by the superb cinematographer Walter Lassally, who photographed all three of the above-mentioned films for Richardson, and won an Oscar for Zorba the Greek. Like other British Realists of the period, Richardson’s film captures a contemporary grunginess that wouldn’t be dispelled until Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964). The brightly flickering sparkler at the film’s climax has perhaps taken on a symbolic value, in that Rita Tushingham won the British Academy Award for her performance in this, her debut role. (Both Tushingham and costar Murray Melvin won awards at the Cannes Film Festival.) Subsequently, this early success was, in spite of parts for Lester and David Lean, not a harbinger of great things. Similarly, Murray Melvin, over the course of a long career, has never quite had a role as good as that offered by A Taste of Honey. As it turns out, Richardson was bisexual (he died of AIDS), and one can only speculate on how this translated itself into the extremely (and, at the time, very rare) sympathetic treatment of Melvin’s gay character. On the whole, Richardson and Delaney seem to poke gentle fun at sexism, racism, and stereotypes.
It seems to me that there’s a taste of Francois Truffaut in A Taste of Honey, which is not untypical of British films of the period. The Brits were conscious of the international success of the French New Wave (Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, etc.), mostly black-and-white films made on low budgets and on location with young actors not yet known. There is some parallel, I think, between Tushingham’s dilemma and that of Jean-Pierre Leaud in The 400 Blows, both estranged from parental figures and their values. Although the slightly younger Leaud was not impregnated (by a black man, no less), he was deemed and determined to be antisocial. Both British and French society were adjusting to and struggling with the postwar, post-colonial world, and the cinema held up a mirror. This youthful rebellion would be bought fully out of the closet a few years later by the Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night.