“THERE’S a lovely tenderness about this photograph. You can see Paul Danquah and I about to have our first kiss in A Taste Of Honey where I play teenager Jo with Paul as Jimmy, a sailor on leave. He meets me outside my school where he shows me a ring he’s bought, and then puts it through a ribbon I use to tie my hair and puts it around my neck. We walk to the top of a flight of steps where we kiss. With Jimmy, she experiences love for the first time. Not physical love; it’s the love she never had from Helen, her mother (Dora Bryan) who was always looking for her next fancy man, and a father she never knew.
Her mother feels that her 16-year-old daughter can look after herself. It’s harsh. There is a little love from her mother, but it’s a very dysfunctional relationship and they were always doing a moonlight flit from place to place before she met Jimmy. That kiss was perfectly normal – like everyday life and I never thought any more about it. However, this was the first interracial kiss on screen in a film that dealt with so many issues from race to teenage pregnancy, poverty and homelessness. These themes are as relevant today as they were then.
This photograph also reminds me of Paul, with whom I became great friends, and who is godfather to my daughter Dodonna. Paul was a prince in his native Ghana, where he was revered, and his father was the leader of the opposition. We were dining at Fortnum & Mason in Piccadilly one day when Paul asked this young waitress who was serving us where she was from. She too was from Ghana and when she discovered who Paul was she fell to her feet and kissed his hand. Paul was so warm, gracious and friendly towards everyone he met and he introduced me to London and to many people, like artist Francis Bacon who had a studio in Paul’s flat. He died in 2015 and I miss him terribly.
I was only 18 when I made A Taste Of Honey in the city of Salford, where writer, Shelagh Delaney set it. She was about 19 when she wrote the play based on her experiences of life and what she observed in her community. I’d been working backstage at Liverpool Rep and doing a few small parts there when I saw an advert in The Daily Express for an unknown to play Jo. The money men wanted Audrey Hepburn for the lead but after seeing over 2,000 hopefuls director Tony Richardson offered me the role. In this business, you need to be in the right place at the right time, have luck and the courage to do the job.
The film won a raft of awards and it led to everything that followed for me, including The Girl With Green Eyes and The Knack – both for Woodfall Films. This film is like your first love affair: it is one of the most important I made and it was my introduction to the big screen. Without it I may never have been in films.
Two years ago, I was invited by The British Film Institute to a screening of A Taste Of Honey followed by a Q&A with a group of 14 to 17-year-old schoolchildren. I thought, ‘My goodness,’ because they won’t want to ask me any questions. How wrong I was. They were amazing. Most had never seen a black and white film before and while they didn’t know this film they were all taken in by the story. They loved the way it unfolded and were very moved by it. They were touched by the predicaments Jo and the characters found themselves in. The message still comes across and resonates today.
I can understand why this film means so much to so many people nearly 60 years later and it’s easy to know why: all Jo ever wanted was to be loved and cared for, which is something we all want.”
Rita supports The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity. Visit royalmarsden.org.