Tony Richardson’s A Taste of Honey makes its North American disc debut through the Criterion Collection, who present it on Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 on a dual-layer disc. The brand new 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation comes from a new 4K restoration of the film, scanned from the original negative.
Another stunner from Criterion, this black-and-white presentation is near flawless. The restoration work itself is superb, obliterating just about every scratch and fleck, leaving a near-pristine image: the only short comings remaining are a handful of transitions between scenes which are a little rough, and then some noticeable fluctuations in the print.
The transfer itself is really sharp, though, presenting wonderful clarity and depth. I didn’t spot any digital anomalies and the image remains natural and filmic. Grain is fairly fine most of the time, getting heavier in a handful of shots (in one of the features director of photography Walter Lassally mentions he used different film stocks), but it never comes off blocky or pixilated: it looks clean and natural. Contrast levels look accurate, delivering fairly deep blacks and strong whites without any blooming, while gray tones in between blend perfectly. Shadows look great and I felt details adequately showed through them.
It’s a spot on presentation, a wonderful surprise to say the least. Even though I was already expecting it to look very good it exceeded my expectations. An excellent job. 9/10
All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.
Criterion’s rather loaded special edition first starts with a short 21-minute documentary directed by Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz, Momma Don’t Allow. The notes mention the film is part of the Free Cinema Movement, which focused on the day-to-day of the working class. Taking a fly-on-the-wall approach, it captures a few groups of people from a dental technician and her boyfriend to a late-arriving group of people. There’s no dialogue to guide us, just the music of the jazz band playing, but there is narrative (if loose) to be found and it’s a decent slice-o-life segment.
Criterion then digs up an audio interview between critic Gideon Bachmann and director Tony Richardson, recorded at Cannes in 1962. Playing over general photos and clips from the film, the two talk about his theater work and then the move to filmmaking and the Free Cinema Movement, with A Taste of Honey receiving special attention (it was just released after all). Richardson talks about adapting the film to screen, allowing him to expand the film from indoors to outdoors (showing the industrial landscape) and he also touches on the films he was currently working on: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Tom Jones. Though it’s covered to an extent in other areas, listening to Richardson in particular talk about finding the style to make the story less theatrical (less like a stage play) proves to be most beneficial.
Criterion then provides a couple of wonderful interviews with the film’s stars, Rita Tushingham and Murray Melvin, each presented in their own 18-minute feature. They’re both absolutely wonderful interviews, though I admittedly found Melvin’s the more captivating. Tushingham (who I found to be a bit of a riot here) talks mostly about the film, getting the role of the lead (her first role) and recounts the experience of her first film and how it compares to her later work.
Her interview offers a great recollection of the production but Melvin, on the other hand, comes from the theater and gives more details about the original performance of the play at Theatre Royal (where he played the same role) and talks about the adaptation to the screen. What proves more fascinating, though, is his sharing of his personal experience as a gay man working in theater (even if as an errand boy of sorts to begin with) and then playing a gay character at a time when being a homosexual could land you in prison. Censorship also made it hard to have a homosexual character in a play, though there were ways to skirt around it (and another feature on this disc explains how A Taste of Honey got around the issue). The role of course meant a lot to him as it broke a barrier and he proudly proclaims that he “was gay pride of 1958.” Both interviews are terrific but Melvin’s also provides a historical snapshot of sorts that I think proves to be most invaluable.
Next is an oddly constructed feature passed off as a video essay on director of photography Walter Lassally. It first opens with an introduction of sorts, giving a back story to Lassally’s career, and then becomes something of an audio commentary as Lassally—who is obviously watching the film—talks over scenes from the film covering the technical aspects of shooting it. This conversation includes everything from the types of film stock used (he wanted different stocks for different looks from scene to scene) to how to create a perfect silhouette in one sequence (where he requests the film to paused so he can explain) and then handheld camera work. It’s a very technical discussion where the man even gets into an incredible amount of detail about developing the film, but it’s undeniably fascinating and jam packed full of information despite a rather short 21-minute runtime. I’m actually not sure where this feature comes from, though: it was created in 1998 so I assume it was made for another DVD release or even a LaserDisc but couldn’t find a DVD with a similar feature and the only LaserDisc I could find information on was a Japanese edition. Wherever it came from it’s a really solid piece and I’m impressed Criterion was able to dig it up.
Offering more insights into the play itself Criterion next offers an interview with theater scholar Kate Dorney under Remaking British Theater. Dorney talks about the boost in “working class” plays that followed the war, with a particular focus on Look Back in Anger and A Taste of Honey, while also looking at the careers of the writer and producer of the latter play, Shelagh Delaney and Joan Littlewood, respectively. She also talks about the controversies that surrounded A Taste of Honey and how the play was able to get past the censors, which allows her to expand in great detail how censorship at the time was handled. She explains how all scripts would have to go through the Lord Chamberlain and be approved before going to stage, and it was illegal to change the text after that (so anything else had to be added visually). To show how “progressive” (this is said sarcastically) the institution was at the time, Dorney reads why A Taste of Honey was allowed to feature an obviously homosexual character (it was because the character was “ashamed” of his “perversion”). Scattered about the features we get details about the play and British theater of the time period but this one nicely rounds up everything and again proves to be a fascinating history lesson.
We then get another feature from the archives, an interview with playwright Shelagh Delaney on an episode of Close-Up from 1960. With a focus on A Taste of Honey (which I believe would have been her only play at the time) Delaney talks about her writing, her aversion to making political statements in her work (though others obviously read things politically from her play, which surprises her), dealing with the language in her plays, her opinion of the theatre scene, and some amazing moments that have come from her success, like meeting Graham Greene. She does well though she is obviously shy (this is mentioned in Tushingham’s interview as well) and not sure about the situation. It’s a good interview but unfortunately the sound quality isn’t too hot, so you really have to pay attention to pick up what Delaney is saying (it would be nice, once in a while, if Criterion could include optional subtitles for their English language supplements). The interview runs 15-minutes.
The release closes with an insert featuring an essay by Colin MacCabe about the film and the Free Cinema Movement, as well as the “angry young man” genre that came about during the 50s and 60s, and the careers of director Richardson and the actors following the film. It’s a great read but the fold-out is rather large making it a bit awkward to read as you fold it out page by page (I understand it’s a cost saving measure but I do miss the booklets).
This is certainly an impressive set of material Criterion has put together. It enthrallingly explores the British theater scene of the time, the rise of the working class, “angry young man” stories in both theater and film, while also offering a wonderful look at the film’s production and the process of adapting a play of this sort to the screen. It might not look like a lot of material but it’s an impressive special edition. 9/10