Breaking Barriers: Murray Melvin on A Taste of Honey

Actor Murray Melvin talks about how he went from being the tea boy at Theatre Royal Stratford East to playing the role of Geof in the original production of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey in 1958, and later in the film directed by Tony Richardson. He sheds light on the challenges of playing a gay character at a time when homosexuality was illegal, and the collaborative process of bringing the play to the stage under the directorship of Joan Littlewood.

Interview with Murray Melvin is courtesy of The Criterion Collection. Available on DVD https://www.criterion.com

Subtitled by Stagetext www.stagetext.org

MURRAY MELVIN

The part originally, as you know, was quite unique.

Looking back, in retrospect, I think how daring I was... [CHUCKLING] … to actually go out in front of the public and perform that.

And so the same feeling with the film. I was very wary of what the reaction would be. But, of course, it's always been wonderful.

And as I've got older, I'm still amazed when somebody young – which to me is anybody under 30! – somebody young comes up and says, “Oh, you played that boy in A Taste Of Honey." And I say, “Yeah, yeah." And they say, “Thank you." I say, “What for?" They say, “Because, you see, when I saw that, you changed my life. You made it possible for me." And I am truly humbled.

Morning, Joan.

The Theatre Royal at Stratford East is in the east side of London. I joined the Theatre Royal as an ASM as a student in 1957. And I was... I made the tea. In England, we call it a dogsbody. You did all the jobs. You made the tea, you swept the floor, you swept the stage, you painted, you washed, you did everything.

We are filming now in what was Joan's office. And at the time, the theatre was in a terrible state, but it was the only thing the company could afford. The rent was very cheap because the rain was coming through the roof and it was very dirty and there was no maintenance.

In the end of 1957, just here, that was Joan's office, I sat on the floor, having made the tea for the company, and we read the first draft of A Taste Of Honey.

Literally, on that floor just in front of me!

So the memories are extraordinary.

Whenever Joan Littlewood did a first reading of a play, she always invited lots of members of her company.

And everyone read a portion of a part.

And also, men read women's parts and the women read a man's part.

It's incredible what a different nuance you get... [CHUCKLES] ...with the sexes changing.

The attitudes change. It's wonderful for an actor.

And so, the company read everything. I didn't.

I was the tea boy and I was just called upon to make the tea whenever it was called for.

And then, when I was washing up the tea cups, and getting the next kettle boiling for the next lot of tea, she came and started drying up the mugs.

Which was very unusual.

And she asked me what I thought of the boy in the play.

I said, “Oh, he drives me mad."

“Oh?" she said. “Does he?"

I said, “Yes! What's wrong with him?"

I said, “Why doesn't he do something?

“Just taking all those insults from that dreadful mother!"

And she looked at me and said, “Oh, you don't like him, then?"

I said, “No, I don't! Stupid thing! Drives me mad!"

She said, “Hm. Pity, because I was going to ask you to play him!"

And with that, she put the teacloth down and walked away.

I thought I'd just talked myself out of my first large part, but I hadn't.

And I, literally, played the teaboy.

I played the teaboy.

If you notice, I made the tea, I made the cakes, I swept up.

I did the shopping.

I played that dogsbody.

Except with a north country accent.

Now, the first time I met Shelagh, I was just going down to the box office, I think to do some work in it because one did.

There was very few people here, you know, you did everything.

As I walked into the foyer, just as you come into the theatre, Joan was there and she said, “Murray, this is Shelagh!"

Fell in love with her and always been in love with her.

In the original programme, there is a description of Shelagh Delaney.

“Shelagh Delaney is a 19-year-old Salford girl who works in an engineering factory. Coming from a Lancashire city, which is devastated not by war, but by industry and by years of pre-war unemployment, she is the antithesis of a London's 'angry young man'. She knows what she's angry about. The antithesis of angry young men."

Well, of course, angry young men of the time were a clique, were a class.

Angry young man was at the Royal Court.

The Royal Court Theatre was a writer's theatre.

Mainly university, but then bringing in more working-class theatre.

Whereas, the angry young people were a vast amount of people in this country.

They'd been angry for a long time.

It was only your sophisticates who became angry young men.

Shelagh had been angry from the moment she was practically born, like lots of other people, and she fought it.

Unlike lots of other people.

Joan's influence on Shelagh Delaney, initially, was enormous.

Because having been presented with this script, written by a 19-year-old who'd never written a theatre piece...

She'd done lots of writing, but not a theatre piece.

And so, simply, it was over-written, as a young person would do.

They would put all their emotions down.

It was all there.

Our job... Joan Littlewood's job as director, was to take out all the superfluous and get it down to its... its skeleton.

And leave the acting to us.

It was all there, all the emotion was down on paper – it was for us to do that.

Joan's company was movement based – the movement of Rudolf von Laben.

You very often learnt a line through its movement.

Whether it went forward, back, sideways.

Whether it was direct or whether it was indirect.

Because you could actually do that with your body.

So you could actually speak your line through your body and not actually say it.

And that gave such a depth to the...the ensemble.

And of course, the Workshop company was this incredible ensemble, so it was a quartet played by 16 people.

Um... and everybody knew that movement and the reaction and where you were.

It was unique, and England didn't like that.

A Taste Of Honey broke barriers for homosexuality – for a lot of other things, not just homosexuality, but one-parent families, you know.

They were possible because they were presented.

You see, the attitude to homosexuality in England was that it was against the law!

It was forbidden, it was against the law, punishable by a prison sentence.

You couldn't play it as a straight homosexual because it would not have been allowed.

And so, there had to be this fine line all the time.

That you couldn't say that Geoffrey was a hom...

You could think he was a homosexual, but you couldn't say he was.

I always say I was the start of gay pride.

I was gay pride of 1958.

It's all down to me, honey. It was on my shoulders and I'm very proud of it.

In those days, you didn't do lots of previews.

I remember we were rehearsing, and as Frances Cuka and I – Frances who played Jo originally – as we were leaving the stage, Gerry Raffles came up to us and said, “Now, listen you two. On your curtain call tonight, if there's any trouble just split either side of the stage and I will bring the iron in."

We looked at him and I said, “Oh, thanks, Gerry!"

[LAUGHS] “We're nervous enough!"

But that was the instruction, because we didn't know what the reaction would be to Jo and Geoffrey's relationship.

It was an unknown.

And indeed, when we both ran on for our curtain call, there was a roar and we both got hold of each other's hands because for the moment, we thought it was anti...and then we realised that they were standing cheering.

It was a touch-and-go moment, I assure you, but they did.

And from that moment, it was such an enormous success.

And so, I ended up playing the role of Geoffrey in the original production of A Taste Of Honey here at the Theatre Royal at Stratford.

Just by making the tea.

To put that on the stage in 1958 with all those problems within that play...took a genius.

And to pull it off.

I think Shelagh was also an oddball.

And Joan recognised that.

They were two oddballs, you see, that met and got on.

And two women – and in 1958, that was special.

Didn't happen very often.

It happened after, but they created the atmosphere and the ground for it to happen.

 

[MARCHING BAND PLAYING]

– Hello!

– Hello.

 

MURRAY

It was two years after the stage performance the film came about.

And of course, I then had to do film tests with lots of young ladies, um... None of whom were really very bright, until somebody called Miss Rita Tushingham... [LAUGHS] …came on and, um... elbows out.

She got the job immediately, she was so good.

She was so good.

I imparted as much information as I could, without saying, “You don't do it like that."

She had to be different because, of course, she was different.

And it was good for me because, you know, it's two years later, so I was two years older.

So that boy was two years older, in a way.

So I had to change all my attitudes and my relationships to these new people who were suddenly about.

Well, it was strange when I first met Tony Richardson because, of course, he had different ideas.

And so I had to adapt.

I mean, I could keep hearing Joan's voice in my ear, but it had to be the inner ear.

And so I had to adapt to his way of working.

And I suppose, with his filmic eye, he could see how it could be adapted, because don't forget, on stage it's set in one room.

That's the problem of the characters, that they're all in one room together and have got to get on.

And filmically, then, of course, he opened it up.

 

[FILM]

My usual self is a very unusual self, and don't you forget that, Geoffrey Ingham!

 

I'm an extraordinary person!

There's only one of me...

 

MURRAY

It was shot mainly on location in Manchester.

 

[FILM]

GEOFFREY

We're bloody marvellous!

 

MURRAY

Except for the indoor scenes, which were shot here in London. But everything else was shot where it was written – on the canal, the fairgrounds.

Again, of course, that was quite unique.

And he did have that wonderful cameraman, Walter Lassally.

In those days, it was unique!

[♪ UPBEAT]

All that hand-held camera work!

I mean, this was all revelatory – for England!

 

[FILM]

Geoff!

 

Oh, go to sleep.

 

– Geoffrey!

– What?

 

You're just like a big sister to me.

 

MURRAY

Even on stage, people would come up to me after the show and say, “Why did you leave her? Why didn't you stay with her?

Why didn't you...?"

And I'd say, “No, no, no. It's the other characters."

And that happens very often in life.

It's the intrusion of life and other people that break up relationships.

And it did with them.

 

[FILM]

I asked you stay here with me.

Why can't you leave me alone?

 

Now, don't you start upsetting her!

 

I haven't upset her, it's you!

 

Charging in here like a bull in a china shop, trampling on everyone's feelings...

 

MURRAY

Had they have been left alone...they would probably have found a way through together.

Or maybe not.

But to play it, one had to feel that it... they could stay together.

He could look after her. He wanted to look after her.

And she needed that sort of attention because she'd never had it from her mother.

 

[FILM]

– Stop shouting at each other, will you?

– Oh, shut up. We enjoy it.

 

MURRAY

The “Honey” in the “Taste Of”.

People say to me, “Was it you? Was it the black boy? Was it...?"

I say, “No, it wasn't any one particular thing."

There are many “tastes” within that script.

And they're joyous for whoever, whatever it is.

I mean, the mother gets a taste of honey by the money from the boyfriend, Peter.

She gets the taste of honey for her Christmas with the black boy.

I'm a taste of honey because I look after her.

So, there are many. The honey's spread, I think.

I wasn't surprised by the success of the film because by that time, one had lived through two years of the fame of A Taste Of Honey, and one thought it is now time...

And remember, although it played for a year in the West End here in London and for four months here at the Theatre Royal at Stratford East, that's a limited amount of people.

But so much had happened and progressed since the original first night here...that one had a feeling it was time that that message was spread.

And Richardson did do that, he did spread that message.

Problems within the script are still there today.

Nothing has changed very much. Gay relationships have got a little better.

But single-parent families – still a problem.

Mothers having to go out and earn a living in whatever way – still a problem.

Mixed relationships – still a problem.

I mean, getting better, but wow! It's taking a time, isn't it?

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