Rita Tushingham was only 18 when she won the main role in the film A Taste of Honey. In 1961, she was one of a new breed of star created by Woodfall – a small company with big ideas which helped revolutionise British film. Now the Woodfall films have been restored to introduce a new generation to some very British stories.
Rita Tushingham was a teenager when she started working backstage at the Liverpool Playhouse.
One day she spotted an item in the Daily Express: the Woodfall film company in London was looking for an unknown to take the lead role of a teenage girl in their film of the stage hit A Taste of Honey.
“Well I was definitely unknown,” Rita Tushingham tells BBC News. “My acting experience basically was playing a cat and the back half of a horse.
“I tracked down an address for the agent of the playwright John Osborne – he was very famous in those days and he was part of Woodfall. I ended up going down to London with my mother and I did an audition at Chelsea Town Hall for the director Tony Richardson.
“I had to do a scene from the play with the actor Peter Gill, who’s now known as a writer. Somehow I wasn’t nervous – I just knew this was what I was meant to do. I think when life’s big chances come along you grab them because it’ll be a long time before they come round again. About 10 days later in Liverpool, I got a phone call from Tony to say I had the part.”
Tony Richardson was the heart of Woodfall Films. Apart from Osborne, the other co-founder had been Harry Saltzman, but he’d gone off to produce the Bond films.
Yet in 1960 Richardson and Saltzman had produced something far removed from a Technicolor spy fantasy. In Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Albert Finney created a new kind of hero for British film: a bolshie young working-class man with no respect for authority who was nonetheless treated sympathetically on screen.
Tushingham thinks Woodfall came along at exactly the right point.
“Tony Richardson always had huge personal energy but also he was tapping into a need for change in British society,” she says. “The 1950s had been drab and people wanted excitement.
“In A Taste of Honey, my character gets pregnant by a black sailor [Paul Danquah] and her best friend is the gay Geoffrey, who was played superbly by Murray Melvin. Before Tony Richardson, I’m not sure anyone could have filmed that story – or they would have softened it and made it less true. Tony gave the characters their dignity but there’s humour too.”
Rita Tushingham took best actress at the 1962 Cannes Festival – the first British winner of the award. “I had a great time there with Dora Bryan who played my mother. We went down to the beach for the photographers and Dora was a bit shocked at all the topless girls around us. But I was 20, I’d just made my first film and it was all amazingly exciting.”
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and A Taste of Honey were followed by The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962). That trio of Woodfall films still define working-class northern England in the cinema of the 1960s.
Rita Tushingham’s second film for Woodfall was Girl With Green Eyes, made entirely on location in Dublin and the Wicklow Hills. As in so much of what the company did, there was an influence of the French New Wave in the fluid and energetic way the story unfolds.
There was also a modern attitude to relationships: Tushingham’s character has a relationship with an older man, played by Peter Finch, but she always remains in charge of her own life.
The film’s director Desmond Davis says Woodfall brought a new realism.
“So much of British cinema had been in the hands of the Rank Organisation who made what I would call good Saturday afternoon films which were totally unchallenging,” he says. “Woodfall used actors like Albert Finney and Rita Tushingham to tell different stories.
“When I started as a camera operator at Pinewood in the 1950s you were expected to wear a blazer and call the cameraman “sir”. But Tony Richardson loved the lightness of how young French directors were making films – especially with hand-held cameras. It was a freer way of working. Tony was a natural rebel and he loved going against the establishment in every possible way.”
Tony Richardson was married in the 1960s to Vanessa Redgrave and they had two daughters, the actresses Natasha and Joely Richardson. After he died in America in 1991 the Woodfall company became more or less dormant.
But four years ago the Richardson family decided the films should be restored and brought back into active circulation. They set about acquiring some of the copyrights.
The company now belongs to the actress Joely Richardson, her half-sister Katherine and to the sons of Natasha Richardson, who died in 2009. Steven Hess, married to Katherine, says he’s become the company’s “accidental curator”.
“All of us are delighted the BFI are coming out with a box set of eight films,” he says. “Woodfall was a huge part of British cinema for more than a decade but lots of younger people won’t have seen some of what’s being released.
“Vanessa Redgrave always says Tony was the only film-maker of the time who told stories about Britain from top to bottom: he opened a door for people who came later. Partly it’s the casting – Tony instinctively knew someone like Rita Tushingham was right for her part and he fought hard when other people suggested he should import a big star.
“But remember that the screenplay for A Taste of Honey was by Shelagh Delaney – a working class woman from Salford barely into her 20s. If you think of all the debate there is now about who is and who’s not represented on screen, you see Woodfall was way ahead of its time.
“We’ve been pulling original prints out of vaults in America to ensure the films look and sound as good as they can. The best of Woodfall had a real pioneering and creative spirit. The films are part of British cinematic history but also of social history. They’re ready for a new digital generation to discover.”
The Woodfall season runs at BFI Southbank until 27 April. The BFI box set Woodfall – A Revolution in British Cinema will be released in May.