Friday, 2 December 2011

Shelagh Delaney and Lindsay Anderson: From A Taste of Honey to If... on the White Bus

Shelagh Delaney, who died on Sunday 20th November, provides a link between two of my favourite films, A Taste of Honey and If… A Taste of Honey was her first play, which she wrote when she was 18 in a short break from working full time in jobs such as shop assistant, cinema usherette and photographic lab assistant. She was never happy when critics and journalists pointed this out (as they invariably did), since it tended to paint her as some sort of doubly freakish prodigy, remarkable both for her youth and for her ordinary background and self-motivation, and carried with it a faint whiff of patronisation. But her origins and experiences did directly inform her work, and also provided hope and inspiration for others in similar circumstances. Not least amongst them was Steven Morrissey, who featured her on the cover of The Smiths single Girlfriend in a Coma and the compilation Louder Than Bombs, and who drew directly from her writing. Her short story All About and To A Female Artist, a collage of extracts from letters and reviews, real or imagined, shows the downside of being held up as such an example, with vituperative and snarky criticism abutting needy, desperate or simply unhinged communications, which assume common experience and feeling. Delaney’s failure of her 11 plus and subsequent marshalling into a secondary modern school, which focussed on practical rather than academic schooling, setting its pupils up for the home or factory, also demonstrates the damaging divisiveness of that post-war educational system. It was only through her own efforts and self-belief that she was able to rise above its rigid expectations.

Having completed A Taste of Honey in a short burst of intense and intuitive creativity, she made the serendipitous decision to send off to Joan Littlewood and Gerry Raffles at the Theatre Workshop. She had read about their troubles with the Lord Chamberlain, at that time still the arbiter of what was acceptable for the English stage, over the play You Won’t Always Be On Top, which was set on a building site. Their evident preference for drama depicting the real lives and thoughts of ordinary people over the conventions of genteel drawing room plays structured around well-bred and mannered conversation appealed to her. Ironically, a rundown church depicted in the 1960 BBC Monitor programme Shelagh Delaney’s Salford advertises a performance of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit on its noticeboard, just the sort of play against which A Taste of Honey set itself (without necessarily dismissing it out of hand). She couldn’t have chosen a better place to get a theatrical education than the Theatre Workshop. Littlewood and the cast worked through her script with her, developing the characters and adding new elements where they seemed appropriate. Some of the dialogue was trimmed down if it was felt that it didn’t work in performance, but they were careful to retain the essence of Delaney’s structure and style, and her best lines were all kept in. Which thankfully leaves us with such gems as: ‘I’m not talented, I’m geniused’; ‘The only consolation I can find in your immediate presence is your ultimate absence’; ‘I hope you exercised proper control over his nautical ardour’; ‘In this country there are only two seasons, winter and winter’; ‘I can’t stand people who laugh at other people. They’d get a bigger laugh if they laughed at themselves’; ‘My usual self is a very unusual self’; and ‘I feel like throwing myself I the river’ – ‘I wouldn’t do that – it’s full of rubbish’. Delaney gained immensely from the collaborative experience of creating a play as a work to be shaped and altered through rehearsal and discussion, and was entirely at ease with this process. In the BBC Monitor film Shelagh Delaney’s Salford, directed by the late Ken Russell and broadcast on 25th September 1960, she affectionately refers to the Theatre Workshop as being ‘a daft lot…a marvellous lot of people…quite different from the usual actors’.

King and Queen of Salford - Rita Tushingham and Murray Melvin in A Taste of Honey
The play was a huge success when it was first put on in the East End of London at the Theatre Royal, Stratford, where the Workshop were encamped, opening in May 1958. Frances Cuka played the young Jo, taking her first faltering steps into the adult world of love, work, and motherhood, with Avis Bunnage as her feckless mother Helen, with whom she is constantly sparring. Murray Melvin, who had only joined the Workshop a year earlier as a student apprentice, found his dream role as Geoffrey, Jo’s kindly friend and alternative ‘mother’ (or the ‘big sister’ to which she likens him). Delaney writes these characters with a warmth and humour which makes them real and likeable, for all their faults. They are much more than illustrative bundles of social problems or mere mechanical vessels for the author’s political views or opinions. They are the sort of people amongst whom she grew up, and whom she has observed with sympathy and understanding. The play moved to the West End in 1959 with the same cast, and was then filmed a couple of years later by Tony Richardson for his Woodfall Films company, with Delaney collaborating with him on the script. Melvin returned in the role which he had made his own, and for which he won a best actor award at Cannes. Frances Cuka and Avis Bunnage didn’t make it to the screen (you can see them both in Littlewood’s sole film Sparrows Can’t Sing, however), with Dora Bryan playing Helen and Rita Tushingham making a wonderful Jo, dreamy, moody, joyful and sharp-tongued by turns. The two rooms between which the two acts of the play are split are opened out considerably in the film, which makes richly atmospheric use of its Manchester and Salford locations, with back to back terraces, cobbled streets, smoking factories and mills, and small barge and large ship canals. The influence of Free Cinema films such as Lindsay Anderson’s O Dreamland, Lorenza Mazetti’s Together, Karel Reisz’s We Are the Lambeth Boys, and Richardson’s own Momma Don’t Allow (made with Reisz), several of which were filmed by A Taste of Honey’s cameraman Walter Lasally, can be seen in the kinetic scenes of Blackpool larks (complete with a laughing automaton dummy booth out of O Dreamland), a fairground ride in which the camera’s point of view sends us spinning around beside Geoff and Jo, in the observation of the Catholic parade progressing through the city, the roving close-up tracking dancers across the ballroom floor, and in the chanting, hollering hordes of urchins which swarm around the characters wherever they go. We also see Jo’s resentful and wholly inept participation in a netball game at school at the start of the film, and her mixture of dreaminess and rebellion in the classroom, all of which serves to lend her a rather solitary individuality different from that which is framed in the play in reaction to the other characters. The film even affords the opportunity for her and Geoff to escape the city for the afternoon in a double-decker bus, running up onto the moorland heights and taking a candlelit tour of the caverns below.

A couple of years after the release of the Taste of Honey film, Delaney published a collection of short stories called Sweetly Sings the Donkey. Its wry tales, with their keen depiction of the details of the everyday, contained hints of autobiography and personally observed characters. Their cast of sickly and bullied children, desperate letter writers, fantasisers and dreamers, and detached tourists show a sympathy for and identification with the outsider and those who look on and observe life. The bullying and abusive teacher who is the title character of the story The Teacher enjoys mocking the physical characteristics of his pupils which make them stand out. The unnamed narrator notes that ‘I was the tallest child in the school, so I was ‘the long streak of nothing’’ – a direct reference to Delaney’s childhood sensitivity to her own height, with the story itself perhaps marking a small piece of score settling. Another story, The White Bus, also features an unnamed narrator, and is in part a riposte to the good burghers of Salford who complained about the negative image with which they felt she had tarred the city. A young woman, who is readily identifiable as Delaney, returns from London to Salford, where she boards a magic bus which turns up to whisk everybody off on a selectively edifying tour of the city, presided over by the Mayor. He asks the quietly observant narrator ‘aren’t you that girl – the one who writes?’ When she replies in the affirmative, he chides her for ‘writing all this sexy stuff about this city. Unmarried mothers and things and homosexuals – you’ve given us a bad reputation in the eyes of the country, you know’. Despite his surface disapprobation, he proceeds to get rather excited about meeting her, and she has to ask him ‘would you stop feeling my leg, please?’ Delaney in fact remained greatly fond of Salford, as she made clear in the Monitor film. Whilst she regretted some of the changes being wrought upon the city, she revelled in the vitality and spirit of its people.

Riding The White Bus
The White Bus was made into a short film by Lindsay Anderson, with Delaney again collaborating on the script. Anderson had been very enthusiastic about A Taste of Honey when it was first performed by the Theatre Workshop, particularly enjoying the anti-realist elements; the addresses to the audience and the personal musical motifs to which characters danced on and off stage. He brought a sense of playful cinematic surrealism to the fore in The White Bus, creating deliberate distancing with absurd or fantastical intrusions, anticipating the tone of If… The White Bus was supposed to be part of an anthology film, combining with related segments made by Tony Richardson and Peter Brook (who both, like Anderson, were associated with the world of the theatre) based on other stories from Delaney’s collection. This was a popular form at the time, with major European directors contributing to the likes of RoGoPaG (an ungainly acronymic title referring to its directors Rossellini, Godard, Pasolini and one Ugo Gregroretti), Spirits of the Dead (three Poe tales, including Fellini’s celebrated Toby Dammit) and Paris Vu Par… (views of the city of light by, amongst others, Eric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Chabrol). According to Lindsay Anderson in Never Apologise, a collection of his writings, Richardson and Brook tried to outdo his offering, and in their efforts completely abandoned Delaney’s work, presumably in order to go for some big auteur statement. ‘The subjects they chose were not good’, Anderson curtly noted (Brooks’ was a tale of a Wagnerian opera singer trying to reach the theatre on time and Richardson’s a mini-musical with Vanessa Redgrave), and they effectively dissipated the unifying structure of the film. The result, which was to have been called Red, White and Zero (coming close to anticipating Kieslowski’s colour trilogy) was shelved by United Artists and as a result, The White Bus, too long to be a short and too short to be a feature, has been little seen and remains unreleased.

The other Shelagh - Patricia Healey
Anderson and Delaney’s collaboration went well. They hit it off from the start and had an enjoyable working relationship (not always easy with the notoriously spiky but intensely loyal director). As Anderson points out in his 1994 commentary on The White Bus, included in Never Apologise, ‘I liked Shelagh very much; we got along well, although, once shooting was under way, she didn’t say much…I think she felt that the actual making of the film wasn’t really her bag’. Nevertheless, much of the dialogue from her story remains, as does its structure, its absurdist atmosphere and its mockery of petty authority, with its stilted and pompous rhetoric, overconfident self-assertion and foolish formal frills. Anderson wanted to make the autobiographical dimension of the story plain by having Delaney herself play the young woman returning to her hometown and boarding the bus which turns up from nowhere in nowhere. Actually, the protagonist of the film is first seen as an office worker in the Shell Building on London's South Bank, making her more of an everywoman. Delaney wasn’t comfortable with the idea of appearing as an actor, however, and suggested her friend Patricia Healey instead, who proves to be an excellent stand-in. She’s a striking presence, taciturn and at a slight remove from all that goes on around her, a wry observer very much in the manner of Delaney.

Christine Noonan in If...
The White Bus was Lindsay Anderson’s first film with Czech cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek, who had shot Ivan Passer’s Intimate Lighing and Milos Forman’s A Blond In Love and The Fireman’s Ball in his native country. He would go on to shoot If… and O Lucky Man! with Anderson. The White Bus lays the stylistic and thematic ground for If… It contains sudden and startling shifts from black and white to colour, familiar from the later film. These are present in a more consciously fashioned form, and perhaps give the lie to the claim that their use in If… was more a matter of chance and necessity than artistry. Even if there was an element of happenstance in the filming of If…, these sudden tonal changes had already been used to great effect. As Anderson puts it in Never Apologise, referring to the use of colour interludes in The White Bus, ‘it was this precedent that gave me the assurance – when Mirek said that with our budget (for lamps) and our schedule he could not guarantee consistency of colour for the chapel scenes in If…- to say, ‘well, let’s shoot them in black and white.’ In other words it was not (of course) just a matter of saving time and/or money’. The short bursts of colour in The White Bus often act as interludes between scenes, as when we see the children ushered across the road by a lollipop lady. They also highlight the flames of foundries and explosions, the burning oranges of molten metal, and the multi-coloured palimpsest of peeling posters outside the Odeon. The Mayor’s speechifying in The White Bus echoes that of the head, chaplain and teachers in If…, the official view of the city, country or world. He’s like Peter Jeffrey’s headmasters, walking the grounds with his select elite of senior pupils, all the while delivering a state of the nation address (‘Britain today is a powerhouse of ideas, experiment, imagination’). Such Wilsonian sentiments are also reflected in The Mayor’s reference to ‘the world of tomorrow’ and his gestures towards acknowledging social and technological change, as long as they continue to remain within the boundaries of tradition. There’s certainly much of Delaney’s language in these speeches, as well as in the dialogue of the boys, with all its freewheeling non-sequiturs and unfocussed, intuitive rebellion, its mixture of romantic dreaminess and flippant sarcasm. It’s probably a little fanciful to draw parallels between Christine Noonan’s raven-haired waitress revolutionary in If… and Delaney or her alter ego Healey, although they do all share a quiet blend of reserve and self-assured strength.

The White Bus also shares If…’s use of a circumscribed environment to represent the wider structures of the country or the world as a whole. It’s opening shots of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament make its state of the nation intentions plain. It is also reflected in the international cast of the tourists, with rank-signifying floral, top and bowler hats mixing in with characters dressed in traditional Japanese and African robes. Both films move for a time beyond their narrowly defined worlds. Travis and Johnny in If… break out of school and run into town, initially handcuffed together like escaped prisoners (or like Mick Jagger and Robert Fraser being taken to trial in 1967 in an iconic photograph later turned into a painting, Swingeing London, by pop artist Richard Hamilton). The ordinary sights of the modern 60s high street seem alien and strange to these boys who have been inculcated into the antiquated traditions and rituals of the school (and by extension, of the British establishment) day after day. We see that strangeness through their eyes, almost as if they are time travellers arriving from the past. And perhaps these shrinelike displays of consumer goods, objects of desire set upon their pedestals, are unnatural after all, dreams which offer more than they can ever deliver. Travis and Johnny play out their rebellion in front of them, miming the knife fight scene from Rebel Without A Cause, improvising a fatal ending.

Watching life through the window
In The White Bus, the young woman leaves the farcical civil defense display which she has been marshalled into watching at the end of the tour, and wanders through the streets of the kind of Salford which Delaney had depicted in A Taste of Honey, The Lion in Love and the stories of Sweetly Sings the Donkey. She crosses waste grounds and playgrounds, and walks along rain soaked terraced backstreets. She sees a frustrated young man (played by Barry Evans, who would express similar frustrations in Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, this time in Stevenage) failing to have his way with a young girl in a rubbish strewn alley. Another girl plays a piano in a front room directly abutting the street, exemplifying the solitary self-education of Delaney and those like her. In the front room of another house, another window view illuminating moments of people’s lives, an old woman shaves her husband with an electric razor (an artefact of Wilson’s Britain). It’s a sacred composition, he with his eyes cast up in saintly contemplation, she looking at him and offering us her profile, a picture of patient, angelic tenderness. As the evening draws on and the street lights flicker into life, the young woman wanders into a corner chippie, where she sits as the couple who run it put the chairs up on the tables, closing up around her. The final lines of dialogue, which they speak, are taken directly from Delaney’s short story. The man suggests they leave the tidying up until the next day, since they are both tired and want to rest. His wife recites a repetitive mantra as she sweeps up: ‘If we don’t do Saturday’s work till Sunday, we won’t do Sunday’s work till Monday, we won’t do Monday’s work till Tuesday, we won’t do Tuesday’s work till Wednesday, we won’t do Wednesday’s work till Thursday, we won’t do Thursday’s work till Friday, we won’t do Friday’s work till Saturday and we’ll never catch Saturday’s work again’. They are caught up in the regimented progression of their working week, constantly chasing their own tails. As Travis says in If…, caught up in a very different but equally inflexible regimen, ‘when do we get time to live, that’s what I want to know’.

The human animal
The White Bus travels through an illustrative and emblematic landscape of English environments and pastimes, from the office to the railway station, the factory to pastoral parkland, with football, gardening, craft hobbies, music and literature (and kendo) in the background. Arthur Lowe’s Mayor (Lowe was a constant presence in Anderson’s films until his death shortly after the filming of Britannia Hospital) intones lines from the Bible (Proverbs 4:7) as he enters the city library, saying ‘wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with thy getting, get understanding’. It’s a quote which is also used as an opening chapter title in If…, and is cast in a rather jaundiced and ironic light in both films. Wisdom is the last thing that anyone is likely to get in If’s school, whilst the Mayor in The White Bus immediately follows his high minded sentiments with the outraged aside to the librarian ‘you’ve got some disgusting books in here’. Wisdom and understanding must clearly be got within strictly defined limits. The dignitaries and worthies on the tour enter the city museum, where they are seen scowling and peering at the stuffed birds and mammals, to which they are compared in intercut juxtaposition or framed proximity. A bowler hatted gent stops beside the skeleton of an ape ancestor, and a genteel elderly lady hisses aggressively at a small monkey on a branch. The human animal still lurks beneath the ostentatious surface display of civility. This exposure of underlying violence and primitive impulses revealing themselves through the cracks of civilisation can also be seen in the final bloodless bloodbath at the end of If… Here, a similarly floral-hatted old lady picks up a submachine gun and fires round after round at the crusaders up on the roof, spitting out ‘bastards, bastards’ as she does so. The museum exhibits also find their analogues in the stuffed crocodile the boys carry to the bonfire, and in the specimen jars they find locked in a cupboard in the basement – the secrets of nature hidden from them.

A bad day at the office
The outright absurdist fantasy of The White Bus also looks forward to the more bizarre, distancing (and very funny) aspects of If…At the beginning of The White Bus, the young woman hangs herself above the office desk at which she has been typing, only for the cleaners to carry on regardless around her. We then cut back to her at her desk, alive and well but clearly in need of imminent escape. It’s reminiscent of the scene in If… in which the headmaster brings the boys into his office to give them a stern talking to (‘now I take this very seriously indeed’) after they’ve bayoneted the Chaplain to death on wargame manoeuvres. He then pulls out a large drawer from which the selfsame Chaplain rises, allowing them to formally apologise to his recumbent form with a conciliatory handshake. The incongruity of formally attired men and women walking around busy industrial factories, traipsing up steeply inclined gantries and riding on slow moving cranes looks forward to the knights in armour and robed and mitred bishops in If’s final founder’s day massacre. This piece of disrupted pageantry also finds its routes in the chaos of the civil defense display, which becomes a little too close for comfort, and which brings the tour to an explosive end. Armed conflict is staged as spectacle, the tourists sitting in a small stand to watch these training routines which bring war to the waste grounds of Salford. As the carnage reaches its climax, all but the Delaney character are turned into faceless dummies – a transformation which pays homage to the finale of Jean Vigo’s Zero de Conduite, in which the guests at the school’s prize giving day, which is wrecked by the student anarchists, are also mocking guys.

Goya in the English landscape
The White Bus is shot through with a very English Romanticism, a reflection of Anderson’s traditional heart, beating beneath his anarchic, non-conformist exterior. When we get to the pastoral surroundings of the park, he stages several tableaux recasting classic works of European art in an English setting: Manet’s Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe, Goya’s The Straw Man and Fragonard’s Girl On A Swing with oak and beech trees, long green grass and cloud piled skies. There is a similar sense of pastoral reverie in If… when the boys escape to the countryside on a stolen motorbike. They take a dreamlike ride through the fields, carrying the waitress they’ve picked up between them, standing erect with arms flung wide open as if she’s flying. Both films also use music and non-naturalistic sound in such a way that it takes over the soundtrack completely at times, opening up dream spaces within the course of the action. In If…, this takes the form of Travis repeatedly playing an extract of the Missa Luba, a Congolese mass recorded in 1958 under the auspices of a Belgian priest. This gives it an odd resonance as it plays whilst the camera gazes at a picture of an African revolutionary, which Travis has pinned to the board on which he collages the inside of his head. The Congo gained independence from Belgium in 1960, its prime minister Patrice Lumumba murdered a year later with the assistance of colonial forces intent on protecting their mining interests. Whenever this music is played (and it miraculously turns up on a jukebox in the roadside café Travis and his friend Johnny stop at) it relegates the objective world, and probably reality itself, to the background. It’s the soundtrack to Travis’ dreamworld, in which his nascent desires and rebellious fantasies are played out. Similarly, the eclipse of the world’s noise by music and sound in The White Bus signifies the young woman’s subjective viewpoint. This is also indicated by her occasional donning of spectacles, which would seem to act as a symbolic visor protecting her from the comforting propaganda issued by the Mayor and his cohorts, propagating his rose-tinted worldview. As the bus drives past new blocks of residential high-rises, the tour guide comes out with the standard post-war brave new world rhetoric about clearing slums and creating new communities. She admits to the unpopularity of such housing, but notes that ‘we are gradually breaking down this resistance’. This is undoubtedly Delaney speaking, articulating her views about the unresponsive intransigence of local planners, whose determined and patrician social engineering, paid little or no attention to the views of those whose lives they sought to shape. She makes it quite clear in the Monitor film that she finds these new developments sinister and inhuman, a controlling imposition upon people’s hometown and life.

Pastoral joy ride
Perhaps The White Bus is more Anderson’s film than Delaney’s, the work in which he developed his caustic satirical surrealism. But its distinctive visual style, with its surreal and absurdist eye, is built up from her literary source material, and from the substance and structure of her script. Its sense of the absurd, its distanced, observational perspective, its rebellious spirit and refusal to defer to the demands of authority, its celebration of the spirit of ordinary people and its conviction that life is to be lived in each and every moment comes from Delaney as much as it comes from Anderson. These two artists, coming from opposite ends of the social spectrum, she from a secondary modern, he from the prestigious public school of Cheltenham (where If… was shot) found in each other a common spirit. Their collaboration left its mark on Anderson, and perhaps If…’s scriptwriter David Sherwin was also influenced by A Taste of Honey. The film certainly lacks some of the more macho aspects of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, A Room At the Top and Look Back In Anger, other potential influences from the kitchen sink movement. There is assuredly something of Delaney’s spirit inhabiting the corridors of If…’s school, bringing humour and tenderness to what might otherwise be an intolerably male environment. She managed to bridge the very different worlds of A Taste of Honey’s kitchen sink humanism and the public school revolution of Travis and his crusaders in If… From Salford to Cheltenham and all stops in between. Sanctus.


Ray Jones said...

Are you aware you can now see "The White Bus" on Netflix? Fascinating film; and a young Anthony Hopkins makes a brief appearance as "the Brechtian"

Jez Winship said...

Thanks, that's useful to know. Hopefully more people will see it as a result.