She caused outrage as a wide-eyed teen in her very first film. As the actor returns in a spooky Agatha Christie, she relives life as a 60s icon – and the taunts she endured in the street
One day nearly 60 years ago, Rita Tushingham was walking through Soho with her friend, the late British actor Paul Danquah, when a passerby yelled: “Blacks and whites don’t mix!” Tushingham looks troubled by the memory. “It happened to Paul a lot,” she says. “I remember he shouted back, ‘Don’t worry! She’s only been on holiday and got a tan.’”
That was Britain in 1961, before London swung, before sex between men was decriminalised, before a black man and a white woman walking in Soho might pass unremarked. There’s a photo in the National Portrait Gallery of the pair that very year, her leaning in care-free, him eyeing the street as if on alert for the next racist.
At the time, Tushingham and Danquah were filming the now-celebrated A Taste of Honey, adapted from the play by Shelagh Delaney. “It had everything – race, class, gender, sexuality, poverty,” says Tushingham of her first film role. She played something cinema had never seen before: a bored teenager from the rough end of Salford. Jo was alienated from school, revolted by her boozy single mam and eternally suckered by worthless suitors. After falling in love with a sailor, played by Danquah, Jo gets pregnant. He returns to sea, so she moves in with Geoffrey, a gay textiles student who becomes her surrogate co-parent.
“We shocked audiences without intending to,” says Tushingham. “I only learned later that Paul and I did the first interracial kiss on screen.” It’s a big claim: certainly, it was seven years before Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura kissed in Star Trek, and a year before the earliest known interracial kiss on British TV, in the ITV drama You in Your Small Corner. For this and other supposed outrages, A Taste of Honey was banned in several countries including New Zealand. “A lot of the reaction was, ‘People like that don’t exist’ – by which they meant homosexuals, single mothers and people in mixed-race relationships. But they did.”
Not only did Tushingham win a Bafta and a Golden Globe, her haunting looks became iconic. Delaney wrote A Taste of Honey when she was 19. Tushingham was 17 when she played Jo, getting the part after replying to a newspaper ad. “I quit as assistant stage manager at Liverpool Playhouse,” says the actor, who had been earning £1 a week and getting the occasional walk-on role. “Then I was wide-eyed in London, not quite believing what had happened to me.”
When the city started to swing, the former convent girl joined in, albeit mutedly. “I’ve never smoked or drunk alcohol, so I observed.” Danquah introduced Tushingham to a struggling artist called Francis Bacon. She met Elizabeth Taylor, too, and hung out with pop stars. On stage, she played Nancy in The Knack and Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. On screen, she starred in 1963’s cult gay film The Leather Boys and was the eponymous Girl with Green Eyes in the adaptation of Edna O’Brien’s novel. A New York Times reporter who met her described her as “a slip of a girl, her uncosmeticised face framed in straight dark hair, wearing a sweater and jeans, with those enormous eyes incessantly expressive even when the rest of the small face disappeared behind a big yellow coffee cup”.
Across the decades, those eyes – now behind glasses as she sips a decaf latte in a demure dark suit – still captivate. Tushingham became the go-to girl for doe-eyed innocence, playing the daughter of Julie Christie and Omar Sharif in 1965’s Doctor Zhivago. In The Trap the following year, she played a mute living with French-Canadian fur trapper Jean La Bête. She was the orphan beauty, Oliver Reed the rough-hewn beast whose leg needs amputating. “I didn’t have any lines, but I did cut off Oliver Reed’s leg with an axe!”
Tushingham also starred in Richard Lester’s film version of The Knack. The 1965 sex comedy is rather painful to watch now. Michael Crawford plays Colin, a sexually frustrated teacher who meets innocent but feisty northern girl Nancy, played by Tushingham. She helps him and his womanising drummer friend Tolen bring a huge new bed to their flat. There, Tolen makes advances on Nancy and tells her: “No one’s going to rape you – girls don’t get raped unless they want it.”
Worse is to come. Later, Nancy faints and when she comes round falsely claims she was raped – and slashes the tyres of Tolen’s motorbike. She runs back to the flat and strips naked. Then she emerges in a robe, giving the impression it’s Colin she really fancies. She won a Bafta and a Golden Globe, while the film took the Palme d’Or at Cannes. But the levity with which the film treats rape, not to mention Nancy’s weird hysteria, is bound to make modern audiences a little queasy.
“I’m always taken to task for that aspect of the film,” she says. “After a screening not long ago, one German woman said, ‘Why do you think rape is funny?’ I don’t at all. Obviously. I can understand why people were offended, though.” But the film is meant to be funny? “Of course it is! One thing I learned from Richard was to play comedy straight.”
As the 1970s dawned, roles started to dry up. Gamine was so last decade. “I thought the 60s in London was normal, so when it stopped it was a shock.” She found work on the continent, playing Alice B Toklas, partner of Gertrude Stein, in an Italian film called The Legendary Life of Ernest Hemingway. She had two daughters, Aisha and Dodonna, by her first husband, the photographer Terry Bicknell. She later married Iraqi cinematographer Ousama Rawi, spending eight years in Canada with him before they separated. Tushingham then lived with German writer Hans-Heinrich Ziemann. Today she lives alone in London, near Aisha and her grandchildren.
We’re meeting because Tushingham, who turns 78 in March, will soon be back on our screens. “I keep looking at the obituaries and see my friends have died,” she says. “But I still seem to be going.” We will see her later this year in Last Night in Soho, Edgar Wright’s follow-up to Baby Driver. She is also starring in a thriller called The Owners, about two broke friends spurred by a sociopath to rob an elderly couple. “It spirals out of control,” she says, “and I’m caught up in the middle of it.”