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.” Continue reading