Rita Tushingham on being pranked by Alec Guinness, meeting Francis Bacon and portraying the first interracial kiss on screen

0
5


Director Tony Richardson considered 2,000 hopefuls before he alighted on an unknown Liverpool grocer’s daughter called Rita Tushingham to play a teenage single mother in his 1961 film A Taste of Honey, based on Shelagh Delaney’s ground-breaking play about Sixties working-class Britain. She was a sensation at 19. Her great grey-green eyes and wide, vulnerable mouth became known all over the world. Her unusual combination of toughness and emotional transparency seemed made for the new wave of cinematic realism.

The rest is legend. She left her £1-a-week backstage job at Liverpool Playhouse, plunged into London’s swinging scene and in the next eight years made a clutch of films that would define both her career and the cultural revolution, including the cult gay film The Leather Boys, the sex comedy The Knack, Girl with Green Eyes, Doctor Zhivago, Smashing Time and The Trap. “Music, art, film, fashion, it all took off like a rocket,” she says. “I was lucky to be around.”

And yet, by the end of that remarkable decade, with a circle of famous friends and film offers still coming in, a Daily Telegraph interviewer found her cosily ensconced in an old Essex farmhouse with her husband, five-year-old daughter and three dogs, dispensing wisdom. “A family is forever,” she said. “A career might finish tomorrow.”

Hers most certainly did not. Ever the passionate thesp, she’s currently appearing as a modern-day “witch” in Sarah Phelps’s new adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The Pale Horse, on BBC One, one of a trio of sinister women whose unnerving presence in the village of Much Deeping gives the murder-mystery its chill factor. “We are all rational when the sun’s shining,” her character Bella warns. “Different when it goes dark.”

Tushingham loves the ambiguity of the three women – accepted in the community, yet trailing vaporous hints of the supernatural and the dark arts. “What people call witches may be nothing of the kind,” she suggests. “People don’t know what’s happening behind our front door. The Pale Horse is not like a normal Agatha Christie. It was a very unusual piece to do. Intriguing, different…” And set in her annus mirabilis: 1961.


How Tushingham could have appeared so sane in the middle of a Sixties social scene convulsed by experimentation and excess is a minor mystery in itself. A clue is that, 60 years on, the woman sitting across the table from me, with her deep-fringed platinum bob and searching eyes, sounds little changed from the fun-loving but essentially level-headed person she was then.

“You would go to Muriel’s Club in Soho and all the well-known artists and writers were there,” she says, all trace of her Liverpool accent now gone. “To me, it was normal. That was what my life was. I was never cowed by any of it. I just lapped it up. There wasn’t that thing of stardom or pressure from social media to do this and that. We were just actors enjoying our craft. You can get a bit full of yourself when you’re young. I managed to avoid that but I’m sure I was on the brink. You have to keep grounded. My Liverpool blood kept me grounded. My family never allowed me to get too big for my boots. It was important to me to keep my sense of reality. Living in the country helped.”

Tushingham’s singular ability to “lap it up” yet retain a kernel of detachment was key to her survival. “I didn’t sleep around or do drugs or smoke and I’ve never liked alcohol. Probably that was lucky: it never appealed to me.” Through the late Paul Danquah, her sailor lover in A Taste of Honey, she was introduced to a little-known artist called Francis Bacon, who had a studio in Danquah’s flat. “Can you imagine?” she gasps, mimicking the ingénue she was. She met Elizabeth Taylor, became great friends with Lynn and Corin Redgrave and was looked after by Shirley Temple in San Francisco.  




Not your average Agatha Christie tale: Tushingham and co-stars in The Pale Horse


Credit: BBC/Ben Blackall

Before the filming of Honey started, Tony Richardson invited her to London so they could get to know one another and gave her a madwoman part in his landmark production of The Changeling at the Royal Court. Everyone looked out for her. “Mary Ure, a big star and lovely, took me under her wing, and John Osborne [associate artistic director at the Royal Court] was fiercely protective of me.” On the set of Doctor Zhivago in Spain, she struck up a fond, teasing relationship with her co-star Alec Guinness, who would play tricks on her, ringing up and pretending to be from the Russian authorities, or pushing funny notes under her door.

“There was a normality to it all. You could go about your life without people taking photographs of you. You’d do interviews and then you’d go home and give the children their tea and feed the dogs. People think they have to put themselves out there now. Today, if you’re not careful, you become a product.”

Normality is a word she uses a lot. A Taste of Honey dealt with a whole raft of issues not previously aired on film and stage – race, class, gender, homosexuality, poverty – and it outraged as many people as it enthralled, but to Tushingham it reflected real life. “It never seemed scandalous to me,” she told Shelagh Delaney’s biographer. “Which was probably my upbringing. My mum and dad… weren’t prejudiced about people.”




Rita Tushingham with Alec Guinness in Doctor Zhivago (1965)


Credit: Alamy

In Honey (for which she won a Bafta and a Golden Globe), her character Jo is a dissatisfied teenager from the rough end of Salford, disappointed by men and at loggerheads with her drunken single mother (Dora Bryan). She falls pregnant by a black sailor (Danquah) and when he returns to sea, Geoffrey (Murray Melvin), a gay arts student, makes a home for her and her baby.

“It was controversial to depict a relationship between a white girl and a black guy, but it never struck me as anything but how life was. We shocked audiences without intending to. I only learnt later that Paul and I did the first interracial kiss on screen. 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.”

Danquah was gay, so was Richardson. They were her protectors; Danquah a lifelong friend. Added to that, she felt empathy for the film’s gentle homosexual Geoff. “They were just wonderful; free and comfortable in their bodies.”

In a matter-of-fact sort of way, Tushingham seems proud to have played a part in breaking down barriers. But there was an inevitability about it, she says. “It couldn’t go on as it was.”




Rita Tushingham made her film breakthrough in 1961’s A Taste of Honey


Credit: Alamy

Though at a less frenetic pace than in the Sixties, she kept making films – in Italy and France when money for new work dried up here. After she and her first husband, Terry Bicknell, parted, she went to Canada with their two young daughters, Dodonnah and Aisha, and married the Iraqi filmmaker Ousama Rawi. (“I don’t talk about my second marriage,” she announces pre-emptively.) Back in London in the Nineties, she made a delightful appearance as Aunt Lily in Mike Newell’s An Awfully Big Adventure and acquired a string of television credits. Her partner for a time was the German writer Hans-Heinrich Ziemann, but she now lives alone in south London, close to her daughter Aisha and her two young grandchildren.

She tells aspiring actors to “keep that passion. Believe you can do anything. It’s all luck in this business, and it’s not a kind business at times. Grab it while it’s there. A lot of people think that if you’re well-educated you have a better chance. Even if that’s the case – and I’m not saying it is – you’ve still got to come up with the goods”.

Tushingham will be 78 next month and still coming up with the goods herself. “I have the same passion for the business as when I started.” She has made three films recently (including Last Night in Soho, Edgar Wright’s follow-up to Baby Driver) and a thriller called The Owners. There have been many awards, but perhaps the most precious was her honorary fellowship from Liverpool John Moore’s University in 2009. “My city means so much to me.”

She’s optimistic about the rising number of strong roles for women of her generation and is upfront about her age. “Why hide it? Who are you fooling?” But it makes her cross that women are always asked. “It’s how you are rather than the number of years you’ve lived that matters.”

Episode two of The Pale Horse is on BBC One on Sunday at 9pm



Source link

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here