Rita Tushingham was one of the defining faces of 1960s Britain. Far from conventionally pretty, but undeniably magnetic - with straight, dark hair and eyes huge and expressive enough to drown sailors in - she was also an unusual and compulsively watchable actress.
She was just eighteen when she appeared as Jo, the troubled teenager and unmarried mother in A Taste of Honey, a hauntingly beautiful performance in a comparable film, with Dora Bryan equally impressive as her feckless mother. The film was ground-breaking in several ways, with its unflinching focus on such hitherto unmentioned issues as single motherhood, divorce, adultery and homosexuality, and it cemented a new attitude that had been bubbling for a year or two in British movies, helping to make room for Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Billy Liar and A Kind of Loving. But while the majority of these films centred around alienated, frustrated - and basically rather boring - male characters, A Taste of Honey was unusual in that its central character was a young girl, through whose eyes the audience experienced the unfolding drama. And there was a sincerity and worthiness to her story that Billy Liar, for all its wit and sharp observation, could never match. The film is not merely groundbreaking; it's genuinely moving, and chief among its attractions was and remains the astonishing freshness and authenticity of Tushingham’s performance. Brilliant, truthful writing from Sheelagh Delaney; fine support from Murray Melvin and Robert Stephens, the latter cast well against type and reveling in it.
By mid-decade fashion in British movies was turning away from kitchen sink realism in favour of something rather more upbeat. Though there had always been an eminently exportable kind of English style, it had been dispensed in the sober tweeds and discreet hipflasks of Herbert Marshall, Leslie Howard, George Arliss. The thing that was new about the 1960s version was its focus on a romanticised version of working class modes and lifestyles, and the celebration (and exaggeration) of an unpolished national specificity that the studios had hitherto sought to iron out. Imperfect beauty, regional accents, gawkiness and eccentricity were all in. So Rita, who might easily have seemed hopelessly out of step in this new and glossier cinema, in so many ways antithetical to the one in which she had risen to prominence, found herself equally at a home as a quirky leading actress and alternative style icon.
And it was in this idiom that she gave her other most defining performance: as the gauche provincial girl arriving in London in Richard Lester’s comedy The Knack, alongside Ray Brooks and Michael Crawford.
Her performance and image in this film – tweed-capped and dark-mascaraed, clutching a boutique carrier bag and a copy of Honey magazine, struggling with malevolent left luggage lockers and automatic passport photobooths, or travelling through the London streets in a double bed – is as indelible a milestone of British cinema as Jo's melancholy passage through sooty, rainy Salford. The relentlessly frenetic trendiness of the film itself has dated it more than the simple sincerity of Honey, but for those with a taste for these kinds of sixties trifles it is at least among the most energetic and ingratiating.
In retrospect, a clear sense of desperation hangs over Smashing Time, a raucous comedy musical, scripted by George Melly, with Rita and Lynne Redgrave as two North Country girls touring Swinging London and marvelling at the wonderful sights they encounter, several of which inspire them to burst into harsh, untrained song. (Including, of course, Carnaby Street: “The street that is part of the beat that is part of the scene!”) There's even a custard pie fight.
Though certainly eager to please, the film was deservedly not a hit: there is something a bit rancid about it, and its boisterousness did not disguise the clarity with which it called time on its era.