THE KNACK.. AND HOW TO GET IT
Rita Tushingham / Michael Crawford / Ray Brooks / Donal Donnelly / Charles Dyer / William Dexter / Jane Birkin / Jacqueline Bisset / Patti Boyd / Charlotte Rampling / From the play by – Ann Jellicoe / Screenplay by Charles Wood / Art Direction Assheton Gorton / Original Soundtrack John Barry / Cinematography David Watkin / Editing Antony Gibbs / Producer Oscar Lewenstein / Directed by Richard Lester
Some have it, some don’t
‘It’s not like that…’
‘..it’s an exaggeration. He’s just got a certain success with the ladies..’
‘Just come to London. Nowhere to stay. And glad of it we are. No trouble, us monks.’
‘After kicks.. it’s all happening.. it’ll all end in tears.. and no Prince Charming with a barrel.. Drugs! We all know what she wants, and it isn’t the YWCA.. Plates of meat.. Hoping she is.. Hoping to being debauched.. innocent eyes of blue, doesn’t know what her legs are walking herself into..’
‘Shall I show you,Colin? Shall I advise you? Women like to be dominated.’
Motorcyclists consider they’re God, I find.. It’s merely high spirits really.. Every lane’s a highway, I blame the internal combustion engine.. I’d rule them. Conscription.. She’ll regret she didn’t wear a safety device.. I feel for her chest, that’s my feeling.. That’d ruin the seat for me.. I’m bound.. Legs up, all up the road.. I’m bound by my age.. Skirt’s up, showing everythin’! .. Where?.. Where? .. Filth! .. Not all night, and then a windy ride on a motorbike.. I think not!’
‘I never thought I’d see so much purity of pattern. Absolute rightness. I must please you, and I think I can. Don’t fail me now, because I may never trust myself with a woman again, ever. Try it on. I’m sure, absolutely, I can please you. Show me. Wait for me.’
‘I want something sexy. Cruelty, with a very loud noise.. ‘
‘..I just don’t see myself in a cast-iron bed..’
‘I don’t know.. I feel.. I feel.. funny.’
‘Now.. now then.. what is it? What do you want with me? What are you trying on, eh? What are you trying to do? Mr.Smart.. Mr.Smarty.. Smarty.. Smart.. You think you’re alright.. You think you’re pretty clever. You do, don’t you, Mr. Smarty, tight, tight trousers.. Mr. narrow slacks. You think you’re the cats..’
‘Keep asking me. Go on, ask me how I feel.’
………………………………………………………STARK RAVING MOD
RITA TUSHINGHAM INTERVIEW by Will Hodgkinson : The Guardian (15/06/01)
It’s the eyes that hit you. The eyes that shone with jaded hope in A Taste of Honey and with helpless innocence in Doctor Zhivago; that were plastered with too much mascara in Smashing Time and burst open with gawky delight in The Knack. The eyes that came to be as much a part of the 1960s landscape as miniskirts and Mini Coopers. The famous heavy-fringed black bob has gone blonde, and her swinging heyday may be a distant memory, but the eyes remain the same.”Would you like some tea?” asks Rita Tushingham, a hint of her Liverpudlian origins still in her voice and manner – this despite the 40 years that have elapsed since she left her home town to star in A Taste of Honey.
Now living alone in a large, ornately decorated Mayfair flat, her 96-year-old mother still up in Liverpool and her daughters having flown the coop, the 61-year-old actress continues to enjoy her work. “It’s great to have a job you find rewarding, but let’s face it, we’re not saving people’s lives. ‘Oh gosh, they’ve got a larger Winnebago than me!’ Who cares? It’s what ends up on the screen that counts. Just don’t read the reviews!” Back in the early 1960s, Tushingham was a key member of that first rush of British actors to make it from humble beginnings. She cut her teeth by acting in plays at her convent school and then trained at the Liverpool Rep before responding to a newspaper advertisement in 1961 and being handed the lead in Tony Richardson’s breakthrough kitchen-sink drama A Taste of Honey. Though she was a waif, her arrival into British cinema was dramatic. She played a Salford teenager falling pregnant by a black sailor and finding solace in the friendship of a gay man, and won a Bafta for most promising newcomer, a best-actress award at Cannes and entry into an exclusive new club.”
A Taste of Honey was successful so I went straight from that to other movies and I only knew this new world, which was coming to life for the first time,” she explains. “There were people like myself – Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie – and only when it got to the 1970s and things started to dry up did I realise what a special time it was. I was naive. I came from Liverpool and just thought, ‘So this is what it’s like down here.'” A Taste of Honey, meanwhile, was arousing controversy across the world as it confronted racial and sexual taboos head on. Many countries banned it. “New Zealand was one,” remembers Tushingham, one arm flitting as it does in so many of her movies. “You had a gay man and Paul Danquah’s sailor and me as a teenage prostitute and Dora Bryan as her brassy mother whose attitude is ‘fook ’em’ and Robert Stephens who was drunk all the time…The film was saying: ‘This is how these people live, and they’re getting on with their lives.’ They couldn’t pay the rent so they climbed out of the window with their suitcases and off they went. It was shocking for people at the time. But now my character could be 12 and no one would mind.”
With her gamine beauty and camp northern humour, it isn’t surprising that Morrissey considered her fabulous enough to be the cover star for the Sandie Shaw / Smiths single Hand in Glove in 1984 – a shot from A Taste of Honey. Her debut film was also the beginning of Rita Tushingham’s status as a gay icon. She would go on to bring life to characters that would be feted more by homosexual men than by heterosexual ones – the teenage wife she played in The Leather Boys (1963), for example, who slowly discovers that her husband’s special friendship with a fellow cycling enthusiast isn’t based on a shared love of axle lubricant alone. “You’ll find that film in the cult sections of video shops, and it’s a huge cult movie in the States,” says Tushingham. In truth, she cuts an unlikely figure, whose touches of glamour – splashes of silver and sequins in her outfit, a row of small candles lit for my visit – are offset by an old-fashioned sense of hospitality that ensures plates of biscuits are on the coffee table. “I don’t know if I’m a gay icon or not, but with A Taste of Honey, the audience were so touched by the whole story that it certainly helped matters. The characters were so sympathetic that it was as if you had met them.”
Tushingham then plunged into Richard Lester’s sexual-revolution comedy The Knack, confirming her status as a key face of the emergent social order. Her mix of innocence and feisty humour made her perfect for the role of a young northern girl fighting off the attentions of two men, one shy and the other seductive. “Since then, Richard [Lester] and his wife Deirdre have become my closest friends, and I’ve seen how Richard lets the audience observe things as if they were sitting in a park and watching something funny happen nearby,” she says. “The Knack is a gem.” I mention a memorable scene where Tushingham, in a bid to cross the road, pretends to be pregnant and the car screeches to a halt. “It’s exactly like that, though, isn’t it? Trying to get across Oxford Street is impossible and these days they don’t even care if you’re pregnant.”
In 1965 she was cast opposite Alec Guinness in David Lean’s epic Doctor Zhivago, playing the confused, fragile orphan of Omar Sharif’s Zhivago and Julie Christie’s Lara. “If you want to do an epic now, you have to have special effects, don’t you?” she says. “David Lean took a beautiful love story and wasn’t afraid to give it passion. All the layers and depth of feeling were there. Why be afraid of the content of the story? Surely special effects should only be an addition rather than a replacement, as they seem to be today.” But the apotheosis of Tushingham’s swingerhood (and one of her most under-rated films) predicted our current obsession with celebrity. In 1967 she went “stark raving mod”, as the posters had it, with Smashing Time. The George Melly-scripted film was filled with slapstick and slaps in the face to the movers and shakers of London’s swinging scene, including David Bailey and the Rolling Stones’ first manager Andrew Loog Oldham. It was savaged upon its release.
“Linnie (Lynn Redgrave) and I, who had been friends since we were 18, absolutely loved doing it,” she enthuses, “but nobody realised it was tongue-in-cheek – they thought we were trying to be trendy!” In Smashing Time, Lynn Redgrave’s Yvonne becomes a tacky pop star, with spooky parallels of Geri Halliwell; Tushingham’s Brenda becomes a reluctant fashion model, secretly unimpressed by the fame whirligig she has stepped on to. “Look at the scene at the end when they’re at the party (for Yvonne’s single) which everyone is trying to get into and be seen at. That’s what it’s like now. These days people really would go to the opening of an envelope, wouldn’t they?”
Tushingham may have played some of the key icons of the 1960s, but her identification with that era brought career problems as the excitement made way for a more sober, cynical decade. Her 1960s roles came to an end with two movies, both made in 1969: The Guru, James Ivory’s sceptical look at faddish spiritual tourism (Tushingham and Michael York go to India and meet a charismatic maharishi, George Harrison-style); and the apocalyptic madness of Richard Lester’s The Bed Sitting Room (after a nuclear war, a disparate group of Londoners live on tube trains and survive on chocolate from vending machines). Then suddenly it was the 1970s. Doe-eyed innocence was out of style. Tushingham’s first film of the new decade was the brutally misogynist Straight on Till Morning – in which the psychotic man seducing her is a long way from the suitor played by Ray Brooks in The Knack.Television appearances and Italian and Israeli films filled the years, leading to a run of German films in the 1980s and a new lease of life and work in the mid-1990s.
She starred alongside Hugh Grant in An Awfully Big Adventure in 1995, Tom Courtenay in The Boy from Mercury a year later, and Samantha Morton in Under the Skin the year after that. She plays Sean Maguire’s mum in the about-to-be released gangland tale Out of Depth and has just received a grant to direct her first short. She is also pushing forward the development of a feature film she hopes to direct, Victory Girls, which tells the story of a group of women working in a first-world-war Preston munitions factory who form a football team. “They did it to raise money for the war effort and ended up drawing larger crowds than the men,” she explains. “So the FA banned them.”
“Directing seems like a logical progression for me, although I would never put myself in a film of mine. How can you? Putting on make-up while you’re trying to concentrate on setting up the next shot? No, no.” After all these years, there’s still more than a touch of Smashing Time’s Our Brenda about Our Rita. Her personal life remains off territory; she says she is baffled by the faddishness of the modern age (“In Los Angeles there’s a hotel with a robot butler who does everything for you – he even fills the bath”) and the machinations of an increasingly cold-hearted film industry (“It’s run by lawyers, agents and accountants now, and films aren’t allowed to build as they used to”). She also remains unaffected and – despite the gilded Mayfair pad – modest. What’s more, the eyes still have it.