Monday, September 17, 2012

Rita Tushingham Tribute

Rita Tushingham

By Ed Garea  

One cannot mention the phrases “British New Wave” or “Swinging London Films” without mentioning the name Rita Tushingham. In two genres aimed at young men, she dominated. And it wasn’t due to her looks: with her ordinary figure and aquiline nose, she was hardly a threat to Liz Taylor. But she could act rings around Liz and a vast majority of the other female movie stars of the time. With those big, blue, expressive waifish eyes, and the way she carried herself, she caught your attention the minute she appeared on the screen.

Tushingham was born 14 March 1942 in Liverpool. She attended La Sagesse convent school in Liverpool, after which she began her career on the stage with an apprenticeship at the Liverpool Playhouse. While working backstage, she spotted an advertisement for auditions for an upcoming film titled A Taste of Honey. She answered the ad, and at the age of 19, was chosen to star in the film. The producers originally wanted Audrey Hepburn for the starring role, but she was far too expensive. Joan Plowright, who won the 1961 Tony Award for her stage performance as Jo, was unavailable.

What we will do in this article is to look at Rita’s films from the “British New Wave” and the “Swinging London” genres, both of which dominated the British film scene during the first half of the ‘60s. She became so identified with these movements (almost the poster girl), that when they faded, her career did the same. Though she continued to provide excellent performances in many other films to the present time, her career never again reached the heights it did during those magic years.

A TASTE OF HONEY (Bryantson,1960). Director: Tony Richardson. Starring: Dora Bryan, Rita Tushingham, Robert Stephens, Murray Melvin, & Paul Danquah.

This is the story of a poor working-class girl named Jo in northern England with a domineering alcoholic 40-year old mother, Helen (Dora Bryan). Jo and Mom fall out after Mom meets Peter and impulsively marries him. For her part, Jo meets a young black sailor named Jimmy. One thing leads to another and soon Jo is pregnant. Worse, Jimmy ships out and Jo is, as they say in Yiddish, “left mit a peckl (package).” She finds work in a shoe store and rents a flat on her own. 

Soon she meets a gay textile design student named Geoff and invites him to move in with her. When Jo discovers her condition, Geoff is supportive and even offers to marry her, telling her that, “You need somebody to love you while you’re looking for somebody to love.” Re-enter Mom, whose marriage has fallen apart. She clashes with Geoff, who decides he can no longer stay and moves out, leaving Jo and Helen to care for the impending baby. A downbeat ending, but this is British New Wave – there are no happy endings. 

Though Dora Bryan is top billed, it’s Rita that dominates the movie, taking us out of ourselves and making us care for her and her situation. Director Tony Richardson successfully walks the fine line between drama and melodrama, never allowing things to get out of hand, and Murray Melvin, as Geoff, gives a believable and moving performance, showing us how two outcasts flock together to survive the world. It’s definitely an A+ film – look for it next time it’s shown. 

A PLACE TO GO (British-Lion, 1962). Director: Basil Dearden. Starring: Bernard Lee, Rita Tushingham, Michael Sarne, Doris Hare, Barbara Ferris, & John Slater.

Tushingham followed up the acclaimed A Taste of Honey with this dud. Yet another “working-class” drama, it lacks the drive and clever drama of the previous film, replacing it instead with stale writing and below par acting. The film revolves around the Flint family, whose breadwinner, father Matt (Bernard Lee) is fired from his job as a dockworker for being “too mouthy.” Belittled at his former job, he is also belittled at home by wife Lil (Doris Hare), adding to his misery and feeling of being trapped. To put bread on the table, Matt becomes – are you ready? – an escapologist. The obvious symbolism is laughable, as are the dinner table scenes where the Flints fight it out and the bedroom scenes with embarrassing clinches. 

Meanwhile, son Ricky (Michael Sarne) joins forces with a gangster (John Slater) to rob the cigarette factory where he works. It also does nothing to advance Tushingham with either the critics or the public. Tushingham, meanwhile, is wasted in the role of Catherine Donovan, girlfriend of Ricky. Sarne, a pop star and movie-critic-turned-actor, is a double threat: can’t act and can’t sing. He went on to minor supporting roles in film and television, most notably his brief turn in the megabomb Myra Breckenridge. It’s not all a waste: the settings in the Bethnal Green section of London are well done and visually stunning for those who love cityscapes. But if released today, A Place to Go would go straight to video.

THE LEATHER BOYS (Raymond Stross Productions/Allied Artists, 1964) – Director: Sidney J. Furie. Starring: Rita Tushingham, Colin Campbell, Dudley Sutton, Gladys Henson, Avice Landone, & Lockwood West.

Tushingham rebounds rather nicely in this excellent example of the British New Wave. She plays Dot, a 16-year old girl who can be best described as shallow, selfish and extremely vain. Her immaturity is all too obvious, and like most like her, she is attracted to her direct opposite, a guileless young boy named Reggie (Colin Campbell). Besotted with each other, they marry, but soon live to rue their wedding day as they discover marriage is not what they thought it would be. Reggie meets Pete, a flamboyant, extraverted biker and they become best friends, ultimately moving in together, leaving Dot on the outside looking in. While Reggie is trying to figure out what he wants from life, Pete knows what he wants: Reggie. Reggie, however, is so naïve that he never realizes Pete is gay until the final scene where Reggie waits in a closeted gay bar for his best mate and learns that the boat Reg thinks is going to take them to America is really sailing for Liverpool. Disillusioned, Reggie walks off, leaving Pete, but does not go back to Dot.

Although this synopsis sounds as if the film is heavily telegraphed, that’s not the case at all, thanks to great writing by Gillian Freeman (who also wrote the novel on which the screenplay is based) and the deft acting of both Campbell as Reggie and Dudley Sutton as Pete. Furie handles the cast superbly, tipping his hand neither way as to where the film is headed. Tushingham, for her part, plays Dot always on the edge of anger, but never crosses that line to where she gives the plot away, and it can be said that few play angry as swell as Rita. Adding to the total effect is the stark black and white photography adding to the feeling of hopelessness felt by the major characters. 

Thinking back, I can see the influences of the film on Mike Leigh and Franc Roddam’s Quadrophenia. (In fact, leading lady Leslie Ash reminds me of Tushingham in her performance.) I last saw this film more than 30 years ago when I rented it from a now-defunct video store near where I worked. It was a terrible transfer: grainy, with a lousy soundtrack. If there is one movie crying out for restoration and rediscovery by film mavens it is The Leather Boys. 

GIRL WITH GREEN EYES (Woodfall, 1964) – Director: Desmond Davis. Starring: Peter Finch, Rita Tushingham, Lynn Redgrave, Marie Kean, Arthur O’Sullivan, & Julian Glover.

This is a serious and touching a look at May-December romance and the coming to terms with change in a relationship. Rita is Kate Brady, an Irish girl fresh off the farm, who has come to Dublin, where she moves in with friend Baba Brennan (Lynn Redgrave). Soon she meets Eugene Galliard (Peter Finch), a considerably older writer whose wife has left him. Enchanted, she pursues him and despite his initial reservations, he invites her to live with him at his country home. As the relationship moves on, both come to realize they have nothing in common except their love. Kate’s feelings of inferiority cause her to become jealous and possessive while Eugene in turn becomes restless and sarcastic. They quarrel and Kate leaves. She and Baba are moving to London and Kate expects Eugene to come running after her. When she realizes that he’s not going to do that, she chalks it up to experience. 

Cinematographer Desmond Davis, here directing his first film, keeps the story in play and does a nice job of not letting things grow stale. Lynn Redgrave, here in an early role, gives us a hint of what is to come, as she nearly steals the film with her offbeat performance. Again, an excellent film that should not be missed the next time it appears.

While the first four movies were part of the British New Wave, the next, titled The Knack . . . and How To Get It, was a prime example of the “Swinging London” genre. “Swinging London” was a phrase coined by “Time” magazine in the April 15, 1966, issue and reflected the changing popular culture sweeping England. The ‘50s, with its rule of austerity and rationing, was over, replaced by a new optimism based on a growing youth culture influenced by all-night amphetamine-fueled dance parties, Italian fashion, and a new home-grown music reflected in the work of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, and the Kinks, among others. Fashion, music, and pop existentialism dominated the cultural scene, which marked the beginning of a true consumer culture in Britain. Models were the new icons and art took a psychedelic style, with loud colors and simple, yet outrageous subjects. 

Although England seemed to catch the new optimistic fever rather late as compared with America (the Kennedy election), and Italy (I would unequivocally state that Fellini’s La Dolce Vita was a major influence on the shaping of the Swinging London culture), it wholeheartedly adopted and further refined its influences, exporting them to other countries such as America (“The British Invasion”), and France, where it spurred on the students to riot against the status quo in Paris. But by 1969, it was all over. The election of Richard Nixon and the continuing debacle in Vietnam acted as a cultural thermidor with the cultural nadir reflected in the breakup of the Beatles and the movement inward.

THE KNACK . . . AND HOW TO GET IT (Woodfall, 1965) – Director: Richard Lester. Starring: Rita Tushingham, Ray Brooks, Michael Crawford, Donal Donnelly, and William Dexter.

Directed by Lester, whose previous film was A Hard Day’s Night with the Beatles, The Knack is noted for its quixotic combination of rapid cutting and editing on a canvas that is evocative of Godard. “The Knack” of the title is a way of scoring with women. Our hero, a teacher named Colin (Michael Crawford, later of Broadway’s Phantom of the Opera) doesn’t have it, but his friend Tolen (Ray Brooks) does and Tom wants Tolen to teach him the art of the Knack. 

At the same time, Nancy (Rita Tushingham) gets off a London-bound train and is busy asking for directions to the local YWCA. Most of the action takes place at Colin’s home, where he has rented out rooms to both Tolen and Tom, an artist who plays the role of Puck, commenting on the action. Lester also adds a running chorus of older people commenting disagreeably on the action. We could have used subtitles here, since their comments are in London slang. Suffice to say that Colin gets much more than the Knack – he gets Nancy – while Tolen gets the gate. If you remember the era fondly, it’s definitely worth a peek, and if you’re too young to remember the era fondly, watch it anyway – it’s a window into a now defunct sub-culture: the world of mods and rockers.  

DOCTOR ZHIVAGO (MGM, 1965) – Director: David Lean. Starring: Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Geraldine Chaplin, Rod Steiger, Alec Guinness, Ralph Richardson, and Rita Tushingham.

David Lean’s big-screen epic filming of Pasternak’s celebrated novel about the Russian Revolution was a must for every English actor worth his or her chops. Tushingham won a minor part as the love child of hero Zhivago (Omar Sharif) and Lara (Julie Christie).

THE TRAP (Rank, 1966) – Director: Sidney Hayers. Starring: Rita Tushingham, Oliver Reed, Rex Sevenoaks, and Barbara Chilcott.

Like Zhivago, this is another change of pace for Tushingham. Set in the Canadian wilderness, it’s the story of a fur trapper (Oliver Reed) who kidnaps a mute woman (Tushingham) to be his unwilling wife. The development of their relationship sets this movie apart from others of the time, and today, it is rightly seen as a “lost classic.” Great acting from both leads, especially Rita, who plays her role without speaking a word. Look for it.

SMASHING TIME (Paramount, 1967) – Director: Desmond Davis. Starring: Rita Tushingham, Lynn Redgrave, Michael York, and Ian Carmichael.

Brenda (Tushingham) and Yvonne (Lynn Redgrave) are two girls from the north of England who come to London to find their fortune. Yvonne becomes a model while Brenda turns to being a waitress. A series of misadventures sees them sabotaging each other’s dates, losing their jobs, and eventually switching jobs as Brenda becomes a model and Yvonne a waitress. Only when they learn to team together against the world do they begin to succeed. 

Although it’s a failed attempt to create a comedy team, Desmond Davis keeps things going smoothly with a loose rein. While the plot’s passable and the acting professional by all, one should just revel in the palette of the film: the bright, loud colors, clothes and attitudes. Possibly no films were helped more by the use of color that the “Swinging London” genre.

DIAMONDS FOR BREAKFAST (Paramount, 1968) – Director: Christopher Morahan. Starring: Marcello Mastrioianni, Rita Tushingham, Elaine Taylor, and Margaret Blye.

It’s Topkapi in Swinging London. Nicholas Goduno (Marcello Mastrioianni) is a playboy at loose in London. He is also a descendent of Russian aristocracy. Goduno wants to get back the jewels his father lost playing roulette on the very day he was born, as he has come to believe that they are rightfully his. The only way to do this, however, is to steal them. His opportunity comes when he learns that they will arrive in London as a museum display. 

To pull of the heist he put together a crack team of seven beautiful women. They include a “reformed” thief, an Asian stripper, a Marxist, a cat burglar, and, believe it or not, identical judoka triplets. Tushingham, besides being on the crack team, is also his current girlfriend. While the women are gorgeous and fun to watch, the film is otherwise a dull affair, with none of the snappy dialogue that made Topkapi so enjoyable. Mastroianni plays several roles besides Goduno; he also appears as other members of the royal family that appear in his mind as he contemplates the heist. Marcello also sings the rather catchy title song.

THE GURU (20th Century Fox, 1969) – Director: James Ivory. Starring: Rita Tushingham, Michael York, Utpal Dutt, Madhur Jaffrey, and Barry Foster.

Renowned sitar maestro Ustad Zafar Khan (Utpal Dutt) suddenly discovers that two young Brits have made the trek to his home in Bombay: pop star Tom Pickle (Michael York), who wants to learn the intricacies of the sitar, and Jenny (Tushingham), a hippie who wants spiritual guidance. Unfortunately, Tom has neither the patience nor the respect to properly learn the instrument, leading to friction. Jenny, on the other hand, has upset Khan’s household with her adoration. The clincher comes when the musician takes his visitors to meet his guru. The guru upbraids Khan for wasting his time on the two Britishers and ruining himself as a musician. 

Meanwhile, not only have Tom and Jenny fallen in love, but they come to the realization that they will forever be strangers in this strange land and so return to England to marry. The highlight of this tepid film is hearing the sitar. York is good as the snide pop star, playing his character with a sort of indifference to his surroundings, seeking instant knowledge. Tushingham’s role is less defined and it seems she has little motivation other than finding a husband. 

When director James Ivory and his partner, producer Ismail Merchant, have a wealth of material and a good-sized budget, the results are outstanding as the material manages to overcome Ivory’s laid-back directing style. But when they lack this and are saddled with a script that says everything meaningful within the first 25 minutes, then Ivory’s style becomes a bore.

After her turn in the dreadful The Bed Sitting Room (which works far better as a television special), Tushingham’s film career went into decline, working television series and supporting roles in less than stellar films. Her last film is 2012’s Outside Bet, with a small supporting role in a movie about a group of financially-desperate people that invest their savings in a racehorse hoping for one last huge payout.

Tushingham also spends much of her time as an activist in the battle against breast cancer, of which her daughter, Aisha Bicknell, is a survivor. The two are prominent supporters of Cancer Research UK’s Relay for Life, a fundraising and cancer awareness event. In July 2009, she received an Honorary Fellowship from John Moores University in Liverpool for her contributions to the performing arts.


  1. Good post! I think she should be better known around the world.

  2. I found your post while googling for the girl who appears at the beginning of Dr. Zhivago. Thanks much for this informative writeup on Rita Tushingham.

    I find fascinating that the British 1960s depiction of "young modern" cultural life was very different from what was being produced in Hollywood around the same time. I didn't realize Rita Tushingham was one of the main "faces" of that time.

  3. Thank you both for your kind comments.

    Rita Tushingham was one of the great faces of British '60s cinema. You both are right - she should be better remembered. Her contributions to British film were invaluable.