The BBC drama Happy Valley, which had us all gripped up until its very last moments last night, was the latest in a long line of successes penned by Huddersfield born writer Sally Wainwright. The playwright takes her place among a proud heritage of female northern writers known for being groundbreaking and radical. Bernadette Hyland explores the current state of play for women writing with a northern accent.
In November this year Salford Council is going to have a day of celebration to honour local writer, Shelagh Delaney. A northern working class writer, the daughter of a bus driver, she was born in Salford, then and now one of the poorest boroughs in the country. Shelagh wrote her most famous play, A Taste of Honey, at the age of 18 and sent it off to Joan Littlewood who put it on at the her theatre in London. First performed in 1959, it is still bringing in audiences with at least two productions on at the moment. Respected theatre critic Michael Billington said about her; “Shelagh Delaney gave working-class women a taste of what was possible.”
But the following decades did not see more Shelaghs taking their lives and imagination onto the stage or TV screen . Apart from the radical theatre of the 1970s, very few women were working as writers. The BBC drama series The Wednesday Play, for instance, groundbreaking and radical in many other ways, had very women writers with Julia Jones an exception.
It was only in the 1990s that television and theatre saw a real growth in women writers, many of them from the north, including Kay Mellor, Debbie Horsfield and Sally Wainwright. Sally is from the north, born in Huddersfield, and many of her dramas are specific to Halifax. She is a British BAFTA nominated television writer and playwright. In 2009 she won Writer of the Year Award given by the Royal Television Society for Unforgiven. Sally has been writing for 24 years and has written for Coronation Street, the Archers, as well as Scott and Bailey and Last Tango in Halifax. Her new drama Happy Valley, starring Sarah Lancashire and set in Calderdale, begins 29 April.
“I am from the north, I write about the north, but I don’t live in the north. I am primarily a writer.” For Sally the use of the term “northern” has certain connotations. ” It is about class or being old fashioned as well as warm and friendly. I am proud to write northern drama and it is about people who don’t think that the be and end all is to go and live in London.”Maxine Peake, actor and now a writer, does not want to see herself as a northern writer. As an actor she is aware of the labelling process that goes with being seen as “northern”.”‘Northern’ means assumptions being made including class, education and background. We are still battling the prejudice about what being ‘northern’ means.”
Alice Nutter, formerly of anarchist band Chumbawamba, started her career as a writer at the age of 45 and has written for TV, radio and the theatre. She thinks the term “northern drama” is a throwback to the 1960s. “I am a feminist and communist but I want to write about the struggle to be human and that is about the class struggle.”
For Alice it is her politics that dictate what she writes; “No-one calls Julian Fellows ‘a capitalist writer’ but if you are political it can discredit you in that your work is not seen as worth much.”
“I am a northern writer” says Cathy Crabb, who has written over 20 plays since becoming a playwright in 2006. “I am proud of coming from the north, it is not a negative as far as I am concerned.”
Shelagh Delaney said that the language of the north sounded like “it was right out of the earth.” Maxine believes that “the dialogue captures the lyricism of the northern accent. Maybe I am stereotyping the northern woman.”
Cathy agrees; “The way of life is more conversational. I use the musicality of the voices in my plays.” Not just women’s voices either. In one of her recent plays, The Bubbler (her response to the riots in August 2011) she told the story of two working class men talking in a pub and the rage felt by one of the characters at his own downfall from a good job in banking to managing the local Cash Generator shop.
One thing all these women agree on is the importance of women as writers and as actors in drama.
Sally says; “Women are under-represented in lead roles in drama and it is much worse for black women. There has never been a black woman playing a lead role in prime time drama.” And it does not get any better for older women and, take a breath, when I mean older women I mean 40 plus!”
One of the refreshing aspects of Sally’s writing is the range of women’s roles and ages. In Last Tango in Halifax her characters ranged from women in their 70s to teenagers. As she put it; “”Women are elderly, 40 plus and not stick insects!”
Sally is concerned about the continuing lack of women writers although during the last twenty years she has seen more women coming into the profession. “Television is getting better, when I started in Coronation Street there were only a few women writing for it and now there are more.”
Alice too is critical of the lack of female characters in primetime drama. “Writers do give people a taste of what is possible but they also shut the world down for women when you see programmes such as Luther with the depiction of violence and women as victims.”
She was influenced by writers such as Alan Silitoe and Jim Allen. “They showed me, a girl who lived in a two-up-two-down, that I could do this.” Alice believes that things are changing; “More avenues are opening up including Sky, Netflix and HBO. We are no longer reliant on three or four TV channels, although the downside to this is that viewers have to pay to watch.” And there is also crowdfunding where people or groups who want to make films outside the usual funding channels (eg television companies) can solicit finance by asking for loansor donations from individuals.
Alice is currently working for Spanner Films on their new political drama for televison called Undercovers. Financed through crowdfunding it will tell the story of how undercover police officers have infiltrated political groups over the last fifty years and had relationships with women activists and even children with them. She does not want to be labelled as a “northern” writer. “Labels are not important. “I am really interested in the struggle to be human and drama that touches people, labels can get in the way.”
For Maxine it is the depiction of working class people that is a depressing aspect of TV drama.
Lots of northern TV drama involves characters that are miserable. The exception being The Street and The Accused.Both of these series were written by left wing writer Jimmy McGovern.
Sense of humour
Her latest play Queens of the Coalfields took a serious subject, the demise of the coal industry and the response of a group of women who protested by occupying a coalmine. She believes that “northern drama is about a sense of humour, about getting through things, life at its darkest is often life at its funniest.”
Cathy, in her latest play The Prophet of A and E has taken one of the most traumatic places to set a drama; the A&E of a local hospital. “Waiting rooms are surreal places. They are places of reflection and I have mixed emotions about the NHS and I wanted to explore issues around mental illness and the ideas around deserving and non deserving illnesses.”
For her it is the characters who are crucial in her drama and she feels that she was influenced by Shelagh. “She has had an influence on many people in the north because we all read the play in school or college. She was great at writing well drawn characters and showing a way of life that is more conversational.”
Once she became famous Shelagh Delaney left Salford to live in London. But she said Salford “has everything a writer wants.” She likened Salford to a “terrible drug” and one that is was “always a question of coming back”.
Sally, Maxine, Alice and Cathy have all imbued in their writing a sense of the north, whether it is location, language or class. Maybe the reality is that Shelagh Delaney did not want to be known for one play, A Taste of Honey, but, like all these writers, she valued her roots which established her identity as a writer from the north and took the best of what that meant to her and sprinkled it through all her writings, as the best of writers do.
* This article was first published at the independent journalism platform Contributoria.com and is reproduced here with the permission of writer Bernadette Hyland who also blogs at Lipstick Socialist.