Shelagh, take a bow

With A Taste of Honey, Shelagh Delaney succeeded where others had merely pitied – she portrayed working-class men and women as they were, not as others wished them to be.

Neil Davenport

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Shelagh Delaney, who died aged 71 last Sunday, was perhaps the most iconoclastic social-realist writer of the postwar period. Aged 18 when she wrote A Taste of Honey, her youth, her working-class background and her gender have become the stuff of ‘against all odds’ inspiration. As the first ‘working-class woman playwright’, as author Jeanette Winterson described her, Delaney symbolised a blow against deference and patriarchy, conformity and paternalism. And she did so with a play in 1958 which, even today, still seems gob-smacking and moving. While other ‘kitchen sink’ writers stuck to class and ambition, Delaney tackled women’s oppression and all its attendant miseries, restrictions and banalities. She also transgressed racial stereotypes, too, preferring the modern and the universal to the multicultural and particular.

Indeed, Delaney’s quest for the modern and universal is why she became a playwright in the first place. Delaney had been taken to see Terence Rattigan’s Variation on a Theme at Manchester’s Opera House and came away convinced she could do better. In her terrace house on Ducy Row in Pendleton, Salford, Shelagh, the daughter of a bus conductor, wrote about the world she saw around her. ‘I had strong ideas about what I wanted to see in the theatre’, she said. ‘We used to object to plays where the factory workers came cap in hand and call the boss “sir”. Usually North Country people are shown as gormless, whereas in actual fact they are very alive and cynical.’

Partly based on a novel she was already writing, in two weeks Delaney wrote a play about a resilient Salford girl, Jo, who is left alone by her feckless mum one Christmas, goes to bed with a Nigerian sailor, gets pregnant and is lovingly tended to by a gay art student. The latter character was added partly because Delaney felt that Rattigan had ‘showed insensitivity to the way homosexuals had been portrayed’ in Variation on a Theme. Having written the piece, Delaney had the foresight to send it to Joan Littlewood, who had turned the Theatre Royal, Stratford East into a notable home of new drama. ‘Quite apart from its meaty content, we believe we have found a real dramatist’, Gerry Raffles of Theatre Workshop said at the time. In Salford, where Delaney was born, the council raged that the portrayal in the play savaged the town. When it became a massive success, however, and turned Delaney into a national celebrity, Salford council asked her for the manuscript copy of the play for its library. Delaney called them hypocrites and gave the original script to Littlewood instead.

A Taste of Honey was first performed on the 27 May 1958 and subsequently enjoyed a run of 368 performances in the West End from January 1959. It was also seen on Broadway, America, and is widely claimed as the most performed play by a postwar British woman playwright. Delaney sold the film rights for a cool £20,000 and co-wrote the script with director Tony Richardson. Released in 1961, it starred Rita Tushingham as Jo, Dora Bryan as her mother and Murray Melvin as Geoffrey. It won four Bafta awards, including best British screenplay and best British film. Tushingham won a Bafta for best newcomer and received an award at Cannes, as did Melvin.

Fifty years on, the oft-used term ‘taboo breaking’ has become an excuse to obsess over the dark side of humanity, crank up the expletive count and mock anyone within spitting distance of normality. A Taste of Honey, though, was taboo breaking in a genuine and profound manner. It portrayed the lives of working-class women in a way that was real but ignored by playwrights and politicians. In doing so, Delaney anticipated how sex and abortion would come to be discussed in society. Indeed the main character, Jo, was several miles removed from how women were portrayed in similar plays and films of the period. Aware that is she on the margins of respectable society, Jo approaches others and society completely on her own terms. It is Jo’s vitality and resilience that furnishes the play with such a distinctive voice.

Unlike that modern day version of Salford life, Shameless, A Taste of Honey also avoids romanticising the unedifying aspects of working-class life too. Jo’s mother Helen is sourly presented as crude, foul-mouthed and a drunkard, eager to abandon her daughter to hook up with a rich younger lover. Arguably even this was to show how defeated sections of the working class were ‘alive and cynical’, rather than deferential and ‘gormless’, as seen routinely elsewhere. Even today, it’s hard to imagine a writer portraying a black character who is neither stereotyped nor idealised. Delaney understood the people she was writing about and came neither to praise nor to bury them. She simply shed light on their struggles and difficulties, hopes and dreams, and did so in a way that shocked the cultural classes but delighted ordinary people. ‘The language is alive, it’s virile, it lives and it breathes and you know exactly where it’s coming from. Right out of the earth’, she said in a 1960 film by Ken Russell.

Unfortunately, Delaney’s earthy writing style and characters didn’t impress conservative critics of the period. WA Darlington loathed her second play, The Lion In Love, for featuring another hard-drinking monster mother who terrorises everyone around her. The massive success of A Taste of Honey meant that any sophomore effort would be seen as a let down and, to be fair, The Lion in Love was rather mundane. But far from being a one-hit literary wonder in the JD Salinger/Harper Lee mode, Delaney maintained a successful writing career. After publishing a set of short stories in 1963, Sweetly Sings the Donkey, Delaney moved into film and television writing.

She wrote an excellent screenplay for Lindsey Anderson’s film The White Bus (1967) which dealt with a charismatic young northern girl who retreats from her disastrous office life in London to view her hometown as a visitor on a sightseeing bus. She also wrote minor cult classic Charlie Bubbles (1967), starring and directed by Albert Finney as a writer experiencing a creative block and who behaves in an increasingly bizarre and off-beam way. Her television plays in the 1970s included Did Your Nanny Come from Bergen?, St Martin’s Summer and, for the BBC in 1977, The House That Jack Built. But in the early to mid-1980s, interest in Delaney was revived for a new generation after the Smiths’ lead singer Morrissey routinely hailed her as a heroine. One of the Smiths’ most enduring songs, the atmospheric ‘This Night Has Opened My Eyes’, is effectively A Taste of Honey condensed into four minutes, while the line ‘I dreamt about you last night/and I fell out of bed twice’ from A Taste of Honey was used in the Smiths’ ‘Reel Around The Fountain’, too. Delaney became one of the few Moz icons to appear twice on Smiths sleeves, the compilation album Louder Than Bombs and the single ‘Girlfriend In A Coma’.

But Delaney didn’t quite tail off with simply being a poster girl for Morrissey. In 1985 she achieved fresh success with her screenplay for Dance With A Stranger, based on the life of the last woman to be hanged, Ruth Ellis, for murdering her lover. And even into the 2000s, Delaney penned the successful radio plays Tell Me A Film (2003) and Country Life (2004). Whereas fellow social realist Stan Barstow and TV scriptwriters Galton and Simpson simply retired on their royalties early in their careers, Delaney pursued writing as a vocation late in life.

Although many a journalist has gushed forth on Delaney’s undoubted qualities this week, there is still a sense that, after A Taste of Honey, she was all but ignored by critics. Suspicious of all the things that made her an icon – her background, her gender, her foresight – conservatives felt she represented all that was rotten about the demise of deference and increasing working-class mobility.

Even more liberal critics have been sceptical about her talents. The Observer’s Kenneth Tynan slammed A Taste of Honey at the time for its crudities and reckoned that Delaney didn’t know the difference between content and vulgarity. And this week the Guardian was rather keen to point out that A Taste of Honey’s ‘artless script’ was more or less the work of Joan Littlewood’s editing skills.

Last year the author Jeanette Winterson raged against the sidelining of Delaney as a talented writer. She reckoned that reviews of her work were often ‘essays in sexism’. To that, we can add class snobbery, too.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics teacher. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

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