Shelagh Take A Bow
“For a writer, a place like Salford is worth its weight in gold. It’s got everything a writer could ever want… It’s alive…the whole place is alive…I think it’s a fabulous place. And 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. Down by the river it’s even romantic, if you can stand the smell.”
If anyone possessed such a thing as ‘northern spirit’ it was Shelagh Delaney.
At the age of 18 she saw Terence Rattigan’s ‘Variations on a Theme’ at Manchester Opera House and, feeling the play said nothing to her about her life, or about the majority of people’s lives, she felt driven to write her first play, ‘A Taste of Honey’. As Michael Billington recently wrote, ‘Delaney proved that an 18-year-old Salford girl could breach the walls of what, even in 1958, was still a mainly middle-class, male-dominated British theatre.’
I workshopped her first play ‘A Taste of Honey’ with a group of young actors last year and it really is an exceptional achievement. Not only for the fact that it’s boldly set in Salford – this is pre-’Coronation Street’, remember (and, for those who missed it – here’s a link to the BBC’s recent drama about another Salford visionary, Tony Warren). Not only because it was the first play that wasn’t just about working class experience, but written by someone who experienced it, expressing her world exactly as she saw it with a blistering truth. Not only because her young characters – characters who could so easlily have slipped into cliche: a gay character, a black character, an unmarried pregnant character – are expressed with such empathy and emotional complexity. No, I think ‘A Taste of Honey’s most exceptional quality is Jo, the central character. Jo possesses wit, an infectious spirit and a unique, fertile and boundless imagination, a restless young woman determined to find the extraordinary in the everyday and to create her own rules.
In the recent obituries by theatre critics, many have expressed that through Shelagh Delaney’s achievement it’s no longer unusual for young women, or young working class writers, to have their plays staged within British theatres. Maybe so. But it’s frustratingly rare to see a contemporary dramatic character located in a North of England location in possession of Jo’s spirit.
Here’s a 1960 documentary in which Shelagh expresses how she sees Salford and how it infuses her writing with vitality. Clearly, Jo’s spirit was Shelagh Delaney’s.
‘Today at a time when working class representations on TV range from Shameless to Jeremy Kyle and with internships and knowing the right people seemingly de rigeur for any type of advancement in the arts, Delaney’s death and the disappearance of her generation is even more keenly felt.’ A comment in response to Michael Billington’s obituary.