Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid in “Last Tango in Halifax”. Photo: BBC
Show Hide image

Sally Wainwright: There’s no such thing as “northern comedy”

The writer of such “northern” hits as Last Tango in Halifax and Happy Valley explains why she finds such categorisation redundant.

When Sally Wainwright was in her early twenties she worked as a bus driver. Wainwright might be the award-winning writer behind Last Tango in Halifax and Happy Valley now, but in the 1980s a play she’d just put on at the Edinburgh Fringe had been savaged by critics and she needed the money. Yet she didn’t give up on drama completely.

“At the end of the bus route you got a 20-minute break before you had to start off again,” she told the audience at a screenwriting masterclass at Bafta’s headquarters near Piccadilly in London. “I read the whole of Ibsen’s plays and all of Chekhov in my rests.”

Critics have often pointed to the influence of Ibsen on Wainwright’s work. Her skill at drawing psychologically thrilling drama out of the minutiae of life and her knack for sparse and nuanced dialogue are large reasons why her dramas have become a staple of British television over the past two decades.

Stints on Emmerdale and Coronation Street followed her 18 months behind the wheel. Working for soaps, the bedrock of British TV’s dramatic output, taught her how vital it is to find the stories that occur between the dialogue, rather than opting for showy set pieces. “When the show is going out four times a week, you can end up with bodies under the patio and cars in the canal, instead of finding drama in the humdrum,” she says.

Wainwright, originally from Huddersfield, is frequently pegged as a writer of something called “northern comedy”, mentioned alongside writers such as Alan Bennett and Beryl Bainbridge. It’s true that many of her programmes are set in northern England (At Home With the Braithwaites in Leeds, Happy Valley in Sowerby Bridge, Last Tango in Halifax in, well, Halifax). But is there an intrinsic “northern-ness” about it, a quality her work imbibes from its setting?

“I get a bit bewildered when people pigeonhole it like that,” Wainwright says. She points out that her 2002 drama Sparkhouse – a modern retelling of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights set in West Yorkshire – was more about class than anything else. “I write what’s in my head, my heart. It could be set anywhere.” She continues: “As a northerner, I feel like I have a chip on my shoulder about so many things. But that’s about class, not geography.”

Last Tango in Halifax, Wainwright’s Bafta-winning BBC series about a late-in-life love story, has also been a hit in the US, despite concerns that the liberal use of words such as “owt”, “yon”, “daft” and “summat” would put off American viewers.

Wainwright says her decision to write “northern” dialogue is practical, not political. “It’s not really a conscious choice; it just seems more normal. I can be more subtle in my own vernacular.”

As Rachel Cooke has pointed out in the NS before, there is a pinpoint accuracy about Wainwright’s dialogue that breathes life into her characters:

People say ‘at finish’ instead of ‘at the end’. Naughty magazines are ‘mucky’, badly-behaved people are ‘pillocks’. The word ‘allsorts’ pops up all over the place, much more mischievous and heartfelt than the phrase ‘all kinds of things’.

Wainwright says that “writing dialogue is like drawing, just something some can do and others can’t”. She’s clearly one of the ones that can - while her shows have been criticised at various points for gratuitous violence (in the case of Happy Valley) or being overly “twee” (Last Tango again), there can be no question that her drama speaks to people.

In fact, it is perhaps at least partly because of how well it connects with its audience that people feel so outraged about her choices. For instance, there was outcry among fans when she chose to kill off a main characters in the most recent series of Last Tango - fuelled by the fact that the character in question was black, one of the few non-white people to appear in this, or indeed any, Sunday night TV drama. Wainwright is firm on how she feels about diversity. “A woman of colour has never played the lead in a 9pm BBC/ITV drama, and I’d like to put that right,” if only commissioners would give her the opportunity.

Between Wainwright’s reminiscences, Bafta showed clips from across her career. The scene from a mid-Nineties episode of Corrie ends with Curly Watts (played by Kevin Kennedy), all lank fringe and round glasses, bellowing, “Raquel!” down the alleyway between two rows of terraced houses. There’s a murmur of appreciation when it comes to an end. Never mind the BBC’s most trumpeted global exports, the Sherlocks and the Doctor Whos – this is quintessentially British drama. It’s what Sally Wainwright does best.

Listen to the full recording of Sally Wainwright’s Bafta masterclass on

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Islamic is Islamic State?

All photos: BBC
Show Hide image

“You’re a big corporate man” The Apprentice 2015 blog: series 11, episode 8

The candidates upset some children.

WARNING: This blog is for people watching The Apprentice. Contains spoilers!

Read up on episode 7 here.

“I don’t have children and I don’t like them,” warns Selina.

An apt starting pistol for the candidates – usually so shielded from the spontaneity, joy and hope of youth by their childproof polyester uniforms – to organise children’s parties. Apparently that’s a thing now. Getting strangers in suits to organise your child’s birthday party. Outsourcing love. G4S Laser Quest. Abellio go-carting. Serco wendy houses.

Gary the supermarket stooge is project manager of team Versatile again, and Selina the child hater takes charge of team Connexus. They are each made to speak to an unhappy-looking child about the compromised fun they will be able to supply for an extortionate fee on their special days.

“So are you into like hair products and make-up?” Selina spouts at her client, who isn’t.

“Yeah, fantastic,” is Gary’s rather enthusiastic response to the mother of his client’s warning that she has a severe nut allergy.

Little Jamal is taken with his friends on an outdoor activity day by Gary’s team. This consists of wearing harnesses, standing in a line, and listening to a perpetual health and safety drill from fun young David. “Slow down, please, don’t move anywhere,” he cries, like a sad elf attempting to direct a fire drill. “Some people do call me Gary the Giraffe,” adds Gary, in a gloomy tone of voice that suggests the next half of his sentence will be, “because my tongue is black with decay”.

Selina’s team has more trouble organising Nicole’s party because they forgot to ask for her contact details. “Were we supposed to get her number or something?” asks Selina.

“Do you have the Yellow Pages?” replies Vana. Which is The Apprentice answer for everything. Smartphones are only to be used to put on loudspeaker and shout down in a frenzy.

Eventually, they get in touch, and take Nicole and pals to a sports centre in east London. I know! Sporty! And female! Bloody hell, someone organise a quaint afternoon tea for her and shower her with glitter to make her normal. Quick! Selina actually does this, cutting to a clip of Vana and Richard resentfully erecting macaroons. Selina also insists on glitter to decorate party bags full of the most gendered, pointless tat seed capital can buy.

“You’re breaking my heart,” whines Richard the Austerity Chancellor when he’s told each party bag will cost £10. “What are we putting in there – diamond rings?” Just a warning to all you ladies out there – if Richard proposes, don’t say yes.

They bundle Nicole and friends into a pink bus, for the section of her party themed around the Labour party’s failed general election campaign, and Brett valiantly screeches Hit Me Baby One More Time down the microphone to keep them entertained.

Meanwhile on the other team, Gary is quietly demonstrating glowsticks to some bored 11-year-old boys. “David, we need to get the atmosphere going,” he warns. “Ermmmmm,” says David, before misquoting the Hokey Cokey out of sheer stress.

Charleine is organising a birthday cake for Jamal. “May contain nuts,” she smiles, proudly. “Well done, Charleine, good job,” says Joseph. Not even sarcastically.

Jamal’s mother is isolated from the party and sits on a faraway bench, observing her beloved son’s birthday celebrations from a safe distance, while the team attempts to work out if there are nuts in the birthday cake.

Richard has his own culinary woes at Nicole’s party, managing both to burn and undercook burgers for the stingy barbecue he’s insisted on overriding the afternoon tea. Vana runs around helping him and picking up the pieces like a junior chef with an incompetent Gordon Ramsay. “Vana is his slave,” comments Claude, who clearly remains unsure of how to insult the candidates and must draw on his dangerously rose-tinted view of the history of oppression.

Versatile – the team that laid on some glowstick banter and a melted inky mess of iron-on photo transfers on t-shirts for Jamal and his bored friends – unsurprisingly loses. This leads to some vintage Apprentice-isms in The Bridge café, His Lordship's official caterer to losing candidates. “I don’t want to dance around a bush,” says one. “A lot of people are going to point the finger at myself,” says another’s self.

In an UNPRECEDENTED move, Lord Sugar decides to keep all four losing team members in the boardroom. He runs through how rubbish they all are. “Joseph, I do believe there has been some responsibility for you on this task.” And “David, I do believe that today you’ve got a lot to answer to.”

Lord Sugar, I do believe you’re dancing around a bush here. Who’s for the chop? It’s wee David, of course, the only nice one left.

But this doesn’t stop Sugar voicing his concern about the project manager. “I’m worried about you, Gary,” he says. “You’re a big corporate man.” Because if there’s any demographic in society for whom we should be worried, it’s them.

Candidates to watch:


Hanging on in there by his whiskers.


Far less verbose when he’s doing enforced karaoke.


She’ll ruin your party.

I'll be blogging The Apprentice each week. Click here for the previous episode blog. The Apprentice airs weekly at 9pm, Wednesday night on BBC One.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.