Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid in “Last Tango in Halifax”. Photo: BBC
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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 assistant editor of the New Statesman.

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

Screenshot of Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits.
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How likely are the plots of each Black Mirror episode to happen?

As the third series is on its way, how realistic is each instalment so far of the techno-dystopian drama? We rate the plausibility of every episode.

What if horses could vote? What if wars were fought using Snapchat? What if eggs were cyber?

Just some of the questions that presumably won’t be answered in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, somewhere between The Twilight Zone with an app and The Thick Of It on acid.

A typical instalment takes an aspect of modern technology, politics, or life in general and pushes it a few steps into the future – but just how plausible has each episode been so far?

Series 1 (2011)

Episode 1: The National Anthem

Premise: A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and will only be released unharmed if the Prime Minister agrees to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

Instead of predicting the future, Black Mirror’s first episode unwittingly managed to foreshadow an allegation about the past: Charlie Brooker says at the time he was unaware of the story surrounding David Cameron and a pig-based activity that occurred at Oxford university. But there’s absolutely no evidence that the Cameron story is true, and real political kidnappings tend to have rather more prosaic goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that something akin to the events portrayed could NEVER happen.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Premise: Sometime in the future, most of the population is forced to earn money by pedalling bikes to generate electricity, while constantly surrounded by unskippable adverts. The only hope of escape is winning an X-Factor-style game show.

In 2012, a Brazilian prison announced an innovative method of combating overcrowding. Prisoners were given the option to spend some of their time on electricity-producing bikes; for every 16 hours they spent on the bike, a day would be knocked off their sentence.

The first step to bicycle-dystopia? Probably not. The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

Premise: Everyone has a device implanted in their heads that records everything that happens to them and allows them to replay those recordings at will.

Google Glasses with a built-in camera didn’t work out, because no one wanted to walk around looking like a creepy berk. But the less visibly creepy version is coming; Samsung patented “smart” contact lenses with a built-in camera earlier this year.

And there are already social networks and even specialised apps that are packaging up slices of our online past and yelling them at us regardless of whether we even want them: Four years ago you took this video of a duck! Remember when you became Facebook friends with that guy from your old work who got fired for stealing paper? Look at this photo of the very last time you experienced true happiness!

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 5

Series 2 (2013)

Episode 1: Be Right Back

Premise: A new service is created that enables an artificial “resurrection” of the dead via their social media posts and email. You can even connect it to a robot, which you can then kiss.

Last year, Eugenia Kuyda, an AI entrepreneur, was grieving for her best friend and hit upon the idea of feeding his old text messages into one of her company’s neural network-based chat bots, so that she and others could, in a way, continue to talk to him. Reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, mixed – this very episode was cited by those who were disturbed by the tribute. Even the robot bit might not be that far off, if that bloke who made the creepy Scarlett Johansson android has anything to say about it.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: White Bear

Premise: A combination of mind-wiping technology and an elaborately staged series of fake events are used to punish criminals by repeatedly giving them an experience that will make them feel like their own victims did.

There is some evidence that it could be possible to selectively erase memories using a combination of drugs and other therapies, but would this ever be used as part of a bizarre criminal punishment? Well, this kind of “fit the crime” penalty is not totally unheard of – judges in America have been to known to force slum landlords to live in their own rental properties, for example. But, as presented here, it seems a bit elaborate and expensive to work at any kind of scale.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 3: The Waldo Moment

Premise: A cartoon bear stands as an MP.

This just couldn’t happen, without major and deeply unlikely changes to UK election law. Possibly the closest literal parallel in the UK was when Hartlepool FC’s mascot H'Angus the Monkey stood for, and was elected, mayor – although the bloke inside, Stuart Drummond, ran under his own name and immediately disassociated himself from the H’Angus brand to become a serious and fairly popular mayor.

There are no other parallels with grotesque politicians who may as well be cartoon characters getting close to high political office. None.

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Christmas special (2015)

Episode: White Christmas

Premise 1: Everyone has a device implanted in their eyes that gives them constant internet access. One application of this is to secretly get live dating/pick-up artistry advice.

As with “The Entire History of You”, there’s nothing particularly unfeasible about the underlying technology here. There’s already an app called Relationup that offers live chat with “relationship advisers” who can help you get through a date; another called Jyst claims to have solved the problem by allowing users to get romantic advice from a community of anonymous users. Or you could, you know, just smile and ask them about themselves.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Premise 2: Human personalities can be copied into electronic devices. These copies then have their spirits crushed and are forced to become the ultimate personalised version of Siri, running your life to your exact tastes.

The Blue Brain Project research group last year announced they’d modelled a small bit of rat brain as a stepping stone to a full simulation of the human brain, so, we’re getting there.

But even if it is theoretically possible, using an entire human personality to make sure your toast is always the right shade of brown seems like overkill. What about the risk of leaving your life in the hands of a severely traumatised version of yourself? What if that bathwater at “just the right” temperature turns out to be scalding hot because the digital you didn’t crack in quite the right way?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Premise 3: There’s a real-life equivalent of a social media block: once blocked, you can’t see or hear the person who has blocked you. This can also be used as a criminal punishment and people classed as sex offenders are automatically blocked by everyone.

Again, the technology involved is not outrageous. But even if you have not worried about the direct effect of such a powerful form of social isolation on the mental health of criminals, letting them wander around freely in this state is likely to have fairly unfortunate consequences, sooner or later. It’s almost as if it’s just a powerful image to end a TV drama on, rather than a feasible policy suggestion.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Series 3 of Black Mirror is out on Friday 21 October on Netflix.