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 guru.bafta.org

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman.

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

Quiz recreates the atmosphere of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? studio. Credit: JOHAN PERSSON
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Quiz is a fast-paced, hi-tech retelling of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? cheating scandal

This tale of the “coughing major” is a nostalgic romp through the rise of reality television.

As the interval began at James Graham’s new play, Quiz, I turned to my companion and said: “Wow, this is like telly – in a theatre.” (For clarity, this is a compliment.) This fast-paced, hi-tech production tells the story of the “coughing major” Charles Ingram, who won the top prize on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and then had it taken away again after being accused of cheating.

It provides a nostalgic romp through past ITV shows and the rise of reality television, involves the only audience participation not to make me cringe straight through my seat and into the row behind, and, y’know, also asks whether our memories are so fallible that they are essentially useless, undermining the very nature of truth itself. There’s also a cracking impression of Chris Tarrant.

James Graham is on a roll: last year, the Almeida’s production of his new drama Ink transferred to the West End to the Duke of York, while the theatre next door hosted his original comedy Labour of Love.

The latter, but not the former, won an Olivier Award on 8 April, which is nothing short of a travesty. Labour of Love was a perfectly serviceable romcom ported to a constituency office, but its lighter elements somehow jarred with its ambition to Say Something About The Left. In Ink, on the other hand, the comedy bolstered the play’s moral message rather than undermined it. The play showed how the fun and excitement of the early days of the Sun swelled and distorted until the cheeky smile became a rictus grin; the second half then plunged us into darkness with a grisly murder and the collection of a Faustian bargain.

In Quiz, the comedy performs the same function as it did in Ink: it lulls and seduces the audience, leading them invisibly down a particular path, so they can then be shown how easily they were influenced. The first half is styled as “the case for the prosecution”. We hear that Ingram’s wife Diana and her brother had already appeared on the show, having devised a way to beat the supposedly random selection process. Mrs Ingram had phoned another contestant, college lecturer Tecwen Whittock, whom she vaguely knew, the night before her husband’s second appearance; he was then recorded coughing suspiciously the next day whenever the right multiple choice answer was read out. Hearing all that meant that when we were asked to vote at the interval – using keypads attached to the seats – on Major Ingram’s guilt, the audience delivered an unambiguous verdict: send him down.

Then we discovered that there was another side to the story. Diana Ingram knew Whittock through her brother, so the call could have been innocent; in any case, he claimed to have a dust allergy that made him cough almost uncontrollably. (It would have been like setting up a fiendish conspiracy based around blinking with someone who finds it hard to tolerate contact lenses.)

The hints of disquiet about the manipulative qualities of television present in the first half then bloomed fully with the revelation that the “cough tape” was supplied to the court by the TV company Celador – which gained a million pounds by not paying out the prize, remember. It had been heavily edited, with numerous other “irrelevant” coughs removed. Voting again at the end, a majority would have let Major Ingram walk free. (In real life, the jury were not so swayed; Charles and Diana Ingram and Tecwen Whittock were all found guilty.)

This is one of those productions where everything is just so. The ensemble cast switched neatly between roles; the set design was modern (recreating the bear pit of the Millionaire studio, itself meant to evoke a colosseum); the staging was fluid and surprisingly experimental; and director Daniel Evans extracted larger-than-life comedy performances that teetered on the right side of mugging. The courtroom framing also allowed for quick, shameless exposition dumps. Even better, the flashes of deeper meaning – a reference to the Iraq War’s truth-denying Comical Ali, or the Apprentice-driven presidency of Donald Trump, reality TV’s worst spin-off series – never felt forced.

Evans is artistic director at Chichester Festival Theatre, where this play had a short run last year; he and Graham have tightened and quickened it since then. Like Network at the National Theatre, it forces the audience to think about their own reaction to the play even as they’re watching it – just as the unlikely innovation of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was to let the contestants see the questions before deciding to play, tormenting them with doubt. As Graham pointed out in an interview, we should always mistrust ourselves: the case is known as the “coughing major” scandal, when the major wasn’t even the one doing the coughing.

Quiz runs until 16 June. quiztheplay.com

Quiz
Noël Coward Theatre, London W1

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge