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