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?

PHOTO: ROBERTO RICCIUTI/GETTY IMAGES
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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist