Caught by the River

Caught by the Reaper – Shelagh Delaney

21st November 2011

Dave Haslam pays tribute to the writer Shelagh Delaney, who passed away on Monday.

At 5.30pm on Monday 21st November Channel 4 News tweeted “Morrissey inspiration Shelagh Delaney, author of A Taste of Honey, has died”, and it’s true that as well as more than a handful of Morrissey’s lyrics coming straight out of Shelagh Delaney’s ‘A Taste of Honey’, he drew deeply from her kitchen-sink sensibilities, and shared her caressing way with words – but Channel 4 were underselling Miss Delaney’s contribution to the modern theatre, and to the creation of our sense of Salford, the North, and England.

When ‘A Taste of Honey’ was staged by the Theatre Workshop in May 1958, it hit the theatre world like a jolt, the shock that an 18 year-old lass born in Salford, part-time usherette, one time clerk in a milk depot, could produce a piece of theatre so funny, dramatic, current, heart-felt and important knocked British theatre off its axis. ‘A Taste of Honey’ is a jewel in the crown of modern British theatre. Tethering her to Morrissey only explains a little of status, her appeal.

“Tether” is a word Shelagh Delaney uses to great effect in a 1960 BBC profile of her by Ken Russell, as she describes the restlessness of the young folk of Salford, particularly her feelings as a young teenager in the mid-1950s, “tethered like a horse”, in a working class world circumscribed and frustrating her urge to break free, to find life.

In 1959 another interviewer, Lawrence Kitchin, met and described her thus; “She is six feet tall, with the poised, rangy figure of a dancer or a Californian tennis player, has hazel eyes and dark hair, worn in a style she cannot classify, though it could be Italian”.

Her spirit shines through in Ken Russell profile, and wisdom far beyond her years. You can sense how ahead of the world Shelagh Delaney was at this point, freaking everyone out with her looks, her sweet voice, her amazing writing, her spirit.

‘A Taste of Honey’ started out as a novel, but Delaney confessed to Lawrence Kitchin that it barely got started and she got distracted from it; “I was too busy enjoying myself, going out dancing. I wasn’t getting very far with the novel and I suddenly realised I could do a play better.”

What triggered her determination to turn the novel into a play was a trip to a theatre in Manchester to see a hit Terrence Rattigan play called ‘Variation on a Theme’. Having sat there squirming in her seat, disappointed by its deadly dullness, she returned home. We know this to be true; that less creative artists might see something successful and want to it rip it off, but it takes a brave and greater soul to see something successful and want to rip it up.

The mainstream was saying nothing to her, so she looked local, setting ‘A Taste of Honey’ in a “comfortless flat” in Salford and telling the story of a teenage daughter and her mother (who’s described as a “semi-whore”), the daughter’s relationship with a homosexual art student and her liaison with a coloured sailor. The first performances by the Theatre Workshop were well received, and the influential critic Kenneth Tynan became one of her champions; “Miss Delaney brings real people to her stage, joking and flaring and suffering and eventually, out of the zest for life she gives them, surviving.”

The local Salford press joined the excitement, tracking her down to her house on Duchy Row in Pendleton and giving her the full local-girl-makes-good treatment. Within weeks, though the ‘Salford City Reporter’ was less enthusiastic; hostile, in fact. A few local people had seen the play, and realised the portrayal of Salford was not what might be called flattering. A front page comment piece attacked her. The people, it turns out, were all too real. The language was a bit ripe. The mother was a whore, the best friend queer and the father of the child was a Negro.

It’s not unusual now to see plays with sympathetic gay or black characters, or unmarried mothers, so maybe we need to be reminded by this kind of evidence just how revolutionary ‘A Taste of Honey’ was; featuring characters and situations no-one had expected on a stage. People bickering and swearing. Scandalous!

Several years later, Delaney wrote a story called ‘The White Bus’ in which she describes an encounter between a young female writer and a Lord Mayor, during a guided tour of his town (which is recognisable Salford). He tells her how unpopular she is in the town, writing about “Unmarried mothers and things and homosexuals – you’ve given us a bad reputation in the eyes of the country”. He tells her to write about “clean decent things”. When he asks if she writes from experience, she replies “All the time”.

She didn’t stay in Salford, and, if truth be told, once disconnected from her roots, she didn’t hit the same artistic heights as she did early in her career, although her screenplays for ‘Charley Bubbles’ and particularly ‘Dance With a Stranger’ were both well delivered.

But ‘A Taste of Honey’ never went away, and, if anything, its influence grew. Tony Warren devised and wrote ‘Coronation Street’ in its wake; set in the same streets and, at its best, glorying in the same colourful cadences of everyday Salford speech. I saw a performance of it a year or so ago, and whilst some of the shock it engendered in 1958 wasn’t there, this just underlined its other, more universal qualities; funny, clever, humane, but with a dark shadow of desperation lurking.

The early burst of publicity that Shelagh Delaney attracted was followed by years avoiding the public eye. My three increasingly desperate written requests to interview her – the first, dating back to 1984 – were never even acknowledged. But I quite like the fact she couldn’t be arsed. I like that the footage we have of her has that freshness about it, that unselfconsciousness, the wisdom, that determination not to be tethered. A free spirit with a wonderful way with words.

Shelagh Delaney, born 25 November 1939; died 20 November 2011