Sunday, 27 November 2011

Shelagh Delaney Obituary

Playwright, screen-writer, author

Born November 25th 1939; died November 20th 2011.

When Shelagh Delaney, who has died of cancer aged seventy-two, saw Terence Rattigan's play, Variations On A Theme, she was appalled, both by its writing and by what she saw as an insensitive treatment of homosexuality. The response of this precocious Salford-born teenager was to pen A Taste of Honey, a play about a girl her own age who becomes pregnant to a black sailor on a one-night stand, then moves in to bring up the child with what would now be regarded as her gay best
friend.

When the play was produced in 1958 by Joan Littlewood's ground-breaking Theatre Workshop company in London's east end, its taboo-breaking in terms of its depiction of race, class and a sexuality that had only just been decriminalised in England became a hit. Delaney was just
eighteen. The play transferred to the West End, then Broadway. In 1961, Tony Richardson's film of the play that cast Rita Tushingham alongside original cast member Murray Melvin, who would become a regular at Glasgow's Citizens Theatre throughout the 1970s and 1980s, became a totem of the English new wave of post-war film and theatre that arguably began with John Osborne's Look Back In Anger.

Where the stage play was theatricalised with a series of Brechtian asides to the audience, Richardson's film out of necessity shifted Delaney's style to kitchen-sink naturalism. It was Richardson’s film, co-scripted by Delaney, that would capture the imagination of Steven
Patrick Morrissey, whose own childhood in Mancunian terraces echoed Delaney's own. When Morrissey formed The Smiths, his lyrics for the
band's debut album were fog-thick with grim-up-north romanticism.

The opening track, Reel Around The Fountain, features lines lifted wholesale from Delaney's play. Another song, This Night Has Opened My Eyes, was based on the play, while photographs of Delaney graced the covers of single, Girlfriend In A Coma and compilation, Louder Than Bombs. Smiths single Sheila Take A Bow is believed to honour the woman for whom Morrissey said that “at least fifty per cent of my reason for writing can be blamed on Shelagh Delaney.”

Of Irish descent, Shelagh Delaney was born on November 25th 1939 in Broughton, Salford, where she first attended secondary school, a period she described as the best education ever. Despite failing the eleven-plus, Delaney, who had already begun writing, was transferred to a grammar school, where she said later that she could already see that she knew far more than the other girls there. She left aged fifteen with five GCE O' Levels.

With A Taste Of Honey enthusiastically accepted by Littlewood and Gerry Raffles of Theatre Workshop, the play proved controversial, not least for its depiction of working-class characters who were a million miles from the cap-doffing servants presented by Rattigan and co. A glittering career was predicted for Delaney, but a second play, 1960's The Lion In Love, was lukewarmly received in a set of reviews described by Manchester-born novelist Jeanette Winterson, who in 2010 named
Delaney as her hero, as 'a depressing essay in sexism'. Delaney didn't write for the stage for another twenty years.

She concentrated instead on a collection of short stories, Sweetly Sings the Donkey (1963), and screen and TV plays. One, Charlie Bubbles, was directed by Salford-born Albert Finney, who played a northern English writer disillusioned by success enough to be unable to feel emotionally engaged until he returns home. Another, The White Bus, was a short for Lindsay Anderson taken from one of Delaney's stories.
It featured a young woman who flees London drudgery for her Salford home, where she embarks on an impressionistic open-top bus ride through the streets. Both films appeared in 1967, and echoed the loyalty Delaney felt to her home town.

Did Your Nanny Come From Bergen? appeared in 1970 in the Thirty Minute Theatre slot, while in 1974 St Martin's Summer was produced as part of the Seven Faces of Woman series. The House That Jack Built, a 1977 vehicle for comic Duggie Brown, was later adapted for the stage, but with
little fanfare.

There are echoes of Delaney's experience in that of Andrea Dunbar, another teenage working-class writer, whose play, Rita, Sue and Bob Too, was also turned into a film. Where Dunbar died young, Delaney simply disappeared from view.

Radio plays, So Does the Nightingale (1980) and Don’t Worry About Matilda (1981) followed. While A Taste of Honey was filmed twice more, once in 1981 for Spanish TV, and again in 1994 for a Portuguese production, Delaney penned the screenplay for Dance With A Stranger, Mike Newell's 1985 feature about Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain. Miranda Richardson and Rupert Everett starred. Screenplays for Three Days in August and the Railway Station Man
followed in 1992, while a more recent radio play, Whoopi Goldberg's Country Life, was broadcast in 2010.

In the 1990s, Delaney's story, Abduction, appeared in Comma, a collection published by a Manchester-based press, and which featured fellow Salfordian iconoclasts Mark E Smith, who originally styled his band The Fall as defiantly northern 'white crap that talk back'; and Tony Wilson, whose championing of the north manifested itself through Factory Records and his TV presenting. Cultural commentators Michael Bracewell and Paul Morley, both steeped in northern English myth-making, also appeared. Arguably, none of these could have existed in the same way without Delaney breaking the mould.

In a fifteen-minute film made in 1960 by Ken Russell for BBC arts programme, Monitor, Delaney talked of the pull of Salford, and railed against how the rough-shod community she still lived among was being farmed out to new housing estates and high-rises, as old Salford was being gradually demolished. Delaney cut a vivacious, fiercely intelligent and articulate figure. She both pre-dated and predicted the slums immortalised in Salford-born poet John Cooper-Clarke's Thatcher era back-street epic, Beasley Street, updated later for the age of urban regeneration as Beasley Boulevard. Both works recognised a shift in ambition and social mores that Delaney might have recognised.

People of my age, “ she said in Russell's film of her Salford peers and the draw of the place that existed alongside the desire to get away, “they know what they want to do, and they're all like I was, like a sort of horse on a tether, sort of jerking about, waiting for somebody to cut the tether, and let me off.”

A shorter version of this appeared in The Herald, November 22nd 2011

ends

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