Dr. CP Lee, University of Salford’s film historian, takes a look back at the life and work of the late great Shelagh Delaney
Shelagh Delaney, who died last Sunday aged 71, will probably be best remembered for writing A Taste of Honey, but in reality she did so much more than that. She was a pioneer who paved the way for working-class women to enter the world of the arts and the debt that we all owe Shelagh for that alone is immense.
How could a schoolgirl from Salford have achieved all that she had by the age of eighteen? A huge, international, smash-hit play performed in the West End and on Broadway. A film that won BAFTAs and prizes at Cannes – produced from the mind of a girl born in a terraced house in Broughton, who failed her 11 plus exams, became a clerk, a shop assistant, and a theatre usher – all this in the stifling atmosphere of the dull and repressed 1950s?
It was thanks to one of her secondary modern school teachers who got her interested in drama after watching a school production of Othello. From then on she worked on short stories and sketches, but produced nothing of note until one night she went to Manchester Opera House and watched Variations on a Theme by Terence Rattigan and felt so annoyed by the production that she took two weeks off to write a stage play that would be a reflection of the reality she saw around her, not the middle-class twittering that passed for theatre in the 1950s.
A Taste of Honey dealt with previously unspeakable issues – inter-racial sex, unmarried mothers, homosexuality – and exploded like a bomb in the faces of the theatre going public of the time. There had simply never been anything like it. One aspect of Shelagh’s legacy is her contribution to the creation of the social-realism genre that we nowadays take for granted.
Although she never had another success as large as A Taste of Honey, Shelagh didn’t waste her time and carried on writing for film and radio and occasionally TV. Significantly, three of her more successful movies revolved around Salford and Manchester: The White Bus (1967), directed by Lindsay Anderson, is about a girl returning to her northern home city; Charlie Bubbles (1968), directed by and starring fellow Salfordian Albert Finney, follows a writer coming north from London to visit his hometown; and finally Dance With A Stranger (1985) told the story of the last woman to be hung in England, the Mancunian Ruth Ellis.
Cornerhouse will be honouring Shelagh Delaney at a special 50th anniversary screening of A Taste of Honey on Wed 30 November plus a very special post-screening Q&A with lead actor Murray Melvin, who plays Geoffrey in the film, chaired by CP Lee.