In Bed with Sally Wainwright by Jan Needle

Let's hear it this morning  for Radio 4 and too much wine the night before. I don't normally listen to Desert Island discs in bed of a Friday morning, because like all good conscientious writers I'm up and at my computer. Naturally.

But the islandee, the castaway, was Sally Wainwright, and I heard her name luckily just before I hopped out of me pit to frighten off my hangover with a sunshine walk.

I don't imagine that I'm alone in this, but I think Sally Wainwright is the best TV writer of series that we've got, and possibly ever had. No, that's nonsense. Come back Dennis Potter and Pennies from Heaven, all is remembered. And Tutti Frutti, come to think of it.

She turns out to be a woman with a wonderful West Yorkshire accent in the Elland/Halifax mode. When she went to university to study French, the other students used to laugh at  the way she spoke the language. (How would a Parisien say Ecky Thump. I wonder? Not that that's Yorkshire, I suppose.)

After a bit of bus driving to pay the rent, Sally (I hope that I can call you Sally, Sally; you'll find out why in a minute) submitted a script for the Archers. Although her mother had it on every evening, she had not actually ever listened to it beyond a background noise,  but her mother clearly talked it through extremely well.  The scripts were bought,  and she immediately gave up bus driving, assuming (as one does!) that she was now going to be rich.

Considering that her scripts included Clive Horobin pulling off an armed raid on the local post office, it's possibly surprising that she wasn't merely shown the door. Realism in Ambridge? Considering her last masterpiece, Happy Valley, one hopes she's now the subject of many a learned thesis about crimes and criminology. Still time to hear D.I.Discs on BBC catch-up, incidentally. I promise you won't be disappointed.

It was Coronation Street, an obsession since she was officially too young to watch such gritty stuff, that put  her on the road to cash and stardom. She was advised by Kay Mellor, another star TV writer, not to stay on beyond five years, after which she came up with the Braithwaites. Much to her surprise her next offering after that was not a great success. But by this time she was contemplating a move to the wealth-belt in the south of England. I wonder what the locals down there make of her accent?

Sally Wainwright lives for her writing – no surprise there – and appears to live her characters' lives. Each person in a drama, however God-awful, inhabits her imagination until she knows and understands what they are doing, and why. Anyone who was devastated, like I was, by the psychopath in Happy Valley, can only feel sorry for her. (Isn't it odd, incidentally, to see the man who played that character so terrifyingly now acting a soft and soggy vicar in Grantchester? My mind boggled.)

A recent photo. Seriously, have I got a chance with her?
The most fascinating thing for me, as a novelist who also writes television, was the way she started. As a child, despite having a sister and a mother who were voracious readers, she did not like reading books. Within a page she would be bored, and the only parts of novels that she really relates to  are/were the dialogue. I thought she'd made a mistake when she referred to the books she read on holiday. Ha! Got you! But they were books of plays by Ibsen, Chekov, et al.

Her writing method is also fascinating. The laptop goes with her wherever she goes, and she seems to see her relationship with it as being similar to Scott Joplin's with a piano. One of her chosen discs was Maple Leaf Rag, played at breakneck speed, and Sally and her laptop are clearly just one mind. One of her most interesting 'confessions' was that her favourite state of being is 'alone.' One guesses that even there there's not much room inside her head. Her husband, Austin, quite clearly is a supportive rock. Her two sons, she ruefully implies, have learned to live with it.

Although her writing has got darker, Sally feels that essentially, human beings are funny. Take Scott and Bailey, for example. She sits in her room and writes about them, in floods of tears. And not just her room, for that matter. 'Writing is my hobby. Why wouldn't I take my laptop on holiday?'

After I'd finished watching Happy Valley I emailed my friend Frank Cottrell Boyce and asked him to tell her when they next met (I assumed this would happen) that I'd fallen in love with her. He never replied, and if she got the message, neither did she.

But on Friday morning I was in bed with her, virtually. Still, virtually, in love.


Lydia Bennet said…
Desert Island Discs can be a terrific programme, if it's someone interesting, but if it's a politician or some such it's awful as they 'choose' records clearly listed for them by an aide for 'gravitas, one for that whimsical touch, more gravitas, pretend you like classical' etc. Not a big fan of Sally W's work in particular but it's lovely to read about your enthusiasm!
I listened to this and thought she came across very well. I've got mixed feelings about DID but from time to time (more often with this presenter, I feel) there's a really good interview and fascinating choice of music. I didn't watch Happy Valley, but I loved Last Tango in Halifax. And so many good things come out of Yorkshire!
Jan Needle said…
including the road to lancashire, some might say!
JO said…
Maybe I should catch up with this on iPlayer - thanks for highlighting it!
That's fighting talk, Jan!

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