Shelagh Delaney: extraordinary, unique, bloody marvellous

What do Shelagh Delaney, Marilyn Monroe and Terence Davies have in common?  Well, it’s one of those coincidences that can seem a little spooky. I wanted to note the passing of Shelagh Delaney, who contributed so much to the shaking off old taboos and freshening up cultural expression as the 1950s gave way to the loosened up 1960s.  Then today I read reviews of two newly-released films – My Week With Marilyn and Terence Davies’ latest, The Deep Blue Sea.

The answer: Terence Rattigan. Delaney, who has died of cancer aged 71, was 18 when she wrote A Taste of Honey, which started out as a novel but was turned into one of the defining plays of the 1950s working-class and feminist cultural movements after a trip to the theatre in Manchester to see a Terence Rattigan play that she found so deadly dull that she thought she could do better.

My Week With Marilyn is about the time when, 1956, Marilyn Monroe came to Britain to make a film with Laurence Olivier, the light comedy The Prince and the Showgirl.  That film was scripted by Terence Rattigan, and turned out a flop due to the lack of chemistry between its leading stars. Peter Bradshaw gives My Week With Marilyn a good review in The Guardian, summing it up as ‘light fare: it doesn’t pretend to offer any great insight, but it offers a great deal of pleasure and fun’.  Meanwhile, Terence Davies new film, The Deep Blue Sea, is an impressionistic adaptation of another Terence Rattigan play.

Jeanette Winterson wrote a passionate eulogy for Shelagh Delaney last year in The Guardian. In it she said:

Shelagh Delaney’s first play, A Taste of Honey, was produced at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1958, and then transferred to the West End and Broadway. She was 18. It’s the story of Jo, a working-class girl who gets pregnant while her mother holidays with her fancy man. Delaney’s play sits in between John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956) and Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane (1964). All three plays were made into movies. Each was part of the new wave in theatre and cinema where the (male) northern working classes stripped life down to the raw.  But Delaney was a woman. She was the dog on its hind legs, to paraphrase Dr Johnson’s comment about women preachers – ‘like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all’.

Winterson went on to berate the critics of the time who belittled and patronised Delaney in reviews that ‘read like a depressing essay in sexism’.  Orton, Osborne, Pinter and the rest didn’t get the same treatment – but then, they were men.  Winterson concluded:

Delaney was born in Salford in 1939. I was born in Manchester in 1959. Same background, same early success. She was like a lighthouse – pointing the way and warning about the rocks underneath. She was the first working-class woman playwright. She had all the talent and we let her go.

It’s a remarkable story: in little more than a fortnight, Delaney, 18 years old, working class and an 11-plus failure, bashed out a play about a Salford girl, Jo, who lives in a decrepit flat in Salford with her mother; one Christmas she is left alone, goes to bed with a transient Nigerian sailor, gets pregnant and is lovingly cared for by Geoffrey, a young gay friend. Two fingers to stuffy, snobbish 1950s Britain!  As Delaney’s obituary in The Guardian observes: ‘A Taste of Honey showed working-class women from a working-class woman’s point of view, had a gay man as a central and sympathetic figure, and a black character who was neither idealised nor a racial stereotype’.

In a letter to The Guardian, Nicholas De Jongh emphasises the importance of Delaney’s play in challenging the taboo on the representation of homosexuality on stage:

At the time, and until 1968, the lord chamberlain was responsible for licensing and censoring plays. Delaney was the first dramatist successfully to overcome the ancient, censorial veto on stage plays that openly depicted gay characters or discussed homosexuality. Her sympathetic portrayal of the play’s young, gay student was, therefore, ground-breaking. Until then playwrights tried to evade the censor’s veto by resorting to subterfuge and innuendo. When A Taste of Honey was submitted for licensing it caused a furore. The lord chamberlain’s assistant comptroller, Brigadier Norman Gwatkin, commented: “I think it’s revolting, quite apart from the homosexual bits … To me it has no saving grace whatsoever. If we pass muck like this, it does give our critics something to go on.”

But the lord chamberlain’s chief play-reader, Charles Heriot, judged: “It is concerned with the forbidden subject in a way that no one I believe could take exception to.” The lord chamberlain inclined to Heriot’s view and licensed the play. It is highly probable that Delaney’s treatment of the subject and the favourable critical and public response to A Taste of Honey played a significant role in persuading the lord chamberlain partially to relax his ban on homosexuality and gays a few months later. Shelagh Delaney ought to rank as a gay heroine.

The play opened in May 1958, at the Theatre Royal in London and was an immediate hit, with the influential critic Kenneth Tynan observing: ‘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’.  In 1959 the play moved to the West End and Delaney sold the film rights for a considerable sum. The film, which she scripted with the director Tony Richardson, and which starred Rita Tushingham as Jo, was released in 1961. It won four Bafta awards, including best British screenplay and best British film, while Tushingham won a Bafta for best newcomer.  In 1960 A Taste of Honey had opened on Broadway while a BBC Monitor documentary Shelagh Delaney’s Salford, directed by Ken Russell, had profiled the author in her home town.  Watch it here on YouTube:

Ironically, in Salford, where Delaney was born, the council fumed that the portrayal was an insult to the town.  However, after it had become a runaway success, and Delaney a national celebrity, she was asked for her manuscript copy of the play for Salford library. Delaney called them hypocrites, and gave the original script to Joan Littlewood, the play’s producer, instead.

The Guardian obituary notes these aspects of Delaney’s background:

She had Irish grandparents, one of them an ardent socialist. Her father was a bus inspector and an avid reader and storyteller. He would recount with flair his experiences in the Lancashire Fusiliers in north Africa.

Among the most vivid experiences of Delaney’s childhood were going to the Salford Hippodrome and to the cinema, sometimes three times a week. She attended three primary schools, failed the 11-plus and attended secondary school in Broughton, Lancashire, where the headteacher encouraged her to watch the school production of Othello. She was 12 and had already realised that she could write better than the other pupils in the class. Her interest in drama waxed as her interest in school work waned. She made three half-hearted attempts to transfer to the local grammar school but got there only at the age of 15. She left at 17 and had little interest in studying to be a teacher, the most realistic career path on offer. Instead, she took dead-end jobs as a clerk in a milk depot, a shop assistant, an usherette at Manchester opera house and a worker in the research photography department of the electrical engineering company Metropolitan-Vickers.

Tony Richardson’s film version of A Taste of Honey, was beautifully shot in black-and-white by Walter Lassally on location in Salford, and made a star of 19-year-old Rita Tushingham as the sad but ever-hopeful working-class teenage heroine.  A key movie in the British new wave that included Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, scripted by Alan Sillitoe from his novel, and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, starring Tom Courtenay, also adapted from a Sillitoe novel, and Richard Lester’s Beatles film, A Hard Days Night.

There’s a memorable scene where Jo and Geoffrey are filmed, framed by the arches of a railway viaduct.  Jo says, ‘My usual self is a very unusual self … I’m an extraordinary person, there’s only one o’me like there’s only one o’you’.  ‘We’re unique’, responds Geoffrey, ‘unrivalled … we’re bloody marvellous’.  There was no better summation of the mood of burgeoning optimism and confidence that was sweeping the nation’s youth, and no more appropriate testimonial to Shelagh Delaney: an extraordinary person, unique, bloody marvellous.

Not surprisingly, then, the Beatles were big fans of Delaney and showed their appreciation by recording their vocal version of the instrumental theme originally written for the Broadway version of the play.  ‘A Taste Of Honey’ was part of The Beatles’ live repertoire in 1962 and 1963, and was the first song recorded for their first album, Please Please Me.  Paul McCartney later recalled:

‘A Taste Of Honey’ was one of my big numbers in Hamburg – a bit of a ballad. It was different, but it used to get requested a lot. We sang close harmonies on the little echo mikes, and we made a fairly good job of it. It used to sound pretty good, actually.

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