In 1958, a 19-year-old bus driver’s daughter saw a play at Manchester’s Opera House. Finding the middle-class characters didn’t speak to her, Shelagh Delaney knocked out a script about poverty, prostitution and mixed-race relationships among the slums of Ordsall. A Taste of Honey proved a huge (and controversial) success, reaching the West End then Broadway. For the film version, Delaney became the first woman to win a BAFTA best screenplay award.
Selina Todd neatly sketches how Delaney’s female characters strive to escape marriage and motherhood. She’s good, too, on Delaney’s tricky relationship with Joan Littlewood, the left-wing director who gave the writer her first break. Throughout, we glimpse the shy but sharp Delaney, trying to cope with a media loath to cover a working-class woman from the north outside the gossip columns.
Todd shows how Delaney anticipated the concerns of the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s, and reveals her continuing influence in the light of similar problems facing working-class women now. Todd brings in the late Lorna Sage and other eminent critical voices to good, if slightly heavy-handed, effect. But longer examples of Delaney’s dialogue, by turns poetic and provocative, would have kept us closer to the woman herself.
Aside from an intriguing section on Delaney’s brilliant screenplay for Dance with a Stranger, and her influence on Morrissey, Todd hurries through the last 30 years of the writer’s life. Yet Delaney’s radio plays looked closely at the neglect of middle-aged women. Todd keeps a respectful distance with a cast of “close” friends, a couple of long-term lovers, a sprinkling of anecdotes, and occasional insights from her daughter. It’s fascinating as far as it goes, but the reader is left wanting a little more time with the pioneering poetess of Salford herself.
Tastes of Honey: The Making of Shelagh Delaney and a Cultural Revolution by Selina Todd (Chatto & Windus, £18.99)