By Ruth Cornish
BAFTA-award winning Sally Wainwright is one of the most celebrated current writers on British TV. On Friday afternoon, Manchester Metropolitan University had the honour of being her host. For an hour she took part in a question and answer session with the university’s own scriptwriting lecturer, Julie Wilkinson, along with many students and staff who also had the privilege to join in the discussion.
Sally’s work ranges from the ITV series Scott and Bailey to BBC comedy-drama, The Last Tango in Halifax, the latter about two seventy year olds rekindling their romance. She has also written a number of other independent TV series and films and has worked on long-running, much-loved soaps such as Coronation Street and Emmerdale.
Wainwright took an English Literature and Creative Writing degree at York University, which obviously gave her a firm foundation for her work, as she was able to interest and acquire an agent at 21 years old. The reason for her visit was that Manchester Metropolitan University offers an English and Creative Writing course, which has scriptwriting unit options, giving students similar opportunities to those Sally had when she graduated.
She spoke about her most recently televised series, Happy Valley, which is a drama set in Hebden Bridge, in West Yorkshire, about a police sergeant who is confronted by the man who tore her family apart.
Working closely with the police force gave Sally the idea for the title of the series. ‘Happy Valley’ is a slang term the police use for the town, due to the ubiquity of drugs there. Coincidentally a member of the audience was from Hebden Bridge. Did the series offend the people from her hometown? “No,” she said, “It was a true representation of the town.”
Sally didn’t paint a completely dark picture of the area though, as it is offset by humour which plays a key role in the drama.
“However dark something is, it has to be funny too,” Sally stated.
This provision of light relief to counter the darkness of her work is often portrayed through the character played by Sarah Lancashire, an actress who features in a number of Wainwright’s series. Sally was quick to praise the actress and explain why she was a favourite of hers to work with,
“She sees every nuance in every line and knows just how to go from conveying darkness to conveying laughter.”
Wainwright’s representation of women as strong, heroic characters recurs throughout her work. Giving female characters strong voices in her films and series have led to feminists wanting to claim Sally as their own. Julie asked her if this is something she is happy about, but Sally revealed that she hadn’t realised she was seen as a feminist writer.
“I represent women in my work from my own experiences. And from my experience, women aren’t all bitches that want to dress better than each other, which is how they are often presented,” Sally told us. “I didn’t realise this was a new way of thinking, I was just writing.”
Her absolute love for writing was strikingly apparent when she spoke about how to get involved in the scriptwriting industry.
“When I was thirteen I wanted to write for Coronation Street,” she said, “and then when I was working on Coronation Street, I realised I wanted to write my own stuff.”
“And how do you go about getting your own work on TV?” Julie asked.
You could feel the ears of all the budding writers prick up in the room; this was one of Britain’s most important writers about to impart knowledge on how to get your foot in the door – it was gold dust for the students.
“Send your work to anyone and everyone. Be shameless and make a nuisance of yourself,” She told the audience. “But most importantly, believe in your script.”
“I write about what I would want to watch on television,” she told us.
Clearly writing about what she wants to write about is working well for Sally as Happy Valley was bought by Netflix, promoting British drama globally and broadening Wainwright’s audience. She told us that an American journalist had admitted to having to watch it with the subtitles, and asked her if she would make it more accessible to an American audience?
“No. I liked the thought of him reading it with subtitles,” Sally laughed.
Joking aside, Wainwright is clearly at the forefront of the wave of British television on the rise worldwide, and is most definitely happy about it. She even claimed that writing for TV is now more popular than writing for film.
“Writing for TV is sexy at the moment,” she said, and looking up at the audience, full of prospective writers, added, “which is good for you lot.”
At the end of the hour, Sally bid the audience farewell and thanked us all for coming. The audience were sure to thank her too, as the event had proved to be a fascinating insight into the lives of one of Britain’s most successful female scriptwriters.
Ruth Cornish is UniLife Editor in her third year studying English and Creative Writing, she likes Christina Rosetti and Daley Blind. Follow her on Instagram @remilycolec