On 12th March 2021, I attended a panel talk hosted by Holly Lynch, MP for Halifax in conversation with Sally Wainwright, a prolific screenwriter well known for her work on TV over the past two decades. Boasting a strong CV ranging from Happy Valley to Gentleman Jack, Wainwright’s dramas have achieved critical acclaim for their gritty yet warm realism and honest portrayal of the North. This fascinating talk began by drawing attention to the representation of strong women that are featured in her work, as an empowering message considering raised awareness towards sexual violence and Women’s History Month. After a brief mention of the Calderdale and Kirklees WomanCentre, where all proceeds were contributed, Sally began by describing her writing process and how it became affected by the pandemic and the challenges she faced. Having experienced delays in the progress of Gentleman Jack‘s second series, lockdown offered a time of reflection for her, as well as entering a new journey. Many of the panel members commended this above all her recent works, which will return to screens a year behind schedule.
While her most recent drama has brought the life of 19th century lesbian Anne Lister into the public consciousness, she has had to tackle with issues of dramatizing history and representing real life figures from the past. With this comes a responsibility, which she finds daunting when portraying other historical figures such as the Bronte’s in her drama To Walk Invisible, and the pressures of fidelity and fair representation. While there are stark parallels in attitudes towards women then and now, Sally’s programmes all have a connection in their Yorkshire settings. She confessed that this was not an intentional decision, and the landscape of her native Halifax has been appreciated in a new way through the portrayal of it in her series. Often it’s as attractive for her viewers as her storylines and characters, and the shared affinity for the town between herself and Holly proves it plays a huge part in her success. Wainwright claims to write about women who she’d like to be, such as landowners, ground-breaking novelists and policewomen by recognising these experiences through shared stories. The conversation went on to discuss how her shows have had a huge impact on the Calderdale district, bringing a boost in tourism and the economy as viewers have been inspired to flock to the real landscape seen on screen (with an added reveal of the first episode of Happy Valley Series 3 being greenlit!)
As two women born and bred in West Yorkshire, both confessed about how their roots have had a significant impact on their careers, as a source of creative energy and in the world of local politics. A particularly memorable moment was Wainwright’s belief that authenticity is essential, and every locality has its own way of saying something. Humour has also been a big part of achieving this, featuring in popular favourites such as Scott and Bailey and Last Tango in Halifax. Alongside the discussion there was also an opportunity for audience members to ask their burning questions, and these revolved around Wainwright’s current and past work and experiences. Perhaps one of the wisest pieces of advice given regarding getting started with a creative piece was ‘It’s never too late to start writing. If you’ve got that compulsion to write, you’re a writer.’ As a strong advocate for self-expression, she believes writing is a free form of therapy that is a great way for anyone to get ideas out and will find that they will write themselves in time. Having now gained an insight into the mind and creative genius of such an acclaimed screenwriter, I certainly feel compelled to revisit and discover more of her work and gain new appreciation.