In it for the Honey
As a new book explains, Shelagh Delaney forsook an increasingly gentrified Angel for her northern roots
03 October, 2019 — By Peter Gruner
Rita Tushingham and Dora Bryan in the 1961 film version of A Taste of Honey
AT the height of her fame in 1966, playwright Shelagh Delaney moved to Angel, Islington, to a rundown street where almost a quarter of homes lacked hot water and a bath.
This was before gentrification, writes Selina Todd, Professor of Modern History at Oxford University, in her excellent new biography, Tastes of Honey: The Making of Shelagh Delaney and a Cultural Revolution.
Todd conjures up Shelagh’s colourful life in Islington, where she was happy, with a supportive network of mainly working-class friends and neighbours, who were always kind and helpful.
Eight years earlier, in 1958, Delaney, aged just 19 and the daughter of a bus driver, had written her first and best-known play, A Taste of Honey, which brought a new realism to drama.
It was set in her native Manchester, and Delaney, an 11-plus failure, dealt with new themes (which today we take for granted) such as inter-racial relationships, single parenthood, homosexuality and mother-daughter tensions.
More than a decade before the Women’s Liberation movement emerged in Britain, she had created characters who challenged the assumption that women just wanted fulfilment in marriage and motherhood.
She moved to a four-storey Georgian property in Gerrard Road, Angel, because it reminded her of her working-class roots in Salford.
“There was overcrowding and poverty, but a large number of families meant there were always children playing on the street, and many neighbours had known each other for years,” Todd writes.
Feminists had also moved into the road and established “shared living” as an alternative to the conservative, middle-class nuclear family.
Delaney lived mostly alone, although she was soon to become a single parent herself, and had grand plans for the house in Gerrard Road – but they never materialised.
She was not interested in home decoration or housework. She preferred seeing friends and writing. Friends would turn up and stay for hours or days. The garden became overgrown.
Delaney had originally sent A Taste of Honey to director Joan Littlewood, who recognised that it spoke for cultural change and the struggle of working-class women trapped in the straitjacket of domesticity.
The play was first performed on May 27, 1958, at Littlewood’s Theatre Royal Stratford East. It transferred to the West End and then Broadway. Performed throughout the world, it eventually became a set text in schools in the 1970s. Then came the film directed by Tony Richardson.
Author Selina Todd
At one point it was suggested that the lead character, Jo, needed a famous Hollywood face like Audrey Hepburn. Fortunately film-makers discovered Rita Tushingham instead, a 19-year-old Liverpudlian working in repertory.
Delaney thought that Tushingham was too sweet but the film premiered in London in 1961 to rave reviews. Delaney even won a Bafta for her screenplay.
The film introduced Delaney and Honey to a far wider audience than the theatre could reach, writes Todd. “Among the fans were a new pop group from Liverpool called The Beatles. Their 1963 song A Taste of Honey appeared on their best-selling album Please Please Me, introducing Shelagh’s story to thousands of followers.”
Emerging TV scriptwriter Tony Warren was also influenced by Delaney’s work, and drew on its themes in his best-known working-class creation, Coronation Street.
More recently singer-songwriter Morrissey said: “I’ve never made any secret of the fact that at least 50 per cent of my reason for writing can be blamed on Shelagh Delaney.”
The big question today is: how far have women advanced in the arts?
“We have very few women dramatists, let alone from working-class backgrounds,” according to Todd.
She quotes actress Maxine Peake, who starred in BBC TV’s Dinnerladies and wrote and directed her first play in 2012, who thinks working-class women’s presence in the arts remains precarious.
“If you’ve got a regional accent it’s really hard to be taken seriously; and if you’re actually working class, well, you’ve got to prove yourself, ” Peake said.
Theatre director Sean O’Connor, also quoted in the book, believes that “most parts in the theatre, in television, are written for men, by men… white middle-class men writing about and producing things about themselves.”
Delaney’s love affair with the Angel was soon to end. The borough was becoming full of yuppies, many were making money in finance, and she hated it.
Indeed, today houses in the road can fetch anything from £1m to £2m.
Today children whose parents and grandparents were born and brought up in Islington can no longer afford to live in the borough.
Delaney eventually moved out to Yorkshire.
• Tastes of Honey: The Making of Shelagh Delaney and a Cultural Revolution. By Selina Todd, Chatto & Windus, £18.99.