Shelagh Delaney’s debut play, A Taste of Honey, is a modern classic. When first staged by Joan Littlewood in 1958 – when Delaney was just 19 – it added a much-needed female voice to the wave of kitchen sink dramas, novels and films then gripping and galvanising Britain. And horrifying parts of it: some commentators were aghast at such blackly comic gritty realism.
If Look Back in Anger or Saturday Night and Sunday Morning shocked cultural gatekeepers, then a young working-class woman from Salford writing about dissatisfied working-class women in Salford unsurprisingly prompted sniffy condescension.
But as Selina Todd shows in her breezy, readable new biography, the fetishisation of the working-class voice was a double-edged sword – one Delaney herself used to cut both ways. Raw, authentic narratives were as fêted in some liberal quarters as they were derided in others.
So when Delaney sent her manuscript to Littlewood, she pitched herself as “quite unqualified for anything like this”, claiming that until a fortnight previously, she had never been to the theatre. Actually, Delaney had seen Shakespeare and Miller, and read Chekhov and Brecht.
A Taste of Honey was an instant hit, transferring from Theatre Royal Stratford East to the West End and then Broadway, before being turned into a film, spawning the pop song of the same name along the way. It turned Delaney into “the most famous teenager in Britain”, Todd claims. The press was pruriently fascinated by her; she was hounded when she had a baby while unmarried in 1964.
Today, the play is canonical: taught in schools and universities, it has influenced everything from Coronation Street to The Smiths. But Todd argues it was no one-off: this book is also generous in its estimation of Delaney’s (rarely staged) play The Lion in Love, her scripts for Z Cars, Charlie Bubbles and Dance With a Stranger, as well as her late radio plays.
It is bizarre, really, that there has not been a major biography of her before. Not that Delaney, who died in 2011, is necessarily the easiest subject: she had a habit of destroying her papers. But Todd’s portrait is enlivened by anecdotes from friends and family, which paint a picture of a determined artist who was also prone to laziness; a single mother powerfully committed to her own independence, but also rather a romantic.
Todd also presents Delaney within her historical, political moment – the biography is as much about changes in popular culture, representations of the working class, and women in postwar Britain as it is about a playwright.
Todd is professor of modern history at Oxford, so it’s unsurprising that she uses a polyphonic approach to capture these changes, including many examples from other ordinary women’s adjacent experiences. Most are informative, shading in the cultural landscape; some are distracting, telling us little about Delaney or relying on stretched assumptions.
She also ends on an off-note, suggesting we still “have very few women dramatists, let alone from working-class backgrounds”. The second point is depressingly valid, but the first is simply untrue. Within weeks of its publication, audiences can watch new work on stage by Lucy Prebble, Caryl Churchill, Cordelia Lynn, Laura Wade, Sabrina Mahfouz and Alice Birch. Many of whom, no doubt, are making new strides down a path first trodden by Delaney.
‘Tastes of Honey’ by Selina Todd is published by Chatto & Windus (£18.99)
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