Happy Valley writer Sally Wainwright on being “overlooked” because she’s a woman

“Men are trusted more, it’s just assumed they’ll be good at something. Whereas women have to prove they’re going to be good at it”

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Last year Sally Wainwright had a personal crisis in Los Angeles. “I was at a meeting with television executives,” she says. “I arrived excited, thinking, ‘Yeah, I could work in America!’ Then, after a while listening to these people, I suddenly felt like a little, fat Yorkshire woman. In America, the only women on telly are stick-thin and under the age of 34. And I thought, ‘What am I doing here? I’ve got to prove I can actually do the job to them? Why do I have to prove myself?’”

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Over here the television dramatist, born in Huddersfield in 1963, has nothing to prove at all. Wainwright is the writer, and occasional director, of At Home with the Braithwaites, Happy Valley, Unforgiven, Last Tango in Halifax and more. Her work has rejuvenated British popular television, mainly because of her acute handling of characterisation, a craft learnt on Coronation Street, which Wainwright joined as a junior writer in 1994. When Wainwright left in 1999 she was writing 20 episodes a year and earning £100,000.

Now she has been honoured with her own South Bank Show profile. This, theoretically, is why we are meeting in a tiny, brick-lined Soho office. But the writer isn’t ecstatic. “No, I just thought, why haven’t they done this sooner?” she says of the moment she heard Melvyn Bragg would be heading her way. “The South Bank Show did Paul Abbott and Russell T Davies years ago, but I’ve been overlooked.” Why might that be? “I think it’s because I’m a woman.”

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Happy Valley

At Coronation Street Wainwright was one of three women out of 15 staff in the writers’ room. “The whole atmosphere was overwhelmingly male and even now it’s tough,” she says. “There are so many fewer women writers and directors. A lot of it is to do with women’s confidence. Women don’t put themselves forward as writers.”

With multiple Bafta and Royal Television Society awards to her name, Wainwright wouldn’t seem to have been held back by sexism or anything else. “When I started out, it didn’t occur to me that I would ever be discriminated against,” she says. “But later in life I experienced the difference between how men and women are perceived. Men are trusted more, it’s just assumed they’ll be good at something. Whereas women have to prove they’re going to be good at it.” Maybe that’s why she is so good at writing women? “I do find women more interesting, they’re more heroic. Things don’t come as easily to them or they’re questioned more, doubted more. They have to put themselves out there more.”

One Wainwright woman in particular has resonated with the British public: Catherine Cawood, the much put-upon police officer played by Sarah Lancashire in Happy Valley. “She does seem to have permeated through more than anything else I’ve written,” says Wainwright. “When we were first filming Happy Valley, Sarah said, ‘God, I hope people get this’. Catherine is ostensibly this good woman, but actually she’s not, she’s done some terrible things, she has a bad attitude and she’s often really difficult. If you get simple goodies and baddies, that’s children’s television.”

At Coronation Street, the writers would fight for the chance to write lines for Raquel, the barmaid played by Lancashire. “She made everything brilliant,” says Wainwright. “And on Last Tango you could hear her telling the director, ‘If you do it like that, it won’t be funny.’ Perhaps it’s a northern thing, northerners getting other northerners’ humour.”

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Wainwright’s patch of the North is the Pennine valleys and moors west of a line from Haworth to Huddersfield. It’s a landscape responsible for Ted Hughes and the Brontë sisters and where Wainwright as a child wrote stories with her own sister Dianne. “We used to draw and write together between the ages of 11 and 12,” she says. “But Dianne left home when she was 17. She fell out with my parents and went in quite an extreme way. Suddenly she wasn’t there, and I was an only child at 15.” 

Pensive rather than combative for a moment, Wainwright says the period was hard for her. “I spent my time on my own, writing. I got a lot of my sense of drama and a lot of material from my family during my teenage years. That was clear in The Braithwaites and Last Tango.” Even then Wainwright knew it was television she wanted to write. “I used to buy Radio Times. I’d be reading the features about TV but I’d also be looking at who’d written what, and directed what, and produced what. If it was a show I really loved, I’d know everything about it, every fact about that show, who the grip was.”

Perhaps because she spent so much time locked away with a notebook or watching television, Wainwright was unsure of herself when she arrived at university in York. “I felt out of my depth academically and socially,” she says. “Though I met some really good friends there, best friends I still see, they tended to be public school. They had great self-confidence; I’d never encountered that before and it gave me self-confidence. But I’ve never been shy about my writing. I’d been shy about so many aspects of my life, but weirdly, putting my scripts out there was never one of them.”

That confidence took her, via a stint at The Archers, to Coronation Street, which is still, in her mind, a life-changing period. “After I gave birth to my eldest boy, George, my mum, who was a massive Coronation Street fan, came to see me in the hospital. She was looking at the baby and said, ‘Isn’t that the greatest thing you’ll ever do?’ I said, ‘No, Mum. Being asked to write Coronation Street was the greatest thing I’ll ever do.’”

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Raquel in Corrie

She now lives in the Cotswolds, a rural setting of unsurpassably soft southern-ness. “I prefer Yorkshire,” she says. “I go up when I can. I know it has got some really shitty areas, and poverty, but it is profoundly beautiful. I feel there’s something quite deep that speaks to my soul on the Moors. When I come back to the Cotswolds and look at the village we live in near Oxford, it just seems overly privileged. I’ve got a drama I’m working on that I could set in a Cotswolds village, but I suspect it will end up in Yorkshire.”

It seems she always does. Last Christmas, she paid tribute to the Brontës with the often sublime television film To Walk Invisible. “I love history,” she says. “Whenever there’s a new costume drama on, I always think: ‘Great!’ Then I’m disappointed because you see shiny teeth and exquisite costumes that look like they’d finished being made that morning and you wouldn’t be surprised if somebody got their mobile phone out. I wanted to get right away from that.”

Wainwright says, “My job is to entertain people. I don’t write to be clever”, but To Walk Invisible was television of the highest calibre, brave enough to be a study in atmosphere but keen also to explore the Brontë family’s feuding and passion. Doing so attracted some criticism. “Finding a speaking voice for the Brontës was a leap of faith ,” she says . “Obviously, you get accused of anachronisms. I was worried about the word ‘trash’, I thought people would think that was an Americanism, but it wasn’t. Charlotte and Emily both used it.

“There was a letter by [the writer] Lynne Reid Banks in The Guardian, saying that Branwell would not have used this word f**k and even if he did, she didn’t want to know or she didn’t think it was appropriate in a period drama. Utterly meaningless, just like saying, ‘Hello, I want my letter in The Guardian about the Brontës.’ I asked Ann Dinsdale, the collections manager library at the [Brontës] Parsonage, if Branwell would have used it. She said, ‘Of course.’ The word f**k wasn’t invented in 1972.”

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To Walk Invisible

Throughout our conversation, Wainwright finds fault with institutions, mainly southern and middleclass, it must be said, she feels have snubbed her. “Happy Valley won best drama and best actress [Baftas] this year,” she says. “And the day after, it was on the news: ‘Happy Valley’s won two Baftas’. Two weeks earlier, I’d won the Bafta for best writer at the Craft Awards, so it had actually won three awards. This is a BBC show and the BBC news is saying ‘Happy Valley has won two Baftas.’ How does that make me feel? It’s like the writing Bafta doesn’t count.”

The writing does count, and has done ever since her sister walked out of the door. Now, as then, Wainwright is brimming with ideas. “I’d love to do a really good British film, like The Full Monty or Calendar Girls,” she says. “And I’m writing about Anne Lister. It’s a huge portrait of the extraordinary life of a lesbian diarist who lived in Shibden Hall in Halifax.” They are all, I point out, set in Yorkshire. Perhaps it’s just as well those LA execs turned her down. “Oh no,” says Wainwright. “They commissioned a pilot right there in the room, they were really excited. I might even do it.” 

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The South Bank Show is on Wednesday 3rd August at 8pm on Sky Arts