Can’t “bold and memorable female characters” be part of any drama?

Alison Graham talks to writer Sally Wainwright about putting women first

Sky Living’s brief season, Drama Matters, is “a celebration of bold and memorable modern female characters.” Oh gawd, really? I know its heart is in the right place, but do we really need a season dedicated to “bold and memorable female characters”? It’s a girl-ghetto. Can’t “bold and memorable female characters” be part of any drama? Why in 2013 do they have to be ring-fenced and given their own part of the playground?


That’s my rant out of the way, but obviously I want clever, famous and influential people to agree with me, so I asked one of my heroes, Sally Wainwright – our most gifted television writer, who happens to have contributed The Last Witch (Tuesday) to Drama Matters – what she thinks. Does it pain her, too, that female charac- ters still have to be part of a season, however well-intentioned, like Drama Matters?

“Yes, it constantly surprises me that women are on the back foot in terms of the way they are represented on television,” she told me. “It constantly surprises me, too, when I write things and people say, ‘This has got really good female characters in it and this is what we need.’ But why should it be like that? Why is it so rare?”

Yay! I have the best ally in the world. Wainwright’s written some of the most gigantic TV hits of recent years, all of which feature great female characters who have been hugged and treasured by mainstream audiences of both sexes: Last Tango in Halifax, Scott & Bailey, Unforgiven, At Home with the Braithwaites. None of these needed a special lady-season.

Wainwright is a fascinat- ing woman who ploughs her own furrow brilliantly. She’s a Huddersfield-born, York University graduate who started her writing career on The Archers, before serving arguably the best “apprentice- ship” on television, writing for Coronation Street with contemporaries Paul Abbott, Russell T Davies and her mentor, Kay Mellor. And Wainwright doesn’t mince her words: “I just find women more interesting,” she said. “Equally, I find older people more interesting, and this tyranny of being young, and probably male, kind of goes over my head. Certainly with older characters there’s more story: they’ve done more, they know more.”

She’s constantly staggered that other women writers (some, not all) don’t think the way she does. “I was at a conference in Leeds a couple of years ago and it was about the way women are represented on television and on stage. A female writer in the audience, I don’t know who it was, said whenever she wrote a strong character she had this compulsion to make it into a man rather than a woman.” We both pause, shocked. Wainwright adds, without any nonchalance, “I write the characters that come into my head and they tend to be women, I suppose.”

I think Wainwright is a treasure and the writer of the most authentic dialogue on televi- sion. She’s brilliant at it – just listen to anyone in Last Tango, or Scott & Bailey, and you can hear the rhythms and tics of real people. She can write superb stories, too. I’ve always felt Unforgiven, her 2009 drama with Suranne Jones as a woman released from prison after murdering two police officers, was one of the most underrated crime thrillers of recent years.

The Last Witch isn’t typical Wainwright terri- tory: “It’s not my natural milieu, but Sky’s head of drama Anne Mensah asked me to write something about witches. For me it was about making them real, about trying to create a world where witches really existed. It’s supernatural, but it should feel very grounded as well.”

Surprisingly, Wainwright wrote The Last Witch six years ago, but it seems no one was interested until she dusted it off for Mensah. This staggered me. I assumed TV drama commissioners would strew rose petals in her path as they filled up her bath with champagne, but no. Even Last Tango and Scott & Bailey were initially rejected by the BBC and ITV until common sense prevailed.

Last Tango secured a huge audience of more than seven million, winning the best drama series Bafta in 2012 and a long-overdue best drama writer Bafta for Wainwright. Filminghasjustfinishedonthesecond series and Wainwright, who rises at 4am to start work, has just put the final touches to her latest, Happy Valley – like Last Tango set in Halifax, and again starring Sarah Lancashire. “It’s a kind of cross between Juliet Bravo and Fargo.” I wonder if Wainwright consid- ers herself a trailblazer for women writers? “I just write what I want to write. It’s nice when people comment on what you’ve done. They decide if you’re a trailblazer.”