Sally Wainwright – Bafta-winner, creator and writer of Happy Valley, Last Tango in Halifax, Scott & Bailey and At Home with the Braithwaites – feels she still has “something to prove”.
Really? Despite giving us the best-loved and most-watched television dramas of recent years? Surely she lives in a diamond-encrusted tower, eating bonbons and demanding champagne while she waits for the muse to strike. No. She works constantly, not just writing, but directing too. Her dramatic voice is highly distinctive, but she feels she can never rest on her cushion of laurels. “I’m a northerner. I have that chip-on- the-shoulder thing,” says Wainwright, in the richest of Yorkshire accents.
It’s the fear of not measuring up. Wainwright worried about series two of Happy Valley (whose finale attracted well over nine million viewers). “I was surprised it did so well. I was terrified people would say, ‘It’s not as good as the first series’. I’d directed most of it and I’m a novice. I was happy the scripts were good, but nervous people would think it wasn’t as well shot.”
The clamour for a third series of Happy Valley – the second ended with Sergeant Catherine Cawood (the magnificent Sarah Lancashire) gazing thoughtfully at her boisterous grandson Ryan, the product of a rape – is still deafening.
But Wainwright, busy with other things, can’t heed the call just yet. It might be back, it might not. “Where we left it is the fear that Ryan will always be a problem for Catherine. She has to live with it and she knows that.
“But I suppose in some way I haven’t told the story of Tommy Lee Royce [imprisoned rapist, murderer, sadist]. We left it with the letter [from Ryan] and that’s a whole can of worms. If Tommy wants to cause trouble, he can. So I hope it’s left in a place where people will feel satisfied but equally there is more to say.”
Wainwright’s shining brilliance is her ear for authentic dialogue, and the particular barbs and cadences of her beloved North. I’m thinking particularly of the chats over mugs of tea between Catherine and her sister Clare, and the gossip in the ladies’ loos between detectives Scott and Bailey. Is Wainwright an eavesdropper?
“Not particularly. I don’t consciously listen to other people’s conversations. But I think it’s like being able to draw. Some people can, some people can’t. Writing dialogue is akin to that. We all speak this stuff, it’s interesting so few people can reproduce it.”
Her sense of place, too, is finely tuned, whether it’s the savage beauty of the Calder Valley (Happy Valley), the high rolling Pennines near Halifax (Last Tango), or the hard streets of Manchester (Scott & Bailey). Would she write as she does if she’d grown up in, say, Slough instead of Sowerby Bridge? Brutally – would she be as good as she is if she were a southerner?
“It’s interesting… If I’d grown up in Slough and it was in my bones… I hope it would work the same way. One of the strengths of any good TV drama if you set it in a particular place is it has a real landscape, a real vernacular.”
Yet there still aren’t enough northern voices on television and radio, she says. “Over the years we have become so used to hearing posh southern voices in the media and it’s always been refreshing to hear other accents. It still is.”
But there is something particular about the North and specifically Yorkshire. “It has a fantastic landscape, and the accent is quite particular and the character is quite particular, which is something I’ve realised the older I get.
“I’m scared of making generalisations, but there’s a brusque, down-to-earth humour where people tend to hit the nail on the head. That accent lends itself to a dry wit and I like to say things funnily, rather than not funnily. I suppose if you say things in a very broad Yorkshire accent people laugh anyway. Even if it’s not funny.”
It’s a surprise to learn that Wainwright doesn’t even live up north, despite her dramas being soaked in northernness. She shares a home in an Oxfordshire village with her husband Austin, who sells antiquarian sheet music. They have two sons. Like that other great Yorkshire voice, Alan Bennett, she’s an exile.
An Oxfordshire village? Do her neighbours think she’s exotic, peculiar even? Wainwright laughs a big laugh. “I think so. It’s a very nice place, but a bit posh. But it’s where my boys grew up and they are southerners, and it’s home, even if I’m a bit of a fish out of water.”
Presumably she makes regular trips north, to top up. “Oh yes, I love coming back up here [she’s speaking from the old Granada studios where the set for her new feature-length BBC1 drama about the Brontë sisters, To Walk Invisible, is being built]. What I really like is being able to move between different worlds.”
Wainwright, who early in her career worked on The Archers, is writing a series of Last Tango in Halifax and her Brontës drama, due on BBC1 some time this year. She’ll be directing it, too. As this is Wainwright, To Walk Invisible won’t be a chocolate-box retelling of Charlotte, Emily and Anne’s story. “I’m going to show it like it was, really grim. I think it will surprise people with the truth of what their lives were like. The Brontë Society keeps the Parsonage [now a museum] incredibly spick-and-span. But one of the things we are trying to do is to show how bleak it was in Haworth, which had no proper sanitation.”
She long ago ceded control of Scott & Bailey (a new three-part story starts on Wednesday). “I felt I’d done everything I could with it. I absolutely loved it, though it wasn’t a hard decision, I didn’t feel I was having one of my babies ripped away. And I knew Amelia Bullmore was taking over as lead writer and I was so happy.”
Wainwright also has plans to write what she calls a “Downton-esque” drama about Anne Lister, a remarkable woman who lived in Shibden Hall, Halifax, in the 1830s, where she was a prolific diarist and an unashamed lesbian.
Does Wainwright ever take a rest? “I feel like I could do with a bit of a break. But if I stop, I’m afraid it will all disappear.”