A Taste of Honey author Shelagh Delaney dies
22nd Nov 2011
Shelagh Delaney, author of A Taste of Honey, has died aged 71.
Delaney was born in Salford on November 25th 1939. Her father was a bus conductor. At fifteen, Shelagh was admitted into grammar school and gained five O Levels.
While working as an usher in a local theatre, Delaney saw Terence Rattigan’s Variation on a Theme and decided she could do better. She wrote A Taste of Honey in ten days.
A Taste of Honey tells the story of a teenager, Jo, unmarried and pregnant with a mixed-race child. She lives in a rundown flat with her flirty mother, Helen, who resents Jo’s blossoming friendship with a young gay man. It was first staged in 1958, and then transferred to the West End and Broadway.
‘Miss Delaney brings real people on to her stage, joking and flaring and scuffling and eventually, out of the zest for life she gives them, surviving,’ Kenneth Tynan wrote in The Times. ‘She is 19 years old and a portent.’
Delaney was also praised by Bernard Levin, who wrote, ‘Miss Delaney is not only a shrewd and penetrating observer; she is a very delicate artist.’
However, other critics panned both the play and its author. ‘If there is anything worse than an Angry Young Man it’s an Angry Young Woman,’ was the Daily Mail’s verdict.
Nonetheless, A Taste of Honey was filmed in 1961, with Rita Tushingham taking the part of Jo. Delaney won a BAFTA award for her screenplay.
Because of her youth, class and gender, Shelagh attracted widespread publicity, though there was an unmistakable note of snobbery in the press coverage of the time.
She also wrote screenplays for two 1967 films: Lindsay Anderson’s The White Bus, based on one of Delaney’s stories; and the feature-length Charlie Bubbles, starring Albert Finney as a down-at-heel writer.
But while fellow dramatists like John Osborne and Harold Pinter went on to even greater success, Shelagh was left behind. ‘Any young writer needs time and self-belief, and crucially, the belief of others, too,’ argued Jeanette Winterson. ‘Nobody turned things round for Delaney.’
Contrary to myth, Shelagh didn’t vanish entirely. During the 1970s she wrote scripts for television, including Did Your Nanny Come From Bergen?, St. Martin’s Summer and The House That Jack Built, a six-part series later staged in New York. Two radio plays, So Does the Nightingale and Don’t Worry About Matilda, were broadcast in the early 1980s.
A Taste of Honey was revived on Broadway in 1981, with Amanda Plummer winning a Tony nomination as Jo. Four years later, Delaney wrote the screenplay for Dance With a Stranger, the award-winning film starring Miranda Richardson as Ruth Ellis, the last woman hanged in England thirty years before.
‘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,’ said Morrissey, lead singer of The Smiths, in 1986. A photo of the young Shelagh was chosen as the cover of a 1987 compilation album, Louder Than Bombs.
Delaney completed more screenplays, including Three Days in August (1992), chronicling the fall of Gorbachev; and The Railway Station Man, a 1992 adaptation of Jennifer Johnston’s novel, starring Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland.
Over the last decade, Shelagh continued to write for radio. Tell Me a Film was broadcast in 2003, followed a year later by Country Life, set during the Foot and Mouth crisis of 2001. A new production of A Taste of Honey opened at Manchester’s Royal Exchange in 2008.
On 20th November 2011, Shelagh Delaney died of cancer. ‘She was like a lighthouse – pointing the way and warning about the rocks underneath,’ Jeanette Winterson has written. ‘She was the first working-class woman playwright. She had all the talent and we let her go.’
‘Objectively viewed, you could say Delaney’s career never fulfilled its initial promise,’ critic Michael Billington commented in The Guardian.
‘But what she did do was open a door for succeeding generations; and if we now think there is nothing freakish or unusual about women dramatists making a mark in their teens or coming from a working-class background, we have Shelagh Delaney to thank for it.’