When Shelagh Delaney, all of 19, started writing A Taste of Honey, it had only two characters: Jo, the 15-year-old Salford school-leaver whose choices and chances structure the story, and her forty-year-old often skint but always cadging mother, Helen. Other characters were added later. Peter, the louche businessman with a ‘wallet full of reasons’ to lure Helen offstage and into a brief marriage for the play’s middle sections. Jimmie, the charming ‘coloured naval rating’ who keeps Jo company over Christmas and leaves her pregnant. And Geof, the gay art student who becomes Jo’s flatmate and nursemaid – until Helen barges back in and sends him packing. The play ends as it begins, with Helen and Jo in a bedsit – entangled, stuck, sparring, unforgettable.
This is a long way from the marriage plot, which underwires so much literature. ‘It’s the story of life,’ Robert Sean Leonard’s character once explained on the TV show House. ‘Boy meets girl. Boy gets stupid. Boy and girl live stupidly ever after.’ The Angry Young Men who were Delaney’s fellows and friends came out, sharp-nibbed, against that dispiriting plotline. But how to screw the girl without ending up in the new semi with the pram in the hall on the council estate at the edge of town? Women in these fictions are enticing but dangerous, knees-together honeypots bartering sex for a ring. To quote Julie Christie, who would know: ‘They exist to be disliked by the heroes.’
How, then, to make sense of Delaney? A Taste of Honey doesn’t retell the marriage plot from the ‘woman’s point of view’. It upends it entirely. Yes, it has marriages, past and potential. We watch Helen go off with Peter; we see Jimmie’s I-bought-you-a-ring-at-Woolworth’s courtship of Jo; later, lonely Geof offers to marry Jo and take care of her. But none of these arrangements carries conviction; Helen and Jo don’t have much faith in them. Helen isn’t surprised when Peter goes off with ‘his little crumpet’. Jo remembers Jimmie fondly (‘he could sing and he was so tender’), but she won’t find out where he is or marry Geof instead. Helen and Jo, it seems, don’t expect to live stupidly ever after.
Helen and Jo may have low expectations but they have strong desires – for romance, sex, fun, colour, ‘a taste of honey’. Men offer that, if only fleetingly, and Helen and Jo grab it with both hands. ‘Listen, love, I’m old enough to be your mother,’ Helen tells Peter, but she doesn’t care: ‘You certainly liberate something in me. And I don’t think it’s maternal instincts either.’ Jimmie and Jo’s pretty-neck-you’ve-got-glad-you-like-it flirtation is more artless and charming, but when Jo says to Jimmie, ‘that’s you taking advantage of my innocence,’ they both know she’s teasing. ‘Don’t do that,’ she says, inviting him to stay. ‘Why?’ ‘Because I like it.’ When Helen returns, she’s furious to find Jo pregnant (‘Where’s the loving father? Distinguished by his absence I suppose’), but Jo never blames Jimmie and Helen doesn’t waste time blaming him either. Did she love her sailor, Geof asks Jo. ‘I don’t know much about love,’ Jo replies. ‘I’ve never been too familiar with it.’ Neither woman expects love to last.
What does last is their relationship: thick, complex, recriminatory. Jo’s grievances are explicitly stated. Helen was always off with some boyfriend at Christmas, leaving her on her own. ‘I used to try to hold my mother’s hands,’ she tells Geof, ‘but she always used to pull them away.’ When Helen tells Jo the neighbours are calling her a whore and berates her for throwing herself at the first man she met, Jo has an unanswerable retort: ‘I’m like you … they all know where I get it from.’ Helen tells Jo she should have got rid of her – and Jo shoots back that she wishes Helen had. It’s a terrible moment: mother and daughter agreeing the daughter should never have been born.
And yet, despite the rain of insults, the bond persists. When Geof, scandalised, tries to intervene, mother and daughter tell him to butt out: they will never let anyone criticise the other or sell them short. ‘Nobody asked you to come,’ Helen says to Peter when he insults Jo; ‘that’s the way to do things,’ she says admiringly, when Jo steals flowers for the bedsit from the public gardens. Jo understands why her mother left her first husband: he ‘thought sex was dirty’, she explains to Geof, and so Helen looked elsewhere. When Geof asks Jo what ‘sort of woman’ Helen is, she rejects the question. ‘She’s all sorts of woman,’ Jo says – and so is Jo. ‘My usual self is a very unusual self, Geoffrey Ingram, and don’t you forget it.’
I can’t think of another play that gives such an unvarnished portrait of the exigencies of motherhood: of what mothers give and resent giving, of what daughters learn and hate learning. Helen isn’t what Donald Winnicott in 1953 called a ‘good enough mother’ – not by a long shot. But she gave what she could: she didn’t abort Jo, she kept her alive and taught her what she knew of the world. Jo knows, and hates, that she’s repeating the script: ‘I don’t want this baby,’ she tells Geof. ‘I don’t want to be a mother.’ But she won’t get rid of it either. She will live with the pram in the hall. Is this a choice? ‘Why don’t you learn from my mistakes?’ Helen asks. ‘It takes half your life to learn from your own.’ But no one learns by example, only by living – and women always pay for their tastes of honey. Helen knows this and doesn’t blame her daughter for wanting what no one should do without. ‘It’s your life,’ she tells her. ‘Ruin it your own way.’
Selina Todd’s biography of Delaney does two things well. It helps us understand how someone the press insisted on calling a ‘Salford teenager’ was able to create this remarkable work – and it shows how hard the people who brought the play to stage and screen worked to shift the spotlight away from that intense mother-daughter dynamic. There was a script, too, for ‘new writers’ in the late 1950s and 1960s: they were to be young, authentic and, if possible, working class; they were to be masculine, rebellious and shocking. When, in April 1958, Delaney sent her play to Joan Littlewood, the director of the avant-garde Theatre Workshop in East London, she adopted a naive, Northern persona that was more than a little misleading. ‘A fortnight ago I didn’t know the theatre existed,’ she gushed to Littlewood – but then a friend had taken her to see a play and she had discovered ‘something that meant more to me than myself’. She now knew she wanted to write plays, and in two weeks had produced the enclosed ‘epic’. ‘Please can you help me? I’m willing enough to help myself.’ Christened plain ‘Sheila’, she signed the letter ‘Shelagh Delaney’, the name by which she would be known from then on.
Littlewood took both the play and the playwright on, inviting Delaney to live with her and her husband while they got the script into shape. Delaney knew how lucky she was. She had a gift for dialogue – ‘writing as people talk’, as she put it – but she knew little about plot or staging. Littlewood was an experienced and innovative director, committed to producing new plays for working-class audiences, and her edits (as Delaney always insisted and Todd confirms) made the play tighter, more dramatic – better. But the collaboration also subtly changed the play’s dynamic and the significance of its characters. The romantic subplots grew in importance; the intensity of Helen and Jo’s relationship was toned down. Most tellingly, Littlewood changed the ending. In Delaney’s early version, Peter and Helen insist that Jo comes to live with them to have her baby. In Littlewood’s version, Peter throws Helen out, and Jo, rather unwillingly, takes her mother in. Helen and Jo’s relationship remains at the heart of the story, but it has become more one-sided. Helen is more neglectful and selfish than originally portrayed, even racist and homophobic.
A Taste of Honey opened at the Theatre Royal Stratford East on 27 May 1958. It was an immediate if controversial hit. Some avant-garde and progressive voices championed it – Kenneth Tynan, Marxism Today – but there was plenty of criticism too. T.C. Worsley, theatre critic for the New Statesman, thought Delaney’s success merely reflected the fashion for working-class voices; Salford’s city fathers complained that she was bringing their city into disrepute; Richard Hoggart, whose landmark study of working-class culture, The Uses of Literacy, had appeared the previous year, objected that Delaney’s characters were ‘not typical’ of the working class. Very tall, striking and photogenic, Delaney found herself subject to relentless and often prurient press attention. Just twenty, and not yet able legally to control her own money (which the Littlewoods managed), she sold the film rights to John Osborne and Tony Richardson’s production company for the very substantial sum of £20,000 (the equivalent of around half a million pounds today).
In September 1960 Richardson directed a production of A Taste of Honey in Los Angeles; in October it transferred to Broadway. Again the play was a hit, winning a New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, but Richardson had made further changes. ‘He played up the love story between Jo and Jimmie,’ Todd writes; he ‘made Geof more pliant and Jo less angry’. In early 1961 Delaney joined Richardson in New York to turn it into a screenplay, for which she won a Bafta. Richardson made a memorable film: its black and white cinematography evocatively conveys Salford’s battered postwar landscape; the race and sexuality of its characters are treated as ordinary and normal, not as a vehicle for the earnest exploration of some ‘social problem’ or other (as in Basil Dearden’s films of the same period). Richardson also wisely resisted pressure to find a ‘star’ like Audrey Hepburn for the role of Jo, instead casting Rita Tushingham, a 19-year-old grocer’s daughter from Liverpool who had been working in repertory theatre. Tushingham, huge-eyed, intense, and anything but conventionally pretty, brought Jo to life.
And yet the film once again shifted the story. Jo became the focus, Helen a more minor character. And while it made sense for Richardson to move some of the action out of the bedsit, the scenes he added – Helen singing in a pub, an outing to Blackpool, children playing on Bonfire Night – drew on the conventional (and Hoggartian) tropes about Northern working-class leisure and life that Delaney had avoided. The play’s assured and ironic references to ‘high’ culture – Jimmie teasing Jo about being her ‘moor’ from Othello, Geof saying that Helen’s story reminds him of Ibsen’s Ghosts – disappeared. I love Richardson’s film but I mistrust the way his changes induce a kind of sympathy and nostalgia, even in someone like me who isn’t English, much less Northern. Delaney, Todd tells us, resented being pigeonholed: ‘I could go on writing plays if I never saw Salford, Manchester or any Northern working-class district again.’ Unfortunately, by this point, the choice was no longer hers to make. The forces that made her famous also produced ‘Shelagh Delaney’, a ‘Northern’ and ‘working-class’ writer.
So it is that Celia Brayfield, introducing a new edition of A Taste of Honey, can write that Delaney had an ‘unstable childhood’, grew up in the ‘drawn-out desolation, disruption and austerity of the postwar decade’ and was ‘forced to move to so many schools she barely had a sense of being educated at all’. Todd’s careful reconstruction of Delaney’s background and childhood shows just how wide of the mark this is. Yes, Delaney was solidly working class, born in Salford in 1938 to Joseph Delaney, a bus driver of Irish extraction, and his wife, Elsie Twemlow, the daughter of millworkers. Yes, they moved around: Shelagh, her mother and her grandmother to a flat near the docks when her father enlisted in 1939; the whole family to a three-bedroom council house with a garden on the edge of Salford after Joseph returned, in broken health, in 1945. But her childhood was not ‘unstable’. Shelagh was close to her younger brother and her mother (who defended her daughter against charges that her work was indecent), and she adored her father. She was devastated by his death in 1958, just as her star was rising.
Delaney’s youth shouldn’t be seen, Todd shows, through an Orwellian haze of poverty and deprivation. Delaney grew up in a social democratic Britain determined to do better for its children. That Britain was culturally conservative, promoting ideals of meritocracy rather than entitlement, but times were beginning to change. A bright and bookish child, Shelagh failed the eleven-plus, to her teachers’ surprise – but Broughton Secondary Modern did well by her. She had dedicated teachers there, and a headmistress who took her to see her first play (Othello) and encouraged her to write. She was given extra tuition in maths and later transferred to the local girls’ grammar, Pendleton High. Delaney found grammar school culture pretentious and the teaching mediocre, but she became close friends with another confident young girl, Christine Hargreaves. Together they explored their town, Delaney making notes; they also joined the local theatre company, the Salford Players. After sixth form Hargreaves took up a scholarship to Rada and Delaney went to find work (her family needed the money), but the full employment of the time meant she could slide easily from one job to another. It is surely no accident that one job was as an usherette at the Manchester Opera House, where she watched the plays for free. Delaney told Littlewood in April 1958 that she hadn’t known what theatre was. In fact, she had been writing since seeing Waiting for Godot two years before.
If the social democratic moment authorised Delaney’s ambition, it hardly explains her achievement. This was a decade before second-wave feminism – a movement born in any case of the discontents of women who were not working class. Delaney wrote plays in which ordinary women speak for themselves – raunchily, furiously, seductively, despairingly – and will not be shut up or shamed into conformity. Her plots weren’t autobiographical, but, as Todd argues, they drew on her childhood experiences: she had seen that working full-time while caring for an invalid husband wore her mother out; she knew that local women saw sex as a source of money but also of romance; she saw how easily men could drift off while motherhood bound women for life. In The Lion in Love, Delaney’s second play, written hard on the heels of the first (it premiered in 1960), another Helen figure, Kit Fresko, manages a three-generation household in a manner no one could recommend but still refuses to prevent her daughter from gambling on love. Instead, she repeats Helen’s line: ‘It’s your life. You ruin it your own way.’
The Lion in Love, staged too quickly in Coventry before moving to the Royal Court, got mixed reviews. Delaney had broken with Littlewood at a time when she still barely knew her craft: the play is over-peopled, shapeless; it lacks resolution. It may be, as Todd suggests, that the incoherence of Delaney’s plots is the point: she was writing about working-class women’s lives, after all, which rarely ‘resolve’ in a satisfyingly dramatic fashion. But social-determinist readings like this undersell the experimental quality of Delaney’s work. It was Beckett – not Shakespeare or Ibsen or even John Osborne – who inspired her to write. After The Lion in Love she set theatre aside, collaborating with Lindsay Anderson on a modernist – almost absurdist – short film surveying Salford’s landmarks and skewering its pretentions (The White Bus), and then with Albert Finney and Stephen Frears on a near picaresque feature film about a successful writer who comes back to visit Manchester (Charlie Bubbles). Neither was a success (The White Bus was never commercially released though it can now be found online), but both reveal an amused and avant-garde sensibility. We shouldn’t be too quick to pin Delaney to realism.
She was, in any case, putting up her defences. She took part in the September 1961 sit-down protest against nuclear weapons in Trafalgar Square; she spoke out against educational selection and the eleven-plus; she tried to found a ‘people’s theatre’ in Salford. When that last effort failed, she ‘retreated from politics’ aged 23. In 1963 she became the lover of Harvey Orkin, a married 45-year-old New York talent agent and comedy writer with two young children. The following March she had a daughter, Charlotte – though she told Orkin about the baby only after the birth. Single motherhood subjected her to more bruising press attention, and she refused all interviews for the next 12 years. In 1965 Orkin and his family moved to London, and the relationship may have continued – Todd doesn’t tell us – until his death in 1975, one of Delaney’s several off-and-on romantic (but never co-residential) relationships with what Charlotte later called ‘manly men’ (read: commanding, unfaithful, fun). In 1966 she bought a four-storey house on Gerrard Road in Islington and lived there with her daughter and occasional lodgers and friends, until – short of money – she moved to a cottage in Yorkshire in the late 1980s. She was close to her daughter, her grandchildren and some of her friends. She continued to write – but not much.
Todd would dispute this judgment, insisting that Delaney was not a one-hit wonder and that she had a long career as a screenwriter. She wrote for the BBC’s Z Cars – though her name isn’t listed by IMDb among the programme’s 96 credited writers. She wrote a few screenplays, and had a proper hit with Mike Newell’s Dance with a Stranger (1985), in which Miranda Richardson plays Ruth Ellis, who killed her abusive lover and was the last woman to be hanged in Britain. (Delaney thought this screenplay was her ‘most autobiographical’, a comment Todd unfortunately leaves unexplored.) Between 1997 and 2010 she wrote a number of BBC radio plays, some of which explored older women’s lives. The lack of attention given to her later work, Todd concludes, is ‘due to the condescending belief that a working-class woman has only a limited amount to say’.
Perhaps. But that judgment sits awkwardly with the fact that three-quarters of the way through Todd’s book, Delaney is still in her twenties, while the three decades from her forties to her death are dispatched in a mere 18 pages. She just didn’t produce a great deal – and Todd struggles to explain why. Certainly her enormous early success led her to trust to her instincts, perhaps too much: she hated criticism, wouldn’t jump through hoops and walked off projects if she lost interest. As her daughter said, ‘she’d been a big star, very young, and she’d got used to being able to say: “I’m not interested, I won’t do it – I’ve written a masterpiece, why should I?”’ Lindsay Anderson thought (and Delaney cheerfully agreed) that she was lazy – which Todd reads as a protest against the punishing modern work ethic. I think that would have made Delaney, determined to ‘grow old disgracefully’, smile.
Delaney may have written only when she had to, but she was proud of the independence this gave her. She was sensitive, too, about her literary reputation. She clearly hated being bothered, and decided to keep her secrets (like most people who are serious about this, she destroyed her correspondence), but I can’t help feeling that the woman who wrote the characters of Helen and Kit must have had more to say about the world around her. Call me prurient, but I find those later years, and the brevity with which Todd treats them, troubling. Todd reconstructs Delaney’s Salford world and her early career with insight, but she is a social historian, not really a biographer, and she’s too protective of her subject to delve into her psychology, much less to rip the bandages off wounds. Possibly Delaney grew so accustomed to saying no that it simply became a habit, but it’s one thing to turn down interviews, refuse to give speeches and let your garden run wild – and quite another to ignore the lump in your breast that will kill you. She died in 2011, fifty-odd years after writing that brilliant first play, a play which will be performed as long as theatre exists. Broadway is dark right now, and the West End too. But we will see another revival.