30 May 2014

John Harding: Sweetly Sings Delaney: A Study of Shelagh Delaney's Work 1958–68 (2014)

Not a large number of women writers from working-class backgrounds are associated with this kind of literature, although three who are have roots in the Manchester area: Ethel Carnie Holdsworth, Ellen Wilkinson, and Shelagh Delaney (1938–2011), from Salford.

Delaney would no doubt be more obscure than she is now if it weren't for Morrissey's inclusion of a photo of her on the Smiths's Louder than Bombs compilation, and Morrissey, whose song 'This Night has Opened My Eyes' includes a number of quotations from Delaney's A Taste of Honey (1958), admitted that he 'overdid it with [her]. It took me a long, long time to shed that particular one.'

John Harding's Sweetly Sings Delaney includes the above quotation (from a Mojo interview of April 2006), and the short title refers to Delaney's fictionalised autobiographical work Sweetly Sings the Donkey. The subtitle A Study of Shelagh Delaney's Work 1958–68 (printed on the front cover but not on the title-page) is indicative of the time limitation set to this book, but is nevertheless somewhat misleading: it suggests a critical work although it isn't – it's more a description of the author's writings and theatrical and filmic representations of them, along with details of the reactions to them.

A Taste of Honey is a kind of 'kitchen sink' drama – the kind that consciously or unconsciously reacted against the drawing-room comedies and middle-class dramas of Rattigan and Coward – that would inevitably invite comparison with the work of playwrights the papers liked to dub 'Angry Young Men', more so as they now thought they had an 'Angry Young Woman.' The play, set in Salford, hardly flattered the city, and its content – concerning a teenager pregnant by an absent black sailor, her friendship with a homosexual man, etc, also invited strong criticism at the time.

Interestingly, the naturalistic content of the play wasn't dissimilar to Delaney's reading: the likes of Zola and the Goncourt brothers. And there was a different French connection that the press played with: at nineteen, Delaney was the same age as Françoise Sagan had been when her Bonjour Tristesse (1954) had exploded on the reading public, so inevitably Delaney was hailed 'the English Sagan'.

John Harding gave a talk on Delaney at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford on 28 May 2014, in which he concentrated on the negative response to A Taste of Honey. His main contention was that Delaney's work was probably regarded in the negative light that it was – by Salford Council, for instance – because of her perceived political orientation: although Delaney wasn't a card-carrying member of the Communist Party, she was associated with such far left stalwarts as Vanessa Redgrave, Wolf Mankowitz, and Joan Littlewood. What reason other than political fear can there have been when Delaney and Clive Barker – seeking a venue for a new theatre and thinking of the possibilities for restoring Salford Hippodrome (a.k.a. the Windsor Theatre) – were thwarted by Salford Council's buying the place and then knocking it down.

This book has many interesting and well researched facts. With the self-imposed time frame there is inevitably a concentration on A Taste of Honey, although the (deeply?) flawed The Lion in Love, The White Bus, and Charlie Bubbles are also given good coverage here.

There's a glaring error though: several 'kitchen sink' movies by brilliant young directors are mentioned, but Harding states that 'none apart from A Taste of Honey would be associated so closely with a particular place'. And one of those films is Karel Reisz's cinematic adaptation of Alan Sillitoe's novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning – a novel and film with 'NOTTINGHAM' written right through it like Blackpool rock, in spite of the Salford-born Albert Finney playing the lead role in the film.

ADDENDUM: I forgot to mention that – in a seriously delayed volte-face – Salford announced last month that November 25 (Delaney's birthday) will be Shelagh Delaney Day!

A brief interview clip:

Shelagh Delaney in 1959

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