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A Taste of Shelagh - The Story of a Girl from Salford

CP Lee on a girl from nowhere who made a difference

Published on November 23rd 2011.

A Taste of Shelagh - The Story of a Girl from Salford

SHELAGH Delaney who has just died aged 71 will probably be best remembered for her play A Taste of Honey. This will be her blessing, though it has also been a curse because she did so much more in her life, most notably opening the doors for female, working class writers at a time of great social change - the 1950s. 

A Taste Of Honey: there was and had never been anything like it on the stage in this country before. 

Honey was written in response to a night out at the Manchester Opera House where the then 17-year-old Delaney was both bored and offended by a production of Terence Rattigan’s Variations on a Theme.

She instinctively knew that plays like this had nothing to do with her life or those of her contemporaries. If they spoke at all it was of a world a million miles away from the terraced house in Salford where she was born.

The theatre of John Osborne and the Angry Young Men was barely struggling out of the confines of London’s Royal Court Theatre and there was no Coronation Street on the TV for her to engage with; there was just a vast middle-class cultural tyranny. 

Delaney had struggled through three different primary schools, failed her 11-plus examinations and looked set for a life shackled to the treadmills of the time with no qualifications, no job worth having, marriage, kids and oblivion, and yet … and yet ... something set her apart. 

A teacher at her Secondary Modern school in Broughton got her interested in drama and at fifteen she transferred to a local Grammar school where she ‘did her ‘O’ Levels’, leaving school at seventeen with five qualifications. 

Then came a succession of dull jobs whilst she harboured a desire to write. Rattigan’s play at the Opera House was the catalyst that inspired her and Honey was the result. At eighteen years of age her play was first performed in a series of readings at a Library Theatre workshop. It got the attention of Joan Littlewood and she helped the young playwright hone the script before showcasing it at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East where it was an immediate and huge international success. 

There was and had never been anything like it on the stage in this country before. The play tells the story of a young schoolgirl, Jo who lives with her unmarried floozy of a mother. Jo has an affair with a passing Nigerian sailor and becomes pregnant. Her best friend, with whom she attempts to set up home, is a gay art student named Geoffrey. This was playwriting that grabbed you by the throat and shook you until you cried tears of laughter and tears of rage. 

Taste Of HoneyTaste Of Honey: actors Melvin Murray and Rita Tushingham get it on

A film version followed and so did the inevitable attempt to produce a follow up. Critically this proved hard for Shelagh and she drifted away from theatre towards film scripts. Here she was more successful, writing two classic pieces of Sixties cinema, The White Bus (1967) directed by Lindsay Anderson, and Charlie Bubbles (1968) directed by and starring fellow Salfordian Albert Finney. 

Both these films are set in Manchester and Salford and therein perhaps lies their strength. Delaney became more reclusive as she grew older; she had never courted the limelight anyway.

Other scripts followed, both for film and radio, some more successful than others. It’s interesting that Dance With A Stranger (1985) is about another Mancunian, Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in England. But Shelagh Delaney’s major achievement was to pave the way for other working-class women to enter the world of the Arts and this, more than A Taste of Honey is truly her lasting legacy.

Next Wednesday, 30th November there will be a special screening of A Taste of Honey at Cornerhouse, after which there will be a Q & A with actor Murray Melvin who played Geoffrey in the film. The event is hosted by me, CP Lee, Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Salford. Please come along.

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Simon TurnerNovember 24th 2011.

The guy on the left in that photo captioned "actors Melvin Murray and Rita Tushingham get it on" isn't Melvin Murray or even Murray Melvin (who plays Geoffrey), it's Paul Danquah (who plays Jimmy). Assume this is Man Con's mistake and that CP Lee knows who he's meeting next Wednesday.

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