Sally Wainwright: from Coro to Happy Valley

From Nine To Noon, 10:07 am on 24 May 2018

Sally Wainwright is one of Britain's most highly regarded screenwriters.

She cut her teeth writing for The Archers and Coronation Street and went on to create and write award-winning series including At Home with the Braithwaites and The Last Tango In Halifax and the female-led detective shows Scott and Bailey and Happy Valley.

Wainwright's shows are typically set in the north of England. She herself was born and brought up in West Yorkshire.

Her most recent projects are dramatisations of historical events. To Walk Invisible portrays the troubled life of the Bronte family, and Gentleman Jack (also known as Shibden Hall) tells the story of exceptional Yorkshire landowner and industrialist Anne Lister - who went through a marriage ceremony with a woman in 1834 and kept coded diaries about her life.

"I never set out to be a northern writer", Wainright told Kathryn Ryan. "I just wanted to be a writer, and I guess I've ended up writing in my own vernacular, my own voice."

Wainwright is known for her long running collaborations with actors such as Suranne Jones and Sarah Lancashire. Both northerners from Oldham in Lancashire they share Wainwright's dry sense of humour, she says.

"It's to do with the rhythm of the language."

Getting a writing job on The Archers, a long running radio soap opera, was the ideal apprenticeship.

"We had to construct each episode of five scenes, we could only use seven characters in each episode and we had to use them at least twice within the five scenes. We were encouraged as a much as possible not to write two-hander scenes.

"If you break that down, that's quite a strict discipline. It was very effective in making me think about dramatic structure."

Snaring a highly- prized writing job on Coronation Street, allowed her to further refine her skills.

"Coronation Street always respected the writers. I think the other soaps used writers as a kind of commodity whereas on Coronation Street the voice of the writers was really respected and that's where we learned a lot of confidence about sticking up for what you want."

Being offered the job was a "huge deal" she says. "The writing team never left. It was just big bananas being asked to do that."

Despite having written two acclaimed cop shows, Wainwright had always avoided them until she struck up a friendship with Manchester detective Dianne Taylor  - which helped her plot the series Scott and Bailey.

"She worked on murders every day. The way she talked about police work I felt was in a way I'd never really seen on television.

"I'd always seen dramas that I now realise were based on other writers having watched other police dramas. And a lot of it was incorrect. It was like this self-perpetuating myth about how the police worked.

"A lot of it had been influenced by the American model which is very different to our model."

She found inspiration for Happy Valley's lead character when she reconnected with an old school friend.

"I knew it was very important to find somebody as good as Dianne had been on Scott and Bailey, and I was put in touch with Lisa Farrand.

"She was someone I'd often talked about, about what a good person she was and it didn't surprise me a bit she'd become a police officer."

Farrand's input leant Happy Valley a unique authenticity, Wainwright says.

"It was based on a lot of her direct experiences. It was authentic and very true to life and I think that's what gave the show a lot of its uniqueness."

The inspiration for Last Tango in Halifax came from closer to home.

"It was simply what happened to my mum."

Her mother who was widowed, had reconnected with an old school friend online.

"She'd met Alec, who was widowed and living with his daughter, and they'd got chatting to one another on Friends Reunited and he's asked if he could come over and take her out for a cup of tea.

"And it turned out he'd always had a bit of a crush on her at school - 60 years ago when they were teenagers. He came to visit and they completely fell in love with each other - it was really uplifting "

I told [Scott and Bailey producer] Nicola and she just immediately said 'Oh that's a six part series'."

Wainwright says she had always known she wanted to be a television writer from obsessively watching television dramas as a girl.

"When I was 12 there the show on tele called Rock Follies. It was about a rock band with three women in it and I remember thinking after the first episode 'Oh that's what I'm going to do, I'm going to write'. It's like I was born to write words for people to say."