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Sweetly Sings Delaney

Theatre Writer Book

John Harding , Greenwich Exchange , March 27, 2018
Theatre Writer Book by John Harding It is the way of the touring calendar that too many productions arrive over too short a time. In February, two productions were performed at different locations in the west on the same day. The advertising for one declared its foremost quality to be that it was “cinematic”. Since the arts of cinema and theatre have small overlap the advertising acted as anti-advertising and sent me to the other.

As an episode it came to mind in the reading of John Harding's absorbing book. The film of “A Taste of Honey” is a regular on television. As a film it is lifted by Walter Lassally's superb photography and the Tushingham-Melvin acting partnership. But it is far different in flavour from the play that propelled the nineteen old Salford writer to fame. Among other things, “Sweetly Sings Delaney” reclaims the play for its place in theatre.

Most first writing for theatre involves the playwright working their way through their admirations. With Shelagh Delaney it was the opposite. At the Opera House in Manchester she saw Terence Rattigan's “Variation on a Theme” and disliked it, thinking she could do better. The result, written in a matter of days, was sent to the Theatre Workshop in Stratford East. Gerry Raffles said of “A Taste of Honey”: “Quite apart from its meaty content, we believe we have found a real dramatist.” In the ever competitive atmosphere between the two innovating theatres the production programme took a swipe at the Royal Court. Their dramatist was the “the antithesis of London's angry young men. She knows what she is angry about.”

Then as now, there was no shortage of aspiring writers for theatre. The Salford City Reporter of 9th May 1958 quoted a Mr G Raffles: “we have had 2500 plays sent to us in the last five years and this is only the fourth we have accepted. The love scenes are amazingly frank and a scene between the girl and a Negro boy is brilliantly written.”
Behind the scenes, Joan Littlewood was frank on what she saw as the play's deficiencies. The dialogue sparkled but she considered many of the scenes undeveloped and the plot anecdotal.

The solution in the production was to use direct audience address and to put a jazz group on stage. Johnny Wallbank's Apex Trio provided each character with a signature motif. The play vaulted to the West End in January 1959 and played for 368 performances. Broadway followed and John Osborne bought the film rights for a then weighty £20,000. Tony Richardson's film went on to win, among other awards, Best Actress and Actor awards at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival. Its status stands as the most performed play by a post-war British woman playwright.

“Sweetly Sings Delaney” combines the virtues of slimness with fullness. Undogmatic and untheoretical, John Harding roams across an array of contemporary sources. He revisits the records of the Lord Chamberlain, the licensor of theatre in its days of censorship. The Lord Chamberlain's assistant, a Brigadier Norman Gwatkin reports: “I think it's revolting, quite apart from the homosexual bits. To me it has no saving grace whatsoever. If we pass muck like this, it does give our critics something to go on.” Its licence was granted with the word “castrated” taken out and a self-revelatory speech by the gay character Geof removed.

Over at the Arts Council Drama Panel Harding finds an opinion that “it seems to have been dashed off in pencil in a school exercise book by a youngster who knows practically nothing about the theatre. Miss Delaney writes with the confidence of sheer ignorance.” The Daily Mail's critic took the same line, saying the play exuded “exercise books and marmalade” and that any “similarities to real drama are quite accidental.”

The media was delighted to have a West End playwright of apparently genuine working-class background. The Daily Mail described Delaney as “wolfing down a meal of sausage, cabbage, beetroot and weak tea.” In a true indicator of another era the News Chronicle viewed her as “like a kennelmaid on her day off”. The Evening Standard reported her as having started smoking at age six. But in the nature of writers there was rather more ambivalence to her than these simplifying labels conveyed.

Her work appeared to include being assistant to a photographer. In the letter she wrote to Joan Littlewood to accompany the script she said that two weeks previously she “didn’t know the theatre existed”. Journalists saw a cultural background in music hall and visits to the cinema three times a week. The truth was that she had worked as an usher and regularly went to plays with a friend, artist Harold Riley. He said he was “struck at the time by the extent of Delaney’s knowledge of the history of the theatre”.

Joan Littlewood offered her young playwright guidance. “Read a good play,” she wrote “an Ibsen for example, then analyse it, note the construction. Playwriting is a craft, not just inspiration.” The next play “The Lion in Love” did not match the first and her writing life moved to short stories, radio and film scripts. Delaney is a crucial part of the story of Lindsay Anderson. In “Charlie Bubbles”, directed by and starring Albert Finney, an acclaimed writer makes a return to northern roots. Finney too came from Salford and Harding begins his book there.

His Salford of the 1950s is a report from a world gone. Its lack of sunshine was due to sulphur dioxide concentrations that were twice those of neighbouring Manchester. The incidence of bronchitis was twice the national average. Over 1955-65 more houses were demolished per capita than in any other city. It was not just bad housing that went, but civic buildings with communal function, cinemas, churches, banks, department stores, pubs. Salford though had small affection for its writer. “A taste of cash for Shelagh but a kick in the pants for Salford” ran an early story for the Salford City Reporter. The film “the White Bus” was yet “another slur on Salford's good name”. Eras change; in 2014 Salford City Council organised the first Shelagh Delaney Day.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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