Sally Wainwright: A black woman has still not played the lead on British TV

Happy Valley writer Sally Wainwright has made complex, compelling female characters her own

Sally Wainwright is on a hot streak. Her recent creations – Bafta-winning Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax, and before that Scott and Bailey – have changed the face and the sound of British television via hugely popular, critically acclaimed, powerful, funny dramas with women at the heart of the stories. Revolutionary? It shouldn’t be. Yet she has effected deep-rooted change without an explicitly feminist agenda, never resorting to caricatures of ‘strong women’.

While these recent successes have cemented her reputation as a formidable creative force, she has been working changes in a 30-year career that began on The Archers, featured a long stint on Coronation Street in the mid-1990s, and gathered pace on At Home With The Braithwaites in the early 2000s.

When she sits down with The Big Issue, Wainwright expresses surprise at being feted for writing female leads with depth. Suggest that magic happens when she writes for Sarah Lancashire (above and below), Happy Valley’s Catherine Cawood – one of the most compelling characters to hit the small screen in years – and her response is as unassuming as the blunt daughters of West Yorkshire she creates. “I think it is just good casting,” she says. Wainwright is in a league of her own. So when the BBC wanted someone to write a one-off drama marking the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth, there was only one name on the list.

The lead character in most TV dramas are men by a ratio of about two to one

The Big Issue: Recent research found that even when films have female protagonists, more lines are delivered by men. Are you conscious of the need to challenge this? Sally Wainwright: It is shocking, isn’t it? We think we are beyond that but we are not. The lead character in most TV dramas are men by a ratio of about two to one; we’ve still never had a black woman playing the lead on TV in a mainstream drama. I just write about what I want to write about. But it has been a bit of a shock just how much I’ve been praised for writing interesting, complex women, how that’s regarded as being a bit of a novelty. I didn’t notice until people pointed it out.

Where do you find your heroes? They are often people I want to be. They are my fantasy heroes – Catherine Cawood is someone I would like to be. But then they have to be grounded as well, they can’t just be great, they have to be complex, to have flaws. They have to have a dark side. One of the things I really loved about Happy Valley was that Tommy [James Norton] was the baddie but he had some redeeming qualities. And Catherine has a lot of bad qualities.

People treated me very differently when I was thinner to when I was fat

In To Walk Invisible (below) Emily Brontë says: “When a man writes something it is what is written that is judged. When a woman writes something, it is her that is judged.” It was something my police adviser on Scott and Bailey, Diane Taylor, said to me. She was a really accomplished detective, working predominantly on murder cases, and said when a man stands up to give a speech, people listen to what he has got to say and decide whether he knows what he is talking about. But when a woman stands up, they decide on whether to listen based on what she looks like. It is just true. I have encountered this. I lost a lot of weight once. People treated me very differently when I was thinner to when I was fat.

What happens next? How do we adjust the ratio of whose stories are being told? There are still overwhelmingly more male writers than female writers, and I suspect that is about confidence. It will only change slowly when women dare to put themselves out there more. That is down to individuals to find the courage to do that – but you also need an environment to encourage them to do that. I hope it is changing.

DID YOU KNOW…

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You wrote and directed the most recent series of Happy Valley and To Walk Invisible, yet you seem fairly shy. Does taking control of your stories in this way come naturally? I absolutely love directing, it’s something I always wanted to do and my intention now I have started is to carry on. I am quite shy. I am not particularly garrulous. But when I direct, I feel like this is what I was born to do. For me it is not about control, it is about doing the job. I think it really weird that when you’ve written something, you hand it over to someone else to direct. It feels like I have done all this work then you get to do the fun bit! To me it is an extension of the same job.

A WALK WITH THE BRONTË SISTERS

Sally Wainwright explains what drew her to Britain’s most famous literary family…

They get to you, the Brontës. I grew up about eight miles from Haworth and there is something about the atmosphere at the Parsonage. Their personal story is compelling, they all died young – none reached 40 – but wrote work still hugely popular so long after their deaths. This is the first time I have written about real people. You feel a kind of pressure. You don’t want to misrepresent them, and I was keen to avoid the tropes of period drama.

Writing about people you know are a lot cleverer than you will ever be is daunting. You have to make the imaginative leap and start inventing the language they speak. I remember so vividly first putting words in Charlotte Brontë’s mouth. The main thrust of the drama is in the last few years they were living with their brother Branwell, who was an alcoholic, and the impact that has on them. They weren’t married and were otherwise going to be dependent on him for an income. Branwell is never going to support them, so their decision to publish their work is not divorced from the fact their brother is ill.

A lot of what they wrote was affected by Branwell. Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is all about the consequences of living with an alcoholic, there is alcoholism in Emily’s Wuthering Heights and there are a lot of tricky men in Charlotte’s work – certainly in Jane Eyre. There is poignancy and tragedy in the fact that they led these obscure lives but are now extraordinarily celebrated women.