Sally Wainwright: “My younger self willed being a top writer into happening”

The queen of quality TV reveals how Coronation Street was always sacrosanct for her and how Anne Lister made her native 'Numpty-ville" Halifax cool for her again in her Letter To My Younger Self

I watched everything on television when I was younger. It was my world. But I didn’t really know that people wrote it. The penny slowly dropped and when I was about 12, I decided I wanted to write Coronation Street. It was only on on Mondays and Wednesdays then, and you couldn’t record it. If you missed it you missed it – so you never missed it! It was sacrosanct in our house, watching Coronation Street. And it was incredibly good then, proper kitchen-sink drama. There are so many episodes of soaps now that it becomes repetitive. 

I went on a school trip to Leeds Playhouse to see Julius Caesar when I was 13. I hadn’t a clue what was going on, but I loved it. I obviously had a real passion for performance and theatre. I didn’t know anything about them and never saw them performed but I used to send off to Methuen to buy modern play scripts to read. I had written dialogue since I was 10 on the family typewriter. I always thought it had fantastic entertainment potential to craft what people said – me and my sister wrote plays about people
we knew and our favourite people from the television, like the ladies from Rock Follies. I certainly got my 10,000 hours in before I was 18.

The playwright Barrie Keeffe was my absolute hero. I used to get all of his plays and try to write like him, even though I now know we were poles apart. I went to London for the first time when I was 16 and tried to see as much theatre as I could in one week. I saw his play Bastard Angel. Now theatre broadcasts into cinemas all over the country but in those days, if you were a kid in Halifax whose parents were not interested in theatre, there was no chance in the world of seeing a big London play. 

I didn’t have much of a social life, but I didn’t want one. And I wasn’t lonely. I would spend evenings painting and writing. People thought I was a bit odd but I had a good friendship group and don’t remember being bullied more than once or twice. I was at Sowerby Bridge Grammar School and liked going to school – looking back, I don’t think my friends did. I was the only one in my friendship group who went straight to university. My dad was a senior lecturer at Huddersfield Polytechnic and had grown up in a working-class family, so he understood the importance of education. I went to York to read history. And then I started having a social life.

I couldn’t wait to leave Halifax. It was the back of beyond. It was Numpty-ville. Like most people who grow up in the provinces, if you like, you think: ‘Just my luck to be born in the middle of nowhere’. I have a mad, passionate love affair with Halifax now, largely because of Anne Lister. Suddenly she made Halifax seem very cool indeed. As a child, I did not appreciate the landscape. If you see it every day, you don’t know it is beautiful. But in March I will be made a Freewoman of the Borough of Calderdale.

I would tell my younger self, don’t eat carbohydrates, don’t drink alcohol, don’t start smoking. I might have listened to the bit about carbs. But what is it that comedian said? When we were kids there were two food groups – tins and packets. I grew up like that. We didn’t know about carbs. I would tell my younger self to keep exercising. Because I am overweight as an adult and as a kid I wasn’t that bad. But my mum used to tell me I was, so I grew up thinking I was fat and became fat. 

I was cripplingly shy when I was little. I still can be if I let myself. It is to do with having confidence in who you are. I went to university with a lot of public school students. I had fantastic friends but was struck by how well spoken and uninhibited they were. It is a class thing. Public school kids have a much stronger sense of their own self-worth. I wish I’d had a better sense of mine. You grow up in a culture where it is good not to be outspoken. I had a lot to say but ended up saying it by writing it down. 

DID YOU KNOW…

Vendors buy magazines for £1.25 and sell them for £2.50. They are working and need your custom.

Everyone who was a writer wanted to work on Coronation Street. So to be one of the few asked to join the team in 1994 was extraordinary. It was like I had won the lottery or struck gold. The reality was something else. There were 15 writers and only three women. The meetings were heavily dominated by the loudest voices, the biggest smells. They would bring in lunch with a lot of wine and the afternoon was a misogynistic bloodbath. 

It feels to me like Gentleman Jack is what I was sent to the planet for. I am very proud of At Home With The Braithwaites, which was the first time I had my own original TV series, Happy Valley has done phenomenally well and Last Tango In Halifax has had a big impact on people. But Anne Lister has been my hero for 30 years. So to have written a series about her [Gentleman Jack], and for it to have been realised on such a huge scale and have such an astronomical impact on people’s lives, is fantastic. 

Gentleman Jack
Suranne Jones stars as Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack

Since I was little, I have loved watching people act. It really hits me in the soul. I love writing for people who will give a performance I will be excited by. Only a handful have that absolute X factor, so I seek them out to work with. I have written a lot for George Costigan, Siobhan Finneran, Vincent Franklin, I love Anne Reid and Nicola Walker. But I do love Sarah Lancashire and Suranne Jones – I don’t know if it is a northern thing, but they are both so ballsy, so down to earth and honest.  

It didn’t occur to me for a long time that it was unusual to be excited about writing for women. It is changing now, but there is still a huge problem. We are living in what is regarded as a golden age of television but the overwhelming mass of content is male-orientated. It is still rare to find really good series about women. We know what they are – Unbelievable on Netflix, things like The Marvelous Mrs Maisel and hopefully Happy Valley and Gentleman Jack. But you can’t just turn on the TV and know you will find something that isn’t about men and guns and power and saying dick a lot. 

I was always bemused when rational, intelligent, interesting friends started getting giddy about boys. I didn’t get it. I wasn’t interested in anybody except if they were on the television. When I went up to London after I left university, I met Austin [Sherlaw-Johnson, her husband] and we fell for each other and got married. It was the first relationship I ever had and we’ve been married for 30 years now. 

People ought to be taught politics in school in the way we are taught religion. It’s bizarre we are not taught how our own country functions. The schools that teach politics tend to be posh schools from which people go into politics. If it was compulsory, like maths, English and religion, the whole Brexit thing would have been very different. Particularly in the north, people were flexing muscles because they feel ignored. 

I always wanted to be a famous writer and sort of willed it to happen. I think my younger self always knew, so she would be happily not surprised by the success I have had. But it would surprise her that I am now a director as well. To be doing both is like living in a dream. But you can’t direct something if you haven’t written it yet. I am just writing episode six of the new series of Gentleman Jack and we start filming in June. I adore directing. It feels like the icing on the cake. It is my favourite part of the job. You put so much work in, you are exhausted mentally and physically, so when it has gone well there is no feeling like it. But increasingly there isn’t time to do both once you get on to the kind of rollercoaster I am on.

Last Tango in Halifax returns to BBC One on February 23 at 9pm. All previous series are available on BBC iPlayer

Image: David Levene/Guardian/eyevine