Happiness doesn’t make good drama.
So says writer and director Sally Wainwright who has spoken candidly about what drives her to write often bleak storylines.
The leading television scriptwriter and director revealed all when she spoke to a large audience at Huddersfield University .
The author of the ironically-titled crime story Happy Valley plus bittersweet serials such as Last Tango in Halifax and searing sagas such as Unforgiven was explaining the fact that dysfunctional families frequently feature in her storylines.
The multi-BAFTA award-winner said the subject of her next TV film, To Walk Invisible, about the Brontës of Haworth, was “the ultimate dysfunctional family”. The audience was given a preview of a scene in which an emotionally charged Emily Brontë is seen physically assaulting her sister Charlotte after an argument over poetry and privacy. It was based on research into the intense relationship between the literary sisters.
The film is due to be screened by the BBC at Christmas and Sally both scripted and directed it. She explained how she had selected unknown actors for the lead roles and ensured that they bore a physical resemblance to the Brontës.
“I really wanted it be like stepping back in time, and not feel like a sanitised, BBC dressing-up box production where they have all got white teeth and you wouldn’t be surprised if they got mobile phones out!” said Sally, who also ensured that the Brontë actors spoke in Yorkshire accents instead of the usual Received Pronunciation .
The event, in conversation with the University’s Dr Michael Stewart, explored the strong female characters in Sally’s dramas.
“I am lucky – and rare – in that I consciously want to write about women,” she said. “The things that get commissioned are the things you are passionate about and I love writing about women. I think they are very heroic. But most people want to write about men. Even women want to write about men.
“There are men I love writing for and I hope that my male characters are as good as my female ones. But women are more emotionally articulate.”
Dr Stewart analysed the importance of ‘place’ in Sally’s dramas, many of which – including Happy Valley and Last Tango – are explicitly located in her home area of Halifax and the Calder Valley.
“Being real is very important to me, however dark it gets,” she said. “It is like not being able to write a character until I know what their name is. The more you can ground your drama in a real place the more real it feels to me as a writer.
“For me the Calder Valley is very real because it is where I grew up. The accent is very real because it’s my accent. And the more I can make the audience believe that this is real, that this is actually happening, the better it is.”