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13th December 2011

A tribute to Shelagh Delaney

‘It’s a bugger of a life, by Jesus.’ Shelagh Delaney 1938-2011

‘It’s a bugger of a life, by Jesus.’ Shelagh Delaney 1938-2011

Allow me to set the scene. It’s post-war Britain, 1958, The Notting Hill race riots rock London and there is growing support for Sir Oswald Moseley’s fascist movement. The living standards of the middle-class in the South of England are rising while the Northern working-class remain untouched, but the Prime Minister Harold MacMillan nevertheless proudly declares “people have never had it so good”. Homosexuality is illegal and censorship of the media is prevalent. Women are being pushed out of employment and back into the domestic sphere as there is a renewed emphasis placed on the nuclear family and women’s place as wife and mother. Now into this scene a most unlikely character strides up to the spotlight and snatches the microphone: Shelagh Delaney. Unlikely in that not only is Delaney a woman, not only is she exceptionally young at just nineteen years old, but she is also working-class and from Salford, the world of slums, dereliction and continuous grey-skys as depicted by L S Lowry. And so it is even more remarkable that from the depths of this silenced socio-economic stratum of society, Shelagh Delaney’s play A Taste of Honey emerges into the public eye, swearing, kicking and spitting like an intoxicated John Cooper Clarke, it lets out a scream which shakes the 1950s sensibilities to the core. Alcoholism, grinding poverty, homosexuality, profanitys, interracial relationships, single motherhood and prostitution, A Taste of Honey brings everything the 1950s had so neatly swept under the carpet, out into the harsh light of day.

Salford, once industrial capital of the world, but now in 1958, a heartland of over-population, chronic economic depression, crime and poverty. A Taste of Honey showcases the unceasing misery and remorseless hardship of life for the Salford poor. Delaney’s protagonist: a seventeen year old working-class girl, unmarried yet pregnant with a black man’s child is the epitomy of the marginalised and voiceless. And Delaney is the one person uniquely qualified by her background, age and sex, to give her a voice. And what a voice it is. As in her subsequent works, Delaney’s females are not weak and subservient as the cultural landscape would have suggested. They are assertive, shockingly rude and astoundingly resilient. Her characters speak in a harsh Manchester vernacular which reflects the brutality of the landscape, but in the face of the sever depravation of their surroundings, they show intelligence, wit and humanity. This was the working-class that Delaney knew but this was the first time they had been portrayed as such because never before had the voice in the dark come from one of their own.

Beyond the resounding achievement of A Taste of Honey as a play and film, Delaney continued to have success, including her play: The Lion in Love (1961) and her 1967 films The White Bus and Charlie Bubbles. She also wrote the 1985 film: Dance With a Stranger, staring Miranda Richardson and Rupert Everett. In it we see the events leading up to the 1955 execution of Ruth Ellis – the last woman hanged in Britain. The case of Ruth Ellis highlighted the bias of the system in that Ellis was hanged for what she was, not what she had done. Had she not been a working-class scarlet woman, and had the man whom she shot not been from a public school and a middle-class family, her conviction would have been for manslaughter, not murder and thus her sentence would have been prison, not execution. There was a great deal of publicity for the case and so we can be sure that the controversy surrounding it would have been heard by Delaney at the time. It is testament to her strong sense of justice that two decades later she would write a screenplay on the event. Delaney sense of social responsibility also reached beyond her written works to involvement in political campaigns against nuclear proliferation, apartheid in South Africa and the 1967 bombing of North Vietnam.

Shelagh Delaney was born on the 25th of November 1938 and died November the 20th 2011, five days before her 72nd Birthday. She will always be remembered for bringing the plight of the marginalised and working-class into the public eye and with it, a little more goodness to the world, for otherwise, as the closing line of A Lion in Love observes: “It’s a bugger of a life, by Jesus.”

Eve Fensome

Eve Fensome

Eve Fensome is a second year PPE student and Politics and Comment editor.

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