Tastes of Honey by Selina Todd review – illuminating life of Shelagh Delaney

Historian Selina Todd makes an unassailable case for the Salford writer’s place in British theatre history

Shelagh Delaney was 19 when she sent A Taste of Honey to that powerhouse of the stage, theatre director Joan Littlewood, disingenuously presenting herself as a northern ingenue or, as the historian Selina Todd puts it: “1958’s answer to Eliza Doolittle.” Delaney claimed to know nothing about the theatre. She was being thrifty with the truth but her play, set in working-class Salford where she grew up, did the talking: her voice was funny, serious and rang true. Todd describes Delaney as the first postwar playwright to show that women “had minds and desires of their own… a radical proposal in the 50s”. She argues that, “more than a decade before the Women’s Liberation Movement emerged in Britain”, her characters “challenged the assumption that women found fulfilment in marriage and motherhood”. They “openly longed for a taste of honey, craving love, creativity, adventure and escape”. Note her title’s optimistic plural – Tastes of Honey – the S that asks for more.

Todd engagingly champions Shelagh Delaney through thick and thin (and there were thin patches) and makes an unassailable case for her importance in British theatre history while showing how her posthumous reputation has been subtly slighted. What a formidable ally Todd makes – all the more powerful for knowing how to make her polemical points lightly and without fuss. One of the most shaming things she homes in on is the extent to which working-class women writers in the theatre today have to raise their voices more loudly to be heard than their middle-class counterparts.

A Taste of Honey is set in a “comfortless flat” in Manchester. It opens on Helen, “a semi-whore”, and her daughter, Jo. The astonishing thing is all the ways in which the dialogue has not dated. It reads almost as freshly as if it had just been written (if you overlook Helen’s opinion that spaghetti is newfangled). The women’s repartee about men is buoyantly acerbic – the art of the smart retort alive and frisking. Marriage is the inescapable, intermittently despised, subject: “We’re all at the steering wheel of our own destinies,” says Helen, “careering along like drunken drivers. I’m going to get married.” She marries one of her punters, a younger man. Unmarried Jo gets pregnant by a Nigerian sailor (there is no racial “theme” – he is black because he is black, simple as that). And once he has vanished, a gay lodger offers to help Jo with the baby. The play is also remarkable for its time in being an affectionate sketch of a gay man finding his path, alongside an unconventional young woman finding hers.

When A Taste of Honey opened at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in May 1958, it caused a sensation. Kenneth Tynan wrote: “Miss Delaney brings real people on to her stage, joking and flaring and scuffling and, eventually, out of the zest for life she gives them, surviving.” Not everyone agreed. Salford’s council felt the city’s image had been trashed and the Spectator went into snobbish overdrive, arguing that it was “the inside story of a savage culture observed by a genuine cannibal”.

The cannibal had the shrewdest sense of who she was and of prejudice at large. “Usually North Country people are shown as gormless,” she wrote, “whereas in actual fact they are very alive and cynical.” She – and her characters – lived up to this description. Looking out from the Manchester flat, Helen says with almost camp sarcasm: “There’s a lovely view of the gasworks, we share a bathroom with the community and this wallpaper’s contemporary.” Yet Delaney resisted being typecast as an “angry young woman” to counterbalance John Osborne and the “angry young men”.

Although Delaney is remembered as a one-hit wonder, her second play, The Lion in Love (1960), was a success by ordinary standards and she went on to an impressive career as a screenwriter in television and film. In particular, her screenplay for the 1985 film Dance With a Stranger about Ruth Ellis (the last woman to be executed in the UK for murder) put her back in the limelight.

Through extensive research and help from Delaney’s daughter, Todd offers a tactful portrait of her character – all the more sympathetic for revealing that Delaney was as faulty as the rest of us. Lindsay Anderson, who admired her (he directed the film of her short story The White Bus in 1967), noted: “She finds it difficult to turn the stuff out (apart from anything else, she is very lazy).” She loved fast cars and food (an impertinent interviewer in the Observer noted: “In spite of an enormous appetite she is slim and supple”). She was private about her private life perhaps partly because the love of her life was a married American comedy writer and talent agent 20 years her senior: Harvey Orkin by whom she would become pregnant.

Delaney had written about being a single mother and, in 1964, became one. And while her situation in a bohemian house in London’s Islington was entirely different – and far easier – than Jo’s, questions surface about the price she paid for freedom. How many tastes of honey did life offer her? These questions are – perhaps inevitably – incompletely answered.

The only irritation with this book is its editing (Delaney’s father comes home from the war a changed man more than once, Richard Hoggart’s view of sin in the The Uses of Literacy is explained twice and that Sheila Rowbotham is an Oxford graduate is needlessly repeated). And it would have been lovely to have had more pictures. Were there none of Delaney in her defiant fisherman’s sweaters and paint-spattered jeans?

Yet these are minor troubles and do not spoil a story that reminds us what an inspiration Delaney has been to many – including Morrissey who said: “at least 50% of my reason for writing can be blamed on Shelagh Delaney”, and Jeanette Winterson, who likened Delaney’s work in the 50s to “a lighthouse pointing the way and warning about the rocks underneath” – and Selina Todd herself, moved to write this splendid and illuminating book.

• Tastes of Honey by Selina Todd is published by Chatto (£18.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Contributor

Kate Kellaway

The GuardianTramp

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