Sally Wainwright – dialogue, directing and highwaywomen

Sally Wainwright Edinburgh International Television festivalSally Wainwright has been part of our TV landscape for decades, writing television shows such as At Home with the Braithwaites, Scott and Bailey, Last Tango in Halifax and the critically acclaimed Happy Valley.

And this showed at this year’s Edinburgh International Television Festival, where there was a packed house to see Wainwright in conversation with Russell T Davies, her long-time friend from her Coronation Street days.

Davies, himself no slouch in the TV writing department, compared Wainwright to Dickens, saying the author opposite him wrote both “great big epic stories, these amazing characters, and these little, intimate stories.”

Real voices

Her talent was picked up by others too. Wainwright’s early career was strongly influenced by fellow screenwriter Kay Mellor, whom she describes as a mentor. Mellor, in turn, says about Wainwright: “I can sit and watch Sally’s work and am not even aware it started life as a script. I can dine out on telling people I found Sally Wainwright.”

The two women both worked hard to be where they are today. Wainwright described the mostly male dominance of the early years in TV as rather different from now, and observed that in the early 90s there was still very much a culture of lunchtime drinking, which turned the afternoons into “Armageddon”.

But she was keen to give credit to the writers on Coronation Street, saying that some of them had been there for 30 years and really knew what they were doing. When asked later if she thought if writing for a soap was a good place to learn the craft she responded with a resounding “Yes”.

Wainwright has, for the most part, been the sole writer on her drama creations, but in more recent years has shared the responsibility with a team.

“I find it really, really hard. The only time it really worked with someone was with Amelia Bullmore [writer and star of Scott and Bailey (pic)] – her episodes were sublime, I didn’t have to touch her scripts. I’d work with Amelia again, but it’s risky writing with other people, having to rewrite 90% of someone else’s work.”

She began her directing career with Happy Valley, which she said she loved although it was physically demanding.

Writing for women

On the stage in Edinburgh, it was revealed that Wainwright had written a 13-episode drama about a feisty female highwaywoman who knocks a rather wimpy Robin Hood into shape. The project was written years ago, when roles for strong women were rather more risky and unusual, but never made it to the screen. 

The writer is known for penning for strong female lead characters, but said she would happily write a male-centric show. She also noted that as she gets older, so do her characters.

“My protagonists tend to be the same age as me, now I’m writing 50-something women.”

Scott and Bailey, in which the three leads are female, was a departure for Wainwright in other ways – she had purposely veered away from the crime drama up until then. But a meeting with former detective inspector Diane Taylor changed that and empowered her to write with authenticity about the modern police world.

After that came Last Tango in Halifax followed by Happy Valley (pic). Wainwright said there will definitely be a third series of the hit show and also referred several times to a musical she’s working on.

“It’s for the screen, not for the stage. I have an idea, but I think it’s really hard to get it right. I think people are scared to commission them [musicals]. The audience has to believe this is proper, good music.”

Her biopic of the Bronte sisters, entitled To Walk Invisible, which the BBC asked her to write several years ago, is to air this Christmas. She explained that she decided to concentrate on the period in the Bronte's lives during 1845, when they had all come home from being away.

“I didn’t have to invent anything – it was all already there, all structured,” Wainwright said.

A word of advice

The writer, who this year won the festival’s Outstanding Achievement Award, also acknowledged her admiration of dialogue, saying it excited her even as a young girl writing plays with her sister.

When asked about the best piece of advice she’s ever been given, Wainwright replied: “Don’t ever write a first episode first. Start with episode 3 or 4 and it will become the first episode, and you’ll hit the ground running, with your characters there.”

Photo courtesy of Edinburgh International Television Festival, copyright Greg MacVean.


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