Sally Wainwright: “Being thought of as formidable worries me a bit.”

Growing up in West Yorkshire, all Sally Wainwright wanted to do was leave. “I couldn’t wait to get away,” admits the award-winning screenwriter of a county that, today, is as central to her work as Wessex was to Hardy, or Middle Earth to Tolkien. “I wanted to go and live in London, because I thought that’s what you had to do if you wanted to write telly. Halifax was very, very uncool if you grew up there. That’s no insult to Halifax – I’m sure most people feel that way about where they’re growing up.”

What changed her mind, she says, was discovering the story of Anne Lister – the early 19th century Yorkshire landowner, industrialist, diarist, traveller and mountaineer (among many other things) who set about demolishing every suffocating social convention in her path, including living openly as a lesbian before the word had even been invented. 

As a child, Sally had visited Shibden Hall, close to her home in the Calder Valley market town of Sowerby Bridge, many times. But it was only after reading a biography of its former owner in the late 1990s that she began to fully appreciate the rich, complex history of Anne Lister – and the beauty of their shared homeland. “After that, Halifax became very magical for me,” she says. “And ever since then I’ve been in love with the place. It’s got a really rich history, some fantastic buildings, that are almost hidden in plain sight. It’s an extraordinary place, and it’s getting quite a lot of attention now.”

That attention has been driven in large part by Sally herself, whose most recent TV successes – Happy Valley, Last Tango in HalifaxTo Walk Invisible (about the Brontë sisters) and now Gentleman Jack, her dramatisation of Anne Lister’s diaries – are all firmly rooted in the area’s landscape, culture and people.

Gentleman Jack, which returns for a second series this week, is the culmination of a two-decade passion project for the 59-year-old; indeed, she’s gone as far as to describe it as her mission on Earth. “Writing telly has always been a passion for me,” says Sally, whose haul of honours includes three best writer BAFTAs and an OBE. “But it feels like I’ve been able to hone my skills doing other stuff in order to make sure Gentleman Jack got the attention it did, and got the high-end production values that it deserved. Because I’d reached a point in my career where I could do something like that.”

Having invested so much of her heart in it, it was a huge relief to Sally when the first series – boasting a barnstorming performance from Suranne Jones as Anne, all buccaneering swagger and Fleabag side-eye – proved a critical and ratings hit. “I was really happy,” she says. “We got a fantastic audience figure, and very good reviews. And of course, it had a massive effect on the female gay community. The fans are very proactive: for Anne’s birthday week in April, they’ve organised a series of events – a kind of festival, really, that’s happening in Halifax to celebrate Anne Lister. It’s quite extraordinary.

“I’m thrilled, because one of the things I really wanted to do was put Anne Lister out there to a wider audience. It’s gone global, and it’s not every day you get to do that. It’s such a unique situation, where this woman was largely unknown, just because of her sexuality. And now everybody knows about it.

“Women’s history is often kind of subterranean, so to present someone to the world who should have been a lot more well known before now, it’s been quite an extraordinary thing. I’ve had so many letters from women who said they feel validated now, or they’ve massively increased in confidence about being who they are, because of the influence of Anne Lister – knowing that somebody was brave enough to live the lifestyle she chose 200 years ago.

“I write primarily to entertain people, I hope,” says Sally. “But it feels like, with Gentleman Jack, it’s actually been quite life-changing. People have met new partners through the Gentleman Jack online community. It does literally change people’s lives.”

The second series gets underway in typically galloping Sally Wainwright style, fizzing with her trademark bracing wit, as Anne strides about the Yorkshire hills sinking pit shafts and buying up properties; a one-woman whirlwind of industry. The heart of the story, though, is the advancement of Anne’s relationship with wealthy heiress Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle). “It looks at Anne Lister and Ann Walker as a married couple, living out a conspicuous gay marriage in the 1830s, when it just didn’t happen,” says Sally. “It’s about how two women navigate their way through that, and the effect it has on them when you’re in a relationship that nobody else in the world wants you to be having.”

Gentleman Jack is a co-production between the BBC and HBO. It’s fair to say the prestige US cable network isn’t in the habit of investing in shows set in Halifax – presumably what they were actually buying into was brand Wainwright?

“I don’t know,” Sally demurs. “I mean, I hope they were buying into Anne Lister. Anne is a very unusual woman, an extraordinary human being. I think it’s so important for us to be rewriting women’s history on telly in a colourful, lively mainstream drama. Hopefully that’s what they were buying into as well.”

Even so, Sally’s reputation has travelled far beyond these shores. Brad Inglesby, creator of HBO’s Emmy-winning Mare of Easttown has acknowledged his debt to Happy Valley – and Kate Winslet’s role as a world-weary female police sergeant in a blighted post-industrial town, raising a young grandson after losing a child to suicide, certainly had a familiar ring to it… Did Sally watch it? 

“I didn’t, she says. “A couple of friends said to me it’s very much like Happy Valley, just not as good. So I was quite pleased about that. I was a bit cross about not being able to watch it, because I’m a big fan of Kate Winslet,” she admits. “But I thought, ‘if I watch it, I’ll just get wound up about it’, whereas if I just accept that it’s like Happy Valley but not as good, I’ll be okay.”

Reading for me has always been a chore. As a kid I used to write stories because it was easier than reading them.

Sally Wainwright

The daughter of a headmaster and a school secretary, Sally was a painfully shy child, who has described her early years as “solitary”, but not lonely. “I was always happy on my own,” she says. “I would never get bored, because I was always writing and drawing. I don’t remember ever being friendless.”

She couldn’t understand why her friends were so fascinated with boys. “I came to boys late,” she says. “I was much more interested in theatre, writing and television.”

You might even call her bookish – except she didn’t actually read many books. “Reading for me has always been a real chore,” she admits.  “Now, I think I might be slightly on the dyslexic spectrum. As a kid, I used to write stories and make things up because I thought it was easier than reading them.” (Despite this, she went on to read English Literature at York University – though, significantly, persuaded her tutors to let her write a play for her final year dissertation.)

An early – and enduring – writing inspiration was Coronation Street. “I watched Coronation Street from the moment I was able to stay up beyond half past seven,” she recalls. “By 13, I’d decided I wanted to write television – that that was what I’d been sent to the planet for – and Coronation Street was a massive part of that.”

Moving to London to pursue her scriptwriting dream, Sally worked as a bus driver (“That made me grow up a bit – it was a big learning curve about life, and dealing with people”), before landing a writing role on iconic Radio 4 soap The Archers. Later, she got a job scripting Emmerdale, but was sacked following a newspaper interview in which she declared it was rubbish compared to Coronation Street (“my badge of honour”, is how she describes the incident now).

By 1994, Sally had achieved her dream of writing for Corrie, having been talent-spotted by fellow West Yorkshire screenwriting legend Kay Mellor. “It was one of the few shows set in the north,” says Sally. “For a lot of people growing up in the north, particularly during the 80s and 90s, Coronation Street was a really good quality drama. But it became a bit silly at some point. It became a bit of a parody of itself.”

Creator Tony Warren described Coronation Street as being the story of “women and their menfolk”, in that order, and it’s a show with a long history of producing strong female talent – Sally, Suranne Jones and Happy Valley/Last Tango star Sarah Lancashire among them. But it’s not a philosophy that extended to the writers’ room.  “One of the things I find a bit of a paradox about Coronation Street is that it claimed to be about strong women, but it was actually mainly written by men,” says Sally. “When I was there, there were 15 writers, and three of them were women. So [the writing] was often how men perceived women. Which is why it appeared that all women cared about was getting a man – because obviously men still had to be the most important. I love writing characters like Anne Lister, who couldn’t give a fuck about men.”

In 2000, Sally announced her arrival as a headline talent with the glorious At Home With the Braithwaites, about a family of lottery winners from Leeds. It was a show in the fine tradition of ITV comedy-dramas like Minder, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and The Beiderbecke Affair – a type of programme that seems largely to have disappeared from the schedules. Why does Sally think that is? “Somebody else said this to me the other day, and I’m not sure what the answer is,” she muses. “Not everyone can write things that are dark and funny at the same time. I think it’s quite an unusual skill. That’s the impression I get, anyway. I don’t know if it’s true – maybe people are just choosing to write very dark dramas without any humour in them. Maybe that’s why I don’t watch much telly any more.”

Over the past decade, Sally has done her bit to keep the comedy-drama flame alive with the hugely popular, BAFTA-winning Last Tango and Halifax, starring Anne Reid and Derek Jacobi as a couple rekindling their teenage romance in their autumn years. The story was inspired by Sally’s own mother’s experience. “My sister put her on Friends Reunited after my dad died, and she met Alec, who had been in the same year at Elland Grammar School,” she explains.

Did her mother like the show? “Yeah, she did. She sometimes complained if I didn’t get things quite right. I had to explain that I make quite a lot of stuff up!”

Though she’s lived in Oxfordshire for many years, Sally – who has recently separated from her husband Austin Sherlaw-Johnson, an antiquarian sheet music dealer with whom she has two sons – keeps a second home near Halifax, where she does much of her writing. “I do really love living in Oxfordshire,” she says. “But then I do miss Yorkshire.”

Surprisingly, for someone who feels she was sent to the planet to write stories, Sally has lately found a job she enjoys even more – directing her own work. “Writing is very solitary, and directing is very sociable,” she says. “It’s hard work, it’s knackering, but it’s very exciting.”

Despite her lifelong shyness, she has no problem commanding a film set. “I am shy, or I’m autistic or something,” she says. “But when I’m a director, I’m not. It brings out something that allows me to not be the thing that I am in normal situations. I don’t know why. I think it’s because I I feel so alive when I’m directing.”

For all her shyness, Weekend ventures that Sally might also be viewed by many as formidable – it’s easy to imagine her holding her own in meetings with top-level HBO execs, taking no nonsense. “I think that’s a byproduct of shyness,” she suggests. “Because you’re shy, you don’t say things when you should, so by the time you do say them, you have to be a bit more forceful than if you’d done it more correctly. Being thought of as formidable worries me a bit. It’s not nice to be thought of as formidable. But then, you get to a certain age, and you stop worrying too much about what people think of you.”

When Weekend speaks to her, Sally is in the middle of juggling three different TV shows, having just spent three weeks on the set of Happy Valley, which is returning for a third and final series after a six-year break (it’s been a “very uplifting” experience, she reports). As for future projects, is there another Gentleman Jack-style passion project burning a hole in her pocket book?

“There’s nothing quite in that league,” she says. “I’ve got other ideas and other stories I want to work on, but I think I’d be very lucky to find something else as exciting as Anne Lister. Anne Lister was unique.” 

Gentleman Jack series one and two are on BBC iPlayer

An edited version of this article appeared in Waitrose Weekend, 7 April, 2022 (c) Waitrose Weekend

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