From Happy Valley and Gentleman Jack to Last Tango in Halifax and To Walk Invisible, writer and director Sally Wainwright has made her mark on the drama industry with her unique blend of storytelling. Here, she lifts the lid on the creative process.
A rural crime drama following a no-nonsense police officer, a septuagenarian love story, a biopic about the Brontë sisters and a regency period drama might not have many plot lines in common.
But what Happy Valley, Last Tango in Halifax, To Walk Invisible and Gentleman Jack (pictured above) do share is a use of visual style, pace, music and humour that links them back to one person – writer/director Sally Wainwright.
Having started her writing career almost 30 years ago on British soaps including Emmerdale and Coronation Street, she has become one of the country’s leading screenwriters, with credits also including Playing the Field, At Home with the Braithwaites and Unforgiven. She won Baftas for both best drama and best writer for Last Tango in Halifax (2013) and Happy Valley (2015 and 2017).
“I like to see women being heroic, women in situations where they have to do stuff,” Wainwright tells DQ at France’s Série Series television festival. “That’s the only recurring thing for me. There are so many portraits of women on television from the male gaze of how women should be or ought to be or how men want them to be. We’ve had that in the ether for so many decades that women in real life copy or emulate the behaviour of the male construct of women on television.
“It’s become ridiculous how women behave in the way they’ve seen on telly and think that’s what women do. But it’s actually a construct created by men. It’s quite refreshing to have women written by women in a way that’s authentic.”
Wainwright’s own writing process changes depending on the project she’s currently working on, because no two shows are ever the same. Her latest drama, BBC and HBO coproduction Gentleman Jack, was a particularly unique example.
The show, which takes its title from the nickname given to lead character Anne Lister (Suranne Jones), follows the real-life landowner, industrialist, traveller and secret diarist who is often referred to as the ‘first modern lesbian’ and charts her return to her ancestral home, Shibden Hall, and her blossoming relationship with Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle).
“It was unique because it all starts with her diary. Most of the diary isn’t transcribed [large parts were written in code] and it actually started because I was doing my own transcriptions,” Wainwright says. “It’s just another process to add to the processes you are already familiar with as a writer.
“Normally I would start with doing a really detailed scene breakdown in which I would hope to solve most of the problems of the episode so that by the time I’ve got that document, which can take between a week and two weeks to write, actually writing the dialogue is the fun bit.
“It should just flow then because you’ve knocked a lot of the problems on the head. You haven’t, of course, because as soon as you start to write the dialogue, other problems present themselves, but I do like to have a really detailed scene breakdown before I start.”
Writers will often explain that scenes are redundant in a series unless they have a purpose to either drive the plot forward or reveal something about one of the characters involved. Wainwright pushes that theory further by stating that a scene doesn’t just require a single justification but should do more than one thing.
In fact, “a good scene will be doing at least three things,” she explains. “It will be pushing the story along, telling you something new you didn’t know about a character and it will hopefully be making you laugh, and any number of other things.”
Adapting Lister’s life for the screen was a very different process to dramatising the life of the Brontë sisters – novelists Charlotte, Emily and Anne – in To Walk Invisible, for which Wainwright relied heavily on her own knowledge of their novels, such as Jane Eyre, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Wuthering Heights. She also leaned on Juliet Barker’s biography of the Brontës. But with Gentleman Jack, it was Lister’s own diaries that dictated the process.
“In a way, the Brontës was easier because there was less material to juggle with,” she says. “One of the hardest things with the Anne Lister project was choosing what to leave out. It was really odd because I’ve started looking at season two and immersed myself in the journals again and then watching the episodes go out on Sunday night, I was struck by how much wasn’t there, by how much we’ve had to cut out. Hopefully she does come across on screen as a multi-dimensional character. There were so many more facets I haven’t got into the script.”
But does she find writing about real life characters whose lives have already been lived restrictive compared to inventing the next moves for Happy Valley police sergeant Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) or loved up Celia (Anne Reid) and Alan (Derek Jacobi) in Last Tango in Halifax?
“No, oddly not with Anne Lister,” she reveals, “because she’s such a force of nature and because we made the decision for the show to break the fourth wall. Because we made the choice to be a bit more experimental, you do feel like she could do anything or go anywhere, so I never feel constricted by what she does. I always feel engaged and energised.”
Wainwright says she hasn’t quite decided on the focus for the second season of Gentleman Jack, which was quickly renewed for a sophomore run after five episodes had aired on HBO – and just one in the UK. The writer says it will cover the 18-month period after season one, though she readily admits she might “steal” some elements from earlier or later in Lister’s life to make a coherent story.
“It’s a really interesting time next because the political backdrop gets even more intense,” she says. “It also covers a period when Ann Walker moved into Shibden Hall, when they were conspicuously living as wife and wife. So there’s the public reaction to that and how they negotiated their way through it to still maintain their position in society. Some of the diary of this period has been published but it is just a fraction and there’s tonnes of stuff that hasn’t seen the light of day. That in itself is exciting.”
Wainwright isn’t expecting to experience a difficult second season, believing her own work often improves after the first seasons due to an increased confidence in the story and the characters.
“Everybody knows each other, everybody knows what they’re doing, they’ve already broken down a lot of the barriers,” she adds. “Sometimes second seasons go wrong because a showrunner starts to delegate, so they might not write the whole of it or they might not be across it in the same way because they’re off doing something else. I’m not going to do that. I’m going to make sure I’m there, which I always do. I’ve done that with Last Tango in Halifax, Happy Valley and Scott & Bailey.”
To that end, Wainwright’s plan is to repeat her own involvement beyond writing and directing the first two and the last two episodes, with a second director picking up the middle four. She first took up behind the camera on a season one episode of Happy Valley, before picking up four more in season two, helming To Walk Invisible and then leading the direction of Gentleman Jack.
As a writer who directs her own work, she says she’s usually very conscious of penning scenes she knows she can direct. The one time she didn’t follow that practice was a set piece in episode one of Gentleman Jack, involving three carriages hurtling towards each other on a country lane.
“I didn’t really know how we were going to do that. But I knew one of the first things you do as a director is find people who do know about it,” she explains. “We’d got six horses and literally one set of horses had to go through two sets of horses going the other way. We discussed it with the horsemen and with the VFX people about how best to achieve this, and the VFX guys said the best way to achieve this was in camera.
“The horseman was quite nervous but was willing to push it. So we shot it about four times and each time, the four going one way got closer to the two going the other way. They got tighter and tighter together so by the fourth time they did it, it looked credibly like there could have been a collision.
“It’s communicating with people effectively because you’re out of your depth and you are reliant on people with expertise. By the end of it, we all had a respect for each other. At the beginning, the horseman probably thought I was bonkers but we were quite good mates by the end.”
If Anne Lister was a force of nature in person, with Suranne Jones regularly captured tearing up the countryside on foot, the music backing the series from composer Murray Gold certainly adds an extra layer of pace and momentum to the story. Wainwright believes music can take a series to another level, even making or breaking the show.
“It’s so particular and vital to what you’re creating in terms of how you can push it further towards what you’re trying to achieve,” she says. “On To Walk Invisible we used John Lunn’s beautiful music. It’s got a Beethoven quality to it. It’s very classical and it really heightened the scenes. It felt very appropriate for the Brontës, whereas with the Anne Lister piece, I wanted it to feel more modern and I wanted it to have an energy Murray always brings to his work.”
In Jones and Lancashire, Wainwright also has two leading actors who she has cast on more than one occasion. Most notably, Jones starred in five seasons of detective drama Scott & Bailey before leading Gentleman Jack, while Lancashire had been ever present in Last Tango in Halifax before stepping up to front Happy Valley. Season five of Last Tango is now in production, while a third season of Happy Valley is likely to follow the second season of Gentleman Jack in Wainwright’s busy schedule.
“What I love about Sarah and Suranne, what they’ve got in common – and I don’t know if it’s because they’re northerners – is that they’re not afraid of being funny,” Wainwright says. “A lot of actors have this idea they’re going to be serious actors, they want to do serious things and it’s as if they’re frightened to be funny as well. What I love about Sarah and Suranne is they’re both capable of doing the deepest, darkest things and then two minutes later they can make you laugh. I do that in my writing, so to get actors who get that and want to do it and can turn it around on a sixpence is quite rare.”
Ultimately, it’s Wainwright’s range of material and approach to different genres that keeps her motivated to keep writing, and with the launch of a glut of new global streaming services amid the continuing expansion of the drama industry, she admits there’s a lot of work around.
“One of the anxieties for me as a viewer is that I put on Netflix and I can’t often find something I personally want to watch,” she adds. “There’s a lot of testosterone-fuelled thrillers and that kind of thing and I don’t see so much I’m personally drawn to. I find it quite hard to find stuff that’s for me, a woman in her mid-50s, so we need to make sure there’s a nice variety of content in this huge morass of stuff we’ve got now. People will always want to be told new stories.”