Column: Sally Wainwright and the not so secret life of a television revolutionary. In Yorkshire. With a female gaze
Here’s how you know you are watching a show written by Sally Wainwright: It revolves around women of all ages, talents and temperaments; it is set in Yorkshire; it most probably stars Sarah Lancashire, Suranne Jones, Nicola Walker and/or Amelia Bullmore, and it’s very, very good.
“Unforgiven,” “Scott & Bailey,” “The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard,” “Happy Valley,” “Last Tango in Halifax,” “To Walk Invisible” — for the last 25 years, Wainwright has created some of the best shows on British television, many of which have found devoted audiences in the U.S., either through PBS or streaming services.
For the record:
3:45 p.m. April 18, 2019An earlier version of this story referred to Nicola Walker as Nicole Walker.
“Gentleman Jack,” which debuts April 22 on HBO, checks all the Wainwright boxes. The story of a 19th century very out lesbian that took Wainwright more than 15 years to get made, “Gentleman Jack” may finally get her the international attention she deserves.
As a writer, she has been revolutionizing television for years, but she isn’t buzzy like, say, Phoebe Waller-Bridge (“Killing Eve,” “Fleabag”) or Sharon Horgan (“Catastrophe,” “Divorce”), though it’s hard to imagine those women finding success without her in the picture.
In drama, female writers rarely get the serious auteur attention of their male counterparts, but it is a bit weird how unfamous Wainwright is. The titles of her series are inevitably greeted by enthusiastic nods and “I love that show,” while her name gets blank stares.
It’s difficult not to believe this has something to do with her preferred subject matter.
“I write the stories I want to see,” Wainwright says. “Most writers do. The difference is, I find women more interesting.”
And indeed, with every new series, Wainwright is inevitably, to the point of tedium, credited with bringing “a new sort of woman” to television.
This makes it sound like she’s part of the Marvel universe, when the opposite is true. Wainwright’s characters could not be more rooted in reality — many struggle to excel professionally while dealing with the intricate demands of friendship and family, others are just trying to find their place in the world. They do not “kick ass,” except at that level most of us experience — surviving our day-to-day lives.
“Scott & Bailey” was that rare police procedural where not just the main detectives but also many of their supervisors were smart, cranky and sexually active women. In “Last Tango in Halifax,” Wainwright addressed all manner of age, class and sexual barriers by portraying a later-in-life reunion between two former high school sweethearts and the tension between their daughters, one a farmer, the other a posh headmistress. “Happy Valley’s” police sergeant is both steely and, on occasion, utterly traumatized.
Which means that the “new sort of woman” label actually refers simply to female leads who are complicated, realistic and multi-layered.
You know, just like so many male leads on television.
Wainwright didn’t set out to write “new kinds” of women or to correct the gender imbalance. She just wanted to write — first plays, then radio, then television. Her first TV writing job, in 1991, was on the British soap “Emmerdale;” she was thrilled when, two years later, she landed a job on “Coronation Street.”
Now, with each series she writes, Wainwright becomes more aware of how unusual it still is for a television writer to focus almost exclusively on telling female stories.
“Complex female characters are still quite thin on the ground,” she says, “and when you write them, you are often accused of not knowing how to write male characters. When I was writing ‘Scott & Bailey,’ some critics complained that all the men in the show were weak. They weren’t weak, they just weren’t there all that much, they weren’t the leads.”
On the phone from Britain, Wainwright speaks in quick, declarative sentences, gentled a bit by her Yorkshire accent with its long A’s, round O’s and forgiving consonants, but still quite direct.
“We’re all pleased that there are more female characters, but most of the stories are very masculine, driven by male characters. I’m a 56-year-old woman, and there are very few shows that speak to me. I flick through Netflix and there’s still this assumption that we’re all interested in what men are up to.”
When “Last Tango in Halifax” premiered, after first being rejected by ITV and the BBC, Wainwright found herself getting a bit more press, in part because the series was loosely based on her mother’s rediscovery of love with an old flame, and the success of “Happy Valley” put her on a few lists of important female TV writers. While Wainwright appreciated the attention, she was a bit annoyed that it had taken so long.
“It’s nice to get recognition,” she says. “But I feel like it should have come sooner. I’m shy about a lot of things, but I’m not shy about being talented.”
Her name recognition will no doubt be raised significantly with “Gentleman Jack,” which stars Jones and features Bullmore.
The story of Anne Lister, a nongender-conforming 19th century English landowner, diarist and mountaineer who is now considered the first modern lesbian, is in many ways peak Wainwright, a culmination of her “get on with it” ethos in a world resistant to women who are more interested in women than in men.
When Wainwright first pitched a television series based on the life of Lister, sometime “in the early noughties,” no one was interested. The time wasn’t right, she says now, for the story of a woman like Lister. Not that there were very many women like Lister.
Striding through the streets of Halifax in her black and manly (though still full skirted) attire, running coal mines, rebuilding her ancestral home, Shibden Hall, and actively courting a variety of women, Lister was never anything other than thoroughly herself. She kept voluminous diaries about her life (the bits concerning her love life were written in code), and in 1834, she married Ann Walker in Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate, York.
Although the ceremony was, obviously, not legally recognized, a blue plaque commemorating it, and her, was recently added to the church’s exterior.
Wainwright, a West Yorkshire native, had visited Shibden Hall as a girl, but that was the early ’70s and historic homes weren’t exactly trumpeting their famous lesbians. It wasn’t until Wainwright read Jill Liddington’s 1994 book “Presenting the Past” that she realized that a singular woman had once owned the Tudor-trimmed hall she had toured on school trips.
And, as previously noted, Wainwright specializes in singular women. Especially those who live in Yorkshire.
She’s happy now the series didn’t get picked up the first time she pitched it; she didn’t know enough, she says, and audiences wouldn’t have been able to appreciate how unique Lister was.
“We’ve become a lot more articulate about the fluidity of gender and gay rights. Lister was absolutely unique. She was quite open about being gay and masculine; her journals are the Rosetta Stone of lesbians.”
It also gave Wainwright an opportunity to once again explore the history of Yorkshire (“To Walk Invisible,” for those who haven’t seen it, is about the Brontë sisters, and you should see it because it is terrific.)
Although she and her husband do not live in Yorkshire, it remains Wainwright’s first language. Not since James Herriot has a writer been so identified by the green and empty landscape or the region’s linguist peculiarities, the “owts” and “nowts” and “wrong end o’t’stick.”
“That’s how I talk, that’s how I think,” she says. “I hate generic settings, and the land there is so photogenic, so deeply beautiful.”
The language of the North is also one of the reasons she often works with the same actors.
“I often write for people I like working with. Sarah and Suranne are both Northern and they get the humor. They’re not afraid to find the humor even when it’s dark.”
Indeed, one more hallmark of the Wainwright oeuvre is the wit of the dialogue. Wainwright’s women rarely mince words, but in a Wainwright drama, even the most emotionally fraught situation is mined for meaning, the writer’s respect for real women mirrored in the characters’ treatment of each other.
And that may be the most revolutionary thing of all.
When: 10 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
Get our daily Entertainment newsletter
Get the day's top stories on Hollywood, film, television, music, arts, culture and more.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.