Shelagh Delaney

Shelagh Delaney
© The John Deakin Archive/Getty Images


Shelagh Delaney wrote A Taste of Honey, the play for which she is most famous, at the age of 19. Born in Salford in 1938, she is regarded as one of the pioneers of the ‘kitchen sink’ realism of the late 1950s and 1960s. Delaney was writing at a time when women’s voices were virtually unheard in British theatre. She wanted to put working-class life and language on the stage, to portray ordinary life in all its colour and verve.

Writing and staging A Taste of Honey

Delaney wrote A Taste of Honey, the story of alcoholic single mother Helen and of Jo, her teenage daughter who becomes pregnant following a one-night stand with a black sailor, in less than two weeks. The play is set in Salford and deals with issues of class, race and sexuality in a frank, intelligent and human way. It was said to be, in part, a reaction against Terence Rattigan’s Variations on a Theme; Delaney took issue with the way the play handled matters of sexuality. One of the main relationships in Delaney’s play is between Jo and her gay friend Geoffrey.

The play was taken on by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, and premiered in 1958 at Theatre Royal Stratford East in a production directed by Littlewood. While critic Kenneth Tynan found elements of the production problematic, he thought it evident that Delaney was ‘quite a writer’. Its success led to a transfer to the West End. It also played New York, with Angela Lansbury playing Helen in the original Broadway cast.

In 1961 the play was made into a film, co-written by Delaney and director Tony Richardson and starring Rita Tushingham. It won a BAFTA for Best Screenplay.

Later work and influence

Delaney never quite recaptured that youthful promise. Her second play, The Lion in Love, opened in 1960 but it did not enjoy the same critical success. Novelist Jeannette Winterson has argued that the fact she was a woman meant that Delaney did not experience the same support and acclaim: ‘She had all the talent and we let her go’.

Delaney would not write for theatre again until 1979, when she revised her BBC series The House That Jack Built for the stage. She also wrote radio plays and a number of other screenplays, and these included the 1985 film Dance with a Stranger, about Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be executed in the UK.

Morrissey was a huge fan of Delaney and her work, making references to her writing in his lyrics. The song ‘This Night Has Opened My Eyes’ quotes Jo’s lines in the play. He used photographs of Delaney on the covers of the Smiths' compilation album Louder Than Bombs and the single ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’.

Delaney died in 2011.

Further information about the life of Shelagh Delaney can be found here via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

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An introduction to A Taste of Honey

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Shelagh Delaney wrote A Taste of Honey when she was only 19. Selina Todd explains how it came to be performed by Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, and what was so original about its portrayal of a working-class mother and daughter.

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Shelagh Delaney: The Start of the Possible

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Created by: Shelagh Delaney

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