The South Bank Show: Sally Wainwright

When The South Bank Show made a film about Coronation Street in 1995, they showed a script meeting in which a room full of men talked at each other while a young woman sat mute in the corner – by her own admission, too afraid to speak up. More than 20 years on, that same woman is in possession of perhaps the strongest, most distinctive voice on British television – and her own South Bank Show, to boot.

As a child, Sally Wainwright wasn’t a great one for novels (though, showing an early ear for dialogue, she liked ‘the bits in inverted commas’), preferring to read the Radio Times or, better still, watch the telly. And that’s surely part of the key to her success – like Kay Mellor and Russell T Davies, who also contributed to this insightful film, she’s a writer who loves and respects the medium, and wouldn’t rather be doing films.

The young Wainwright had a particular passion for Coronation Street – in its heyday, a brilliant showcase for both dialogue and strong women, two trademarks of Wainwright’s own work in the likes of Happy Valley, Last Tango in Halifax and At Home With the Braithwaites. After a spell as a London bus driver, she went on to write 57 episodes of Corrie, where fellow Weatherfield poet Frank Cottrell Boyce advised her that ‘your heroine is someone you pile a lot of s**t on’. That certainly explains a lot about Happy Valley’s bruised, brave and defiant Catherine Cawood.

Wainwright was born and raised in West Yorkshire and, though she’s lived all her adult life in the Cotswolds, the hills and valleys of her youth are as integral to her work as Wessex was to Hardy or London to Dickens. ‘It’s the language, the authenticity,’ she told Melvyn Bragg.

Another great Yorkshire writer, Charlotte Brontë, said she wrote ‘because I cannot help it.’ Wainwright, who has those words on her fridge, admitted to the same compulsion, regularly getting up at 2am because there are stories demanding to be told. May she never stop.

TV extra:


I Am Bolt

This intimate profile of the fastest man in history painted a fascinating portrait of an athlete whose superhuman talent appears as much a source of frustration as joy. Tired of a life spent in training sessions and hotel rooms, Lightning Bolt admitted he’s desperate to ‘get back into the real world’. Punctuated by the natural drama of those legendary races, Benjamin and Gabe Turner’s film was further proof that we’re living in the golden age of the sporting documentary.


Top of the Lake: China Girl

Jane Campion’s follow-up to her acclaimed 2013 drama is very much the work of an auteur. Like David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, this slow-burning mystery, built around the murder of a young Asian woman in Sydney, is intense, unsettling, frequently baffling and a bit pretentious. But it exerts a hypnotic pull, and boasts compelling performances from A-list leads Elisabeth Moss, Nicole Kidman and Gwendoline Christie. All six episodes are available now on iPlayer.

Published in Waitrose Weekend, August 3, 2017

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