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Shelagh Delaney on Radio 4 Extra

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Polly Thomas 17:41, Thursday, 23 February 2012

Shelagh Delaney

Shelagh Delaney in 1961

Originally from Salford, Shelagh Delaney was just 19 when her first play, A Taste of Honey, was first produced at Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1958.

It was an immediate sensation. Her funny, sharp dialogue, vivid characters, the uncompromising picture of young, ordinary people straining at the leash to live (or tethered horses, as she described them once) changed the face of British theatre.

Shelagh went on to write award winning screenplays for stage, television and film as well as prose fiction. By and large, however, she was seen as the writer who broke the mould with A Taste of Honey, and her later work was dwarfed by that mighty first achievement.

However, the common assumption that she stopped writing in the mid 90s, is very wrong. Shelagh was an avid radio listener, and she found a natural home there in her later years. I had the great fortune to produce all of her radio plays from 2000, and I am thrilled that 4Extra are marking Shelagh's wonderful relationship with radio by repeating some of that work, four plays now and A Taste of Honey in October 2012.

I first worked with Shelagh in 2000, on her radio dramatisation of her short story, Sweetly Sings the Donkey. I was a little nervous about working with such a great name in British drama. Shelagh quickly put me at my ease - she was a warm, generous person, with a dry wit.

In Sweetly Sings the Donkey, the cast is primarily thirteen year old girls, quite a tough casting challenge. Shelagh hadn't been in production for a while, and loved being in studio. One of the young cast had a birthday during the studio, so Shelagh presented a cake with candles.

Inspired by this experience, Shelagh wrote Tell Me Film, produced in 2003. She took the young characters of Sweetly and imagined a return visit to Blackpool to celebrate their 60th birthdays. The four older actresses did a wonderful job, and Shelagh was delighted by their performances. She was so pleased that she wrote a third play for the same characters and actresses, produced in 2004 - Baloney Said Salome.

In Out of the Pirates Playhouse Shelagh wrote for five eleven year olds. The play is about the rite of passage of children moving from junior school to the next "big school". The play highlights one of Shelagh's singular talents - her ability to pick absolutely right music that isn't the obvious choice. The opening track for this play is Tomorrow, an acapella track from the powerful vocal group Sweet Honey in the Rock. It captures perfectly the intensity of the children's experience, yet seemingly belongs to a completely other world than that of Salford eleven year olds. Shelagh made connections that the rest of us often miss - and we are the richer for her perception.

Shelagh Delaney was one of the truly great dramatic writers. She never stopped writing, and her later years were marked by a prolific and successful flowering of new drama. We are lucky that they have been preserved and are being given another airing.

Polly Thomas is a Radio 4 Extra producer

  • Sweetly Sings the Donkey is on Tuesday 28 February with the other plays on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of the same week. A Taste of Honey will be on in October.

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