Sally Wainwright

Growing up in Yorkshire, Sally Wainwright frequently visited Shibden Hall, a historic estate best known for being home to Anne Lister in the early to mid-1800s. A prolific diarist, Lister—often referred to as “the first modern lesbian”—penned millions of words about her life, much of them written in a code that wasn’t deciphered until the 1930s. Wainwright has used those diaries as the basis for the BBC and HBO’s critically acclaimed Gentleman Jack, which is set to return for a second season. Wainwright, one of the U.K.’s most well-regarded television writers, talks to World Screen about writing during lockdown.

WS: What was the appeal of Shibden Hall for you?
WAINWRIGHT: I grew up in Halifax. Shibden Hall was a place I always visited as a child. I always had a real bond with it. I was interested in history as a kid; I was probably quite nerdy! So Shibden Hall always had a real pull on me. It’s extraordinary. I think I’m not the only person who feels like that who grew up in Halifax. I just always had an immense affection for the place. I’d defy anyone to visit Shibden Hall and not find it fascinating.

WS: When did you discover Anne Lister, and why has she become so important to you?
WAINWRIGHT: I can’t remember the first time I heard of Anne Lister. I’ve thought about that a lot recently. I think it’s because I visited Shibden Hall since being small and I probably always heard about her—she was part of that knowledge. She was always present when you visited the Hall; there’s a big portrait of her there and people would talk about her, even though there were huge aspects of her life that were kept quiet about for a long, long time. I’ve read so much of the diaries to write the show, I’ve learned a huge amount about her. I knew a lot, but I know a lot more now.

Some people find her hard to like; she’s like Marmite. As a dramatist, it’s interesting and exciting that she isn’t always completely likable or completely good. She could be very Machiavellian, she could be quite difficult, but she was also very charismatic and very charming. My appreciation of her gets deeper and deeper the more I find out about her in the diaries. It’s such a phenomenal document; I don’t think people who haven’t seen it realize just how detailed it is. She tells you what she does every day. There are very few exceptions. There are probably a handful of days she misses across the 25 years the journal covers. And she tells you what she’s done from getting up to going to bed. We probably know more about her than the people closest to us because of the details in the journal. It’s a very unusual document.

WS: Were there things you discovered in reading the diary that surprised you about her?
WAINWRIGHT: Some of the sexual entries are a bit shocking, but you kind of get used to that; you expect them to be shocking after a while. What’s more shocking is the consistency—that she wrote so much every day over such a long period of time. She never fails to provide you with details. It’s not things that are shocking; it’s things that are just fascinating that you would never have known about the world in 1835 if you hadn’t read this diary. I’m working on a section at the moment where she goes to London in 1835 with [her partner] Ann Walker and they nearly bought a sketch by [J. M. W.] Turner. They knew he was famous and very important and it was about 17 shillings and they decided not to. Things like that you couldn’t invent!

WS: What has it been like writing season two during the pandemic?
WAINWRIGHT: I’m very lucky I’m in the middle of nowhere. The pandemic hasn’t touched us much. I feel quite privileged. It affected my concentration quite badly at the beginning. I don’t know why. You’d think this would be a writer’s dream, having time to get on with it, and it’s not too different from how you normally live as a writer. You tend to be reclusive anyway. But it affected my concentration early on. I kept going out into the garden and digging vegetable patches and sowing seeds! That felt more necessary than writing scripts at the time. [Laughs]

WS: When can you go into production, and are you having to adjust scenes to be COVID-19-compliant?
WAINWRIGHT: We’re going into production in the autumn. I haven’t yet had to alter anything in the scripts. We’re waiting to see how other people get on. There’s going to be a massively steep learning curve when people go back, which they are now doing. I haven’t yet been asked to tweak the scripts to accommodate anything. I’m not massively involved in the production side at the moment because I’m trying to get the scripts knocked into place. There have been conversations going on, working out the logistics, and plans for how the cast and crew can isolate and keep safe. There are plans underway for how everyone will be accommodated and how the sets will work differently and keeping a minimal crew on set while we’re filming.

WS: You spent a number of years writing soaps early in your career. What did you learn from that experience?
WAINWRIGHT: You learn a huge amount when you write a soap opera. You’re working with a lot of other writers. I suppose it’s like an American writers’ room. You’re in the room with 12 to 15 other writers. Everyone is bouncing ideas off one another. You do learn a lot about storytelling. The biggest thing I learned was how precious story is. And it’s the hardest thing in the world to come up with. That was the biggest thing I learned working on a show like Coronation Street. It was about coming up with stories that would last months and months, not stories that would last six weeks, which is what I do when I write Last Tango or Happy Valley. There’s a different requirement for a soap. There are stories that need to go on and on and on, for months and years. To come up with those kinds of stories is a real skill and it was a big learning curve, seeing how stories like that were knocked around and developed by a large number of people.

WS: And what were some of the lessons learned from writing crime procedurals? I imagine that is a different mindset.
WAINWRIGHT: With Scott & Bailey and Happy Valley, I was lucky in that I found really good police officers to work with. On Scott & Bailey I worked with Diane Taylor, who is a retired detective inspector with the major incident team in Manchester. She spent a lot of her career working on murder cases. She was a big, powerful force behind a lot of the stories, and a lot of them were derived from situations she had been in and cases she’d worked on. I don’t think we ever used them lock, stock and barrel, but definitely she’d talk about things she had dealt with and then we would develop stories around those things. That was the real backbone of the show, which surprisingly to me at the time was quite unusual. Very few cop shows do actually reflect proper police procedure. And this one did, it became the USP of Scott & Bailey, that the procedure was really accurate. And then when I worked on Happy Valley, I again was fortunate to get back in touch with someone I had been at school with called Lisa Farrand, who had become a police officer, a uniformed constable with the West Yorkshire Police. She was very much like Catherine Cawood, the character Sarah Lancashire plays in Happy Valley. For me, being authentic and finding out what really happened is important. It’s so much more interesting than anything I could make up. Like Diane, Lisa had a talent not just for being a police officer but communicating stories and the kinds of things she had been involved in. Lisa is very rare; she’s the only police officer I’ve ever met who also has a degree in English literature, so she understood the importance of storytelling. It wasn’t just about the procedure; it was about giving narratives some shape as well. I was very lucky. For me, it was about finding the right people. The best thing you can do is get to be mates with somebody who has done the job. You have to spend hours and hours with them to find the gems that make the details of the show. It’s not just about interviewing someone on the phone for a couple of hours. It’s about understanding them and what makes them tick—what makes them want to be a police officer, because it’s a dangerous job. Lisa got hurt badly twice when she was a police officer. She won the Queen’s Police Medal for bravery once because someone nearly murdered her. You have to be a particular kind of person to do a job like that. Getting to the bottom of her and her character was just as much part of the research as the anecdotes she had.

WS: Are there particular types of stories or characters you are attracted to?
WAINWRIGHT: It’s really about story and finding a vehicle for characters through whom you can tell a good story. Good stories don’t come along every day. They sneak up on you when you least expect it. It’s finding what’s in that story that excites you and developing ideas about characters for how you need to tell that story and what’s important in that story. You’re always looking for something new, something you haven’t quite done before. It’s not a formula.

WS: When and why did you start directing?
WAINWRIGHT: I started directing when I was at university. When I was about 20, I directed my first play, one by Barrie Keeffe. I had never directed a play before. I didn’t know how you did it. I asked someone if I could come to watch them direct. It was quite interesting because I wanted to make comments. I could see he wasn’t doing a lot. I think I must have had a thing for it back then, even though I didn’t quite know what I was doing. It’s a similar instinct I use to write. So, I watched this guy direct, and then I directed a play myself. And I just knew I could do it. I found it very rewarding. [There is an] excitement you get from working in theater or working with actors or bringing something to life like that. And then when I left university, I got into television writing and that took off and the directing went by the wayside, but it never went away; it was still something I wanted to do. I got the idea that other directors had been trained—that there was some reason they had become directors, and I hadn’t done the things that you needed to do to be a director. The penny slowly dropped that that wasn’t necessarily true and I just needed to get on with it and do it. The problem was getting someone to give me a break. So I did some GVs, general views, on Last Tango in Halifax, and I slowly built up doing a few bits and pieces. The first time I directed properly was episode four of Happy Valley.

WS: How do you manage the tasks of both writing and directing?
WAINWRIGHT: I’m not going to be directing Gentleman Jack season two for that reason. It just takes over your life. You literally can’t do anything else. It’s very rewarding but also very demanding. The logistics of Gentleman Jack season two meant that I couldn’t direct and write, because I couldn’t finish writing when I would have needed to start prepping. Ironically, I could now because of COVID-19 and lockdown, but we had to make decisions about directors early on. I will be overseeing it. The plus side is I can get on with Happy Valley season three. If I get the chance to direct again, I will. It’s choosing the right projects and making sure you have the time to do it justice. It is a logistical conundrum for me because there’s so much I want to write. It more than halves the amount of time I can spend writing. I’m sad I’m not going to direct Gentleman Jack season two. It was a really difficult decision to make, but I’ve made it now—it has to be the right one.

WS: So you’re wrapping up the second season of Gentleman Jack and working on the third season of Happy Valley. Does that leave you time to work on any other new projects?
WAINWRIGHT: I have four or five projects cooking away. This is the problem. The older I get, the more ideas I seem to get!