RTS Webinar: Sally Wainwright Talks Writing, Creative Inspiration


In a webinar organized by the Royal Television Society, acclaimed British writer, producer and director Sally Wainwright, known for hits such as Happy Valley and Gentleman Jack, discussed her approach to her craft in conversation with Lucinda Hicks, COO of Endemol Shine UK.

Wainwright said she has written one episode of season two of Gentleman Jack during the lockdown. “Normally I could write an episode of anything within four weeks. Gentleman Jack is different. It’s always taken me longer because of the amount of reading involved, reading the diary” of Anne Lister, whose life is explored in the BBC One and HBO co-production. “Taking that long to write one episode is a measure of how much [the lockdown] has affected my concentration.”

Asked about her own style by Hicks, Wainwright responded, “I hope it’s down to earth, I hope it feels authentic, I hope everything I do is funny even when it’s very dark. It’s always important for me to entertain people, for it to feel real. My imagination doesn’t kick in unless something feels real.”

Wainwright went on to say that characters tend to come to her “fully formed…. They tend to come part and parcel of the story.”

On writing with specific on-screen talent in mind, Wainwright said, “I picture what I’m writing as I write it. So if you have people in mind, it helps; if you’re familiar with their voice and mannerisms, it’s just a part of that visualization and it helps you. It gives you freedom, oddly.”

Wainwright had been writing for many years before co-creating Scott & Bailey, her first crime drama. On Scott & Bailey she wanted to “find a USP, a good reason to be making yet another cop [drama]. I was lucky enough to meet Diane Taylor, who was a detective inspector with Manchester’s Major Incident Team. I wasn’t particularly looking to write a [crime] show. A friend introduced us because he thought I would find her interesting. She talked about her job in a way that I had never heard before. What she was talking about was so different from what I’d ever seen on television. It’s not about an inspector and a sidekick and they solve everything together. A murder squad is a big team. I felt I had never seen that on telly. (Although retrospectively I think Prime Suspect did that really well.) It made me realize that with a lot of cop shows, the way they were written, it was a self-perpetuating myth about what the structure of the police is. Rather than talking to cops, there were a lot of shows that emulated each other. The USP of Scott & Bailey was introducing this Major Incident Team. So we were looking at these two women who are part of this team.”

Committed to making the show feel “real,” Wainwright said that by season three she was starting to feel depressed. “It was something about dealing with this material. And then I started Last Tango [in Halifax] and it was an absolute buzz of delight.”

Happy Valley, also a crime drama, didn’t have the same impact on Wainwright as Scott & Bailey, with its murder-of-the-week plot lines. “With Happy Valley, I was conscious to try to make it as funny as it is dark.”

Wainwright wrote for a number of soaps at the start of her career, including Coronation Street. “Some of those writers had been there 20, 30 years. They were very skilled storytellers. The great art of writing soaps is coming up with stories that will last not six weeks but months. It’s a real skill to be able to do that.”

Asked about good commissioner and producer relationships, Wainwright said, “It works best when I’m trusted to get on with it. So I can take risks and push things as far as they’ll go. For me, the best notes are notes that are very focused and well thought through. You want two or three salient notes you can do something with. I tend to edit as I go along. I’ll start writing scene one and then when I get to scene two I reread and reread scene one, then I reread scene one and two. By the time I’m on scene 56, I’ll have reread and rewritten all the previous scenes so many times. For me it’s like building a wall–if the foundation is not right, the wall isn’t going to work. It’s about reconstructing all the time to make sure everything is as solid as it can be.”