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How do you take your tea?

March 2, 2016

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The opening scene of the current series of “Happy Valley”, brainchild of talented, challenging, and creative Sally Wainwright: Two women sit on garden chairs having a drink and chatting. The sun is shining and they could be on holiday.

It’s only when the camera draws back that we realise that they are in the back yard of a Yorkshire terraced house, and one of them is a policewoman, and her tale is an hysterically black comedy of sheep rustled by lads on Acid, her attempt to humanely put down one of the beasts which has been savaged by local dogs, and the eventual discovery of a murder victim. As the series progresses, we realise that, rather than just an entertaining reintroduction to familiar characters, this is the profile for the whole series ahead, distilled into three minutes of conversation and flashbacks.

That the characters are portrayed by two of our finest actors: Sarah Lancashire and Siobhan Finneran, adds to the scene immeasurably, but what really makes it work is the quality of conversation, the completely natural cadences of the story telling and the natural timing of the humour in the recounting of an unusual “day at the office”.

The savaged sheep eventually comes to rest in an old woman’s garden. When Lancashire, as police officer, Catherine Cawood, arrives, she is offered a cup of tea. Catherine realises, in the absence of an available vet, that she must put the savaged sheep out of its misery and finds a rock with which to dispatch it.

She is clearly having difficulty in summoning up the willpower to act, but she raises the rock above her head and, amid great tension, is about to smash it down, when the old woman reappears at the doorway:

“Do ye take milk and sugar?”
“Er, no…er Yes, Milk…thank you, and er yeh, go on, sugar, two sugars, er one sugar, thank you….”

The woman looks confused, more so by Catherine’s indecision about how she takes her tea than the fact she is huddled over a dying sheep, holding a rock behind her back.

It’s a great dramatic moment, hovering somewhere between black comedy and mundane reality. It’s a moment that grabs the viewer because of its familiarity, and yet it is part of the opening scene of a gory, scary, and psychologically gripping series.

It’s television writing and acting at its very best – and watching it, I was taken back over fifty years.

Tony Warren, creator and writer of the first dozen episodes of “Coronation St”, who died today, could claim responsibility for introducing this kind of dialogue in television writing – a flow of conversation which rings true; it reflects what people hear around them.

Though Osbourne, Sillitoe, Barstow and Delaney, in the 1950s “kitchen sink” revolution, had pushed aside the “French windows” and “Anyone for Tennis” traditions of English stage and film, their style was tending to melodramatic: effective but overblown compared to what you would hear in the street, the pub, the workplace. Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop was closer to reality, but often their work was overwhelmed by the polemic it contained, and it could never hope to reach an audience as wide as that of commercial television.

When Ena Sharples strode into Florrie Lindley’s corner shop in the first episode of “Coronation Street”, what transpired had the whiff of actual conversation:

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“I’m Mrs Sharples!”
“I’m very pleased to meet you”
“I’m a neighbour. Are you a widow woman?”
“Well, yes, I am!”
“I thought so. I’m the caretaker at the Glad Tidings Hall.”
“Oh, I know, that’s just across the street, i’nt it?”
“What’s your place of worship?
“Well, I don’t really do much about it….”
“Oh, I know – C of E…”
“Oh I wouldn’t say…..”
“Like me sister’s husband, ye know. He was made Head of Plumbing where they live – and it give her ideas. She said: “We’re civic dignitaries now, we must head for t’church!” Within a week, they were received, Christened and Confirmed, and within a fortnight, she was sitting up all night, sewing surplices. I’ll take a packet of baking powder.”

Like the opening scene in “Happy Valley”, written and performed over half a century later, this is an exchange which is difficult to categorise. Ena is clearly stating her position, ensuring Florrie has no misconception of her role in the local community. Story telling skill, humour, fixed views, and conflict are all in there, as Florrie struggles to hold her own against this tour de force.

Of course, it was a useful and effective way for a major character to be introduced to the new viewing audience, who were not quite sure what they were going to get in this new “drama serial”. However, its impact was based both on Violet Carson’s delivery and the flow of the language, the timing of the request for baking powder tacked on to the end of the paragraph about her social climbing sister, the power exchange between the street newcomer and the senior denizen.

Two years later, Troy Kennedy Martin and John McGrath brought a similar realism to police procedurals in the ground breaking “Z Cars”, and, again, the way folk spoke to each other often drove the realism of the show.

Some years ago, I saw a fascinating interview with Tony Warren in which he described his upbringing as crucial to his writing. His father was an army Major and away at war and on other duties for a large part of his childhood, and his mother worked from home producing linen goods.. He described spending a lot of time with his grandmother and his aunts, and “sitting under the table as they talked endlessly – picking up the vocabulary and rhythms of the way that northern women spoke.” He reckoned that, as men tended to be more taciturn, this was a lucky opportunity to acquire an understanding of the forms of conversation. Certainly he was able to bring a richness of language to “Coronation Street” which stretched in its range from neo-Music Hall to almost classical – without ever patronising his characters or the background from which they sprung.

In addition, having grown up openly gay in an era when that attracted public hostility, as well as being illegal, he figured that “being an outsider” had put him in a better position to observe and take note of people’s interactions and conversations.

Pat Phoenix’s acting ability may have been Elsie Tanner’s flesh and bones, but her way with words revealed her soul – as was the case with the sharply snobbish Annie Walker, played by Doris Speed,and Ena Sharples, and her buddies in the Rovers’ Return snug – Minnie Caldwell and Martha Longhurst.,

Perhaps Warren was the first to realise, after the first enthusiasm for television, that being equipped with moving pictures should not be an excuse to downgrade words and the sound and rhythm of dialogue. He certainly understood that the conversations of, largely at this stage, “stay at home” women, could produce a richness which gave greater depth to scripts and character creation, and in so doing, I would suggest, paved the way for later writers such as Lynda la Plante, Sally Wainwright and Kay Mellor to produce strong, gritty and realistic lead female characters in television drama. The crackling and totally credible exchanges in Wainwright’s “Scott and Bailey” between Suranne Jones, Lesley Sharp, and Amelia Bullmore are further evidence of the power that top class television drama can produce through female led scripts.

There is a pleasing irony in the fact that Sarah Lancashire’s father, Geoffrey, wrote over 200 episodes of “Coronation Street”, many alongside Tony Warren, providing scripts which foreshadowed the earthy, humorous and memorable lines given to her in “Happy Valley” – or, for that matter, Wainwright’s other hit, “Last Tango in Halifax. Sarah Lancashire herself, of course, memorably combined the vulnerable and the comedic in her “Coronation Street” role as Raquel.

Strong scripts have given us television which has the immediacy of radio, combined with the ability to startle of the televisual medium. Even comedy has benefited from the finely tuned ear of our best dialogue writers. One of the secrets for the success of “Dad’s Army” can be identified when one listens to the perfectly written dialogues between Mainwaring and Sgt Wilson, as opposed to the more cartoonish contributions from Corporal Jones, Fraser, and Pike. Much earlier, Galton and Simpson recognised this strength as well, daring to give Tony Hancock a single hander on one set – “The Bedsitter”, where the importance of words, in this case as soliloquy, was highlighted.

Even in America, Aaron Sorkin has had huge success with “The West Wing” and other shows which intelligently chose dialogue over action to carry plot and characters.

Though “Corrie” has moved some way from its origins, Warren’s invention of a style that combined realism with humour, garrulous behaviour with vulnerability, and high drama with pantomime, instigated a whole new direction for television drama and brought women to the fore, as both characters and writers.

It’s nice to think of that development being generated by a small boy’s experiences, huddled under a kitchen table in 1940s Eccles, imbibing the chatter of conversation from his grandmother and her daughters.

Strong Northern women indeed!

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