A Taste of Honey, a play by the Salford-born writer Shelagh Delaney, debuted in 1958 and is widely considered to be a landmark work of 20th century British literature. With the back drop of bleak, working class society in post-war Manchester, and the themes of single mothers, pregnancy out of wedlock, abortion, interracial relationships, and homosexuality (a decade before it was legalised in Britain), it is difficult to think of a literary work, the rest of the oeuvre of ‘kitchen sink drama’ included, which was more against the grain than the accepted social norms in contemporary British society. In particular, the enduring aspect of the play is the sheer realism of the characters, including the strong mother-daughter character duo who dominate the play’s story. This achievement was made all the more remarkable when one considers that Delaney was a mere nineteen year old factory worker when the play was released into the world.
A Taste of Honey would go on to have a seismic and readily identifiable impact, not least with the repeated National Theatre revivals and its place as a regular fixture of provincial local theatres (or so it would appear in the north). Morrissey, the lyricist of the iconic Mancunian band The Smiths, notoriously plundered lines from Delaney’s works with wild abandon for his songs in the 1980s.
Elsewhere, it was a formative inspiration for the Salfordian television soap Coronation Street, and other works in a similar vein point to how important the stage and screen can be with regards to challenging social values. Like Delaney, Bradford’s own playwright Andrea Dunbar had much made of her ‘unconventional’ (read: working class) background as a writer, but was another teenage prodigy whose play The Arbor followed similar themes of class, motherhood and race at a time when one of the most popular figures in British life was Enoch Powell. It, like A Taste of Honey, was an instant success. For another example, Cathy Come Home, although a product of those from more comfortable backgrounds, provided a sympathetic illustration of poverty and homelessness which catalysed founding of the homeless charity Crisis in the 1960s.
And so, at least for a brief time in the hazy days of post-war ‘meritocratic’ Britain, theatre could have been a vanguard of change in cultural attitudes. Thus, I cynically arched my eyebrows at the recent suggestion by the stage director of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s hit Fleabag, Vicky Jones, that the show ‘felt like a tipping point for feminism’. Once I had recovered from my automatic aversion to middle class ‘peak Guardian’ social commentary, however, I began to realise that it is difficult to think of a stage production (and television show, of course) which has captured the public’s attention quite as much in recent years. Perhaps there are reasons for this.
As improbable as Delaney’s success was in the 1950s, a similar success story is difficult to envisage today. It has been often repeated elsewhere that the costs of training in the creative industries can mean that an artistic career can be untenable for those from lower income backgrounds, leaving cultural milieus to be populated by more economically secure classes. State schools, when faced with ever sharper cuts to funding, have to focus their efforts away from the ‘softer’ creative arts when faced with difficult decisions. Furthermore, the London-centric nature of the media, coupled with insufficient Arts Council funding for communities compared to those in continental Europe, is hardly fertile ground for creative output throughout the country. All of this adds to the enduring (no matter how much we try to pretend otherwise) notions of class which pervade our habits of cultural consumption. Whilst my friends and I would regularly attend music concerts and art house cinemas relatively cheaply, the theatre was a much less obvious choice of venue for us to visit, perhaps due to some unspoken belief that the theatre was a more ‘middle class’ setting. The Rocky Horror Picture Show aside, we would only tend to step foot inside a theatre if we were on a school trip. Being exposed to A Taste of Honey in my early teens, however, proved to me that this preconception needn’t be the case, and that theatre could be open to everyone.
I do not doubt that there are countless working class, female, ethnic minority, queer (and so forth) would-be writers with stories to tell, but we need sympathetic figures throughout the creative arts industries who can give these writers a fair hearing and take a punt on their work. Sadly, however, our television screens are more likely to have a gamut of reality TV and ‘poverty porn’ programmes which intend to exploit and demonise working class people, largely because they are a proven formula for popularity.
So perhaps the Fleabag director was not wholly misguided when she stated that her production had initiated new conversations about feminism; it represented a white, middle class world perspective which could easily be accepted by the cultural establishment, and thus became an obvious focal point for public feminist discourse. Of course, it goes without saying that the artistic merits of the show are not at all diminished because it has represented that perspective.
That being said, the progress since the 1950s in diversifying and extending the parameters of what could be considered to be a critically and commercially successful work has not been as great as it could have been. There remains an inherent snobbery and numerous financial barriers against writers from minority or non-traditional backgrounds. And Fleabag will never speak to me and my life experiences as much as A Taste of Honey was able to (as awkward as that comparison is), but I suspect that for many people the opposite is true. That is fine, obviously, and I’m sure I could watch the show and appreciate the talent behind it. But we all benefit when theatre is a platform for creatives from a wide range of backgrounds.