Kitchen Table Typewriting

By Robert Messenger

Salford, in Greater Manchester, has since 2014 been celebrating Shelagh Delaney Day (“Be Inspired”) to mark the November 25 birthday of one of the city’s most famous writers. This year’s event will fall on what would have been Delaney’s 80th birthday, and once again young writers will be encouraged to enter the writing competition and submit short playlets and monologues for performance in a three-night run at the Salford Arts Theatre. The organisers say they are particularly looking for pieces of works that are working class, political and diverse (in the spirit of Shelagh!). “Challenge yourself and the norm, be different and experiment with styles.”

What better way than to use a typewriter? After all, Delaney was just 18 when in 10 days she wrote A Taste of Honey in her mother’s kitchen on a small Empire Aristocrat portable. It very literally gave the genre "kitchen sink reality" a name. In early 1958 Delaney sent a bulky package with the typescript to visionary British director Joan Littlewood at the Theatre Workshop in Stratford East, London. Littlewood declared Delaney “the antithesis of London’s Angry Young Men. She knows what she is angry about.” The director decided to stage the play, written by someone who had failed school exams four times.

Working as an usher at the Manchester Opera House, Delaney saw her first play, Terence Rattigan’s Variation on a Theme, on a pre-West End tour, and instantly decided, “I can do better than that. I write as people really talk.” Leading critic Kenneth Tynan agreed. “Miss Delaney brings real people on to her stage, joking and flaring and scuffling and eventually, out of the zest for life she gives them, surviving,” he wrote. “She is too busy recording the wonder of life as she lives it.” How right Tynan was. The play, launched in May 1958, reached the West End the next January (368 performances), went on a British tour and ran for 300 performances on Broadway in 1960, starring Angela Lansbury and Joan Plowright (who won a Tony Award). John Osborne bought the film rights for £20,000 and the movie was an huge success. The play was revived on Broadway in 1981 with Amanda Plummer in the lead role.

By the way, Delaney’s Empire Aristocrat was built not all that far away from Salford, in West Bromwich, outside Birmingham.