The playwright Shelagh Delaney shot to fame when her debut work, A Taste of Honey, first performed in 1958, turned into a runaway success. She was just 19.
The play told the story of a single mother, Helen, and her teenage daughter, Jo, who wanted more from life than marriage and motherhood in the slums. It has rarely been off the stage since and is currently being revived in a National Theatre tour.
Fascinated by the work and its Salford-born creator, I set about writing a biography of Delaney. And the question I’ve asked myself most is: where will the next Shelagh Delaney come from?
I’ve found it hard to answer. Not because young women today lack Delaney’s ambition or imagination – I’ve met plenty with both at Manchester’s MaD Theatre Company and Salford Arts Theatre. But they voice frustration that creative subjects are in decline in our schools. Fewer students now take English A-levels. The Ebacc, introduced by Michael Gove to promote certain favoured subjects, deters creative studies.
The arts are the poor relation of “real” education – defined by government since 2010 as memorising quotations, formulae and dates. Students who struggle are encouraged to focus on vocational skills most prominently in the new T-levels. Neither route develops imagination and initiative.
That is a particularly urgent problem now. The challenges of automation, climate change and, yes, life beyond Brexit, require innovation and critical thinking. We’ll need everyone to play a part if we are to save the world – and arts education is crucial.
Delaney’s life shows that artistic education benefits everyone. In 1949 she failed the 11-plus, which, like every other intelligence test, assessed social class rather than brainpower. Fortunately, a visionary teacher at her secondary modern school recognised that her pupils deserved to experience the arts. When she invited Delaney to a school performance of Othello, it made a great impression.
But even inspiring teachers cannot overcome a limited curriculum and underfunding. For this reason, Delaney’s teachers pushed for her transfer to a grammar school – but when she got there she discovered that an “academic” education meant rote learning.
She left for a series of factory and shop jobs. She owed her big break to her maverick teacher, and to Labour’s postwar investment in the arts and libraries – she was encouraged to write by the council-funded Manchester Library Theatre.
Since 1958, generations of theatregoers, teachers and students have been inspired by Delaney’s debut play. Their enthusiasm refutes Tory politicians’ narrow definition of “great” literature. In the 1960s, one teacher, Eva Fulleylove, who taught ex-secondary modern teenagers at a technical college, said acting in A Taste of Honey helped them overcome their “sense of academic inferiority and feeling of unimportance.” Exam grades don’t do justice to such responses.
But, as many teachers have long understood, art doesn’t only resonate with us if it mirrors our lives. Fulleylove’s students studied Honey alongside The Diary of Anne Frank and the works of Shakespeare – set texts in comprehensives between the 1970s and the 2010s. Delaney would have approved. “The working classes in the gallery have supported the British theatre ever since Elizabethan times,” she said. “Give them good plays and they will go to the theatre.”
The arts encourage us to believe we can change the world for the better – perhaps too worrying for a rightwing government. They help us to understand those different from us, and to identify common ground. They dare us to dream of a different future.
Delaney was adamant that she was “not a native genius”. Imagine, she suggested, how enriched Britain would be if everyone had her luck. That lesson still applies today. Whether treated as a “soft” subject or the preserve of an elite, the arts are not where they should be in our education system: centre stage.