Writer Shelagh Delaney dies at 71

November 21, 2011 - 9:30 AM

LONDON (AP) — Playwright Shelagh Delaney, best known for her 1958 play "A Taste of Honey," has died of cancer, her agent said Monday.

Delaney died Sunday night at her daughter's home in eastern England, said agent Jane Villiers. Delaney was a few days short of her 72nd birthday.

The writer was just 19 when "A Taste of Honey" premiered. The downbeat tale of a young woman's pregnancy following a one-night stand with a black sailor, and her supportive relationship with a gay artist, verged on scandalous at the time, but the play had successful runs in London and New York.

The play, and its subsequent film adaptation, are generally considered to be part of Britain's "kitchen sink realism" movement of the late 1950s and 1960s, which portrayed the gritty reality of working-class life and also included works such as John Osborne's "Look Back in Anger" and Alan Sillitoe's "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning."

Delaney's immediate inspiration was her dislike of Terence Rattigan's play, "Variations on a Theme." Believing she could do better, she wrote "A Taste of Honey" in two weeks, reworking material from a novel she was writing.

Delaney and the film's director, Tony Richardson, shared BAFTA and Writer's Guild awards for best screenplay for the 1961 film adaptation, which starred Rita Tushingham.

She rebelled against a theater which she saw as portraying "safe, sheltered, cultured lives in charming surroundings, not life as the majority of ordinary people know it."

"No one in my play despairs," Delaney added. "Like the majority of people they take in their stride whatever happens to them and remain cheerful."

Her second play, "The Lion in Love," about a difficult marriage between a frustrated man and an aggressive woman, did not enjoy the same success when it opened in 1960. She didn't write for the theater again until 1979, when she revised her BBC-TV series "The House that Jack Built."

In between, she wrote screenplays: "The White Bus," 1966; "Charlie Bubbles," 1968, for which she won a second Writer's Guild Award; and "The Raging Moon," 1970.

She also wrote the screenplay for the 1985 film "Dance with a Stranger," based on the story of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be executed for a crime in Britain. She also wrote a memoir, "Sweetly Sings the Donkey," in 1963.

Delaney's early work was rooted in her home town of Salford, an industrial suburb of Manchester.

To live in Salford, she said in a 1960 film by Ken Russell, was to be restless; she compared herself to a tethered horse, eager to be cut free. In Salford, she also found a vitality which infused her writing.

"The language is alive, it's virile, it lives and it breathes and you know exactly where it's coming from. Right out of the earth," she said.

"Down by the river it's even romantic, if you can stand the smell," she added.

"A Taste of Honey" enjoyed a musical reincarnation in the work of the prominent Manchester band The Smiths. The band's songwriter, Morrissey, lifted many lines from Delaney's play, including: "'I dreamt about you last night and I fell out of bed twice."

The face of the young playwright features on the cover of The Smiths' 1987 album, "Louder than Bombs."

Delaney is survived by her daughter, Charlotte Delaney, and grandchildren Max, Gable and Rosa Delaney. Funeral arrangements were not immediately announced.