‘This is not about being old... it’s really about love, something new and exciting’

Sally Wainwright’s new series is based on the love story of her own mum. Sheena Hastings reports.

EIGHT years ago, Sally Wainwright’s 75-year-old mother Dorothy announced that she was in love. Dorothy and Alec had grown up a few streets away from each other and their mothers were friends. But the two teenagers lost touch. Decades later, when both had lost their spouse, the two septuagenarians got in touch with each other again via social networking website Friends Reunited.

After exchanging a few emails the two met for tea and immediately fell in love. An undeniable emotional chemistry was fired up and it was as though the intervening 60 years had just melted away.

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“I’d never imagined that anybody – of any age – could fall in love just like that,” says Sally, who is one of this country’s most bankable writers of TV drama. “It was mesmerising, inspiring and uplifting to us all. Just seeing them together made you feel happy.”

Dorothy, lived in Halifax and brought up her family there with her late first husband, to whom she had been married for 50 years. Sally recalls that her parents’ relationship had seemed fairly ordinary. After her husband’s death Dorothy seemed happy enough with widowhood, but when Alec came back into her life, the experience was transformational – and immediately visible to everyone around her.

“I had never seen Mum in love, and it was a completely joyous experience,” says Sally. “She almost became someone different – she’d always had a great sense of humour, but she and Alec were constantly giggling together. They were so lovely to be around as a couple.”

Six months after re-finding each other they married and Dorothy and Alec had three blissful years of marriage before Alec died.

Everyone Sally told about her the relationship between the two 70-somethings was touched by the story. “I was telling (TV producer) Nicola Schindler and a few others about it and Nicola said ‘This is a six-part series, it’s such an uplifting story...’”

“I thought it was a brilliant way of celebrating their relationship, and the fact that the ability to love and be loved doesn’t go away with age. It’s possible at any age. I’m not aware of the theme being done in this way before, and TV in general doesn’t show people in their older years having new relationships.”

So Sally, who went to Sowerby Bridge Grammar School then studied English at York University before breaking into radio and TV drama writing, went away and wrote that six-part series, which begins on BBC1 tonight.

“Obviously the story of Celia and Alan (played by Anne Reid and Sir Derek Jacobi) is based on that relationship, and there are similarities between Celia in the drama and Mum – she’s very picky like Mum – but there are also differences, and I had to add elements that were completely fictional. These include the fact that Celia had previously been married to a man she’d come to hate.

“Unlike real life, where both families were very pleased to see their parent find happiness again, in the TV series Celia’s daughter Caroline (Sarah Lancashire), a hard-bitten and successful head teacher, is hard on her mother and thinks she is making a dreadful mistake.

“She and Alan’s daughter Gillian – who isn’t that sure about the romance either – get off on the wrong foot with each other, but at the centre of this picture of two families with their various problems are two people who are incredibly happy to have had another chance to love and be loved. They are very sure of what they’re doing, while the younger folk are questioning their own choices and some disastrous decisions.”

As well as studio filming, scenes were shot around Halifax, Harrogate and Skipton. Sally says the great on-screen chemistry and friendship between Reid and Jacobi brought the romance to life very realistically and heartwarmingly, which infected the whole crew. “It was weird being with them sometimes, because it wasn’t unlike being with Mum and Alec. They’re both so affectionate and happy, with a great zest for life.”

One of the perks of being at the top of her game, with a string of top-rated TV dramas (Playing The Field, At Home With The Braithwaites, The Amazing Mrs Pritchard, Unforgiven, to name but a few) under her belt is that people at the top take her calls. Another is that Sally Wainwright gets to have some say in casting – and Anne Reid was top of her list to take on the role of Celia.

“I could only dream of her saying yes, and as for getting someone like Derek Jacobi...well, I thought that was not something you’d dare think about.”

Wainwright says there are parts of her own character in both of the daughters in Last Tango...and that it’s the most personal drama she has ever written. She feels it does justice to Dorothy and Alec’s relationship without being about them in every slavish detail.

“Mum read each script and only changed one line in the whole thing. Obviously you have to be very sensitive about how you portray people in your real family, and do it extremely carefully.”

As for writing about Celia and Alan having sex, the drama is pretty close to reality. In the series Celia tries to confide in her daughter Caroline to say she’s going to Halifax to stay with Alan for a few days, and that things have become physical between them. She wants Caroline to know how happy she is, but Caroline really doesn’t want to know.

“I’ve written that scene exactly as it happened with my mum,” says Sally. “I’m ashamed to say I covered my ears and said ‘I don’t need to know that, Mum’. It’s not a conversation you expect to have with your mother, is it?”

She sees the series not just as a labour of love but also as a rather daring project in its way. “I mean how many series do you see that are full of middle-aged and older people with huge personalities who are all interesting and compelling in different ways? They’re not cops, lawyers or doctors, or sexy young things, but they have very great stories and opinions. I hope people will want to watch and will be very interested to find out what the demographic of the viewers is.”

For all that Sally Wainwright likes to say she has only once had a ‘proper job’, which was driving a bus for 18 months in her 20s, she does regard screenwriting as hard work that consumes her.

“I probably work longer and harder than most people I know. I never stop work, and feel depressed and bereaved if I ever do have to interrupt it....for instance if I finish one script and my brain isn’t quite ready to get going on the next one. I don’t really believe in writer’s block, or at least I haven’t experienced it as yet.”

Wainwright says she’s not a great reader, by which she means reading for leisure. But she is always up to her oxters in books and other documents connected with research for upcoming drama projects. “With novels, I often don’t get past the first couple of chapters...but I am currently reading loads for a drama about the Brontes for BBC, to coincide with the 200th anniversary in 2016.”

She says she believes television commissions too many adaptations of novels, rather than new, original drama – except the aforementioned bankable runs of cop, doc and legal eagle series. Wainwright has another run of her own hit cop drama Scott and Bailey coming back to our screens in the spring. The idea sprang from a night out over a bottle of wine for former Coronation Street stars Suranne Jones and Sally Lindsay. Sick of the dearth of decent parts for women, they hatched the idea of a new detective series about female cops DC Rachel Bailey (played by Jones) and DC Janet Scott (Lesley Sharp).

Commissioned, produced and written by women, the series was turned down by the BBC but went down a storm on ITV1, with up to 9m viewers tuning in. Wainwright does the writing and says the time spent meeting female police officers and detectives really forced the scales from her eyes,

“They were tough, robust women with a healthy attitude. I was struck by what nice people they all were and wanted to reflect the fact that they were tough but kind.” She’s currently finishing off the scripts for another six-part cop show for the BBC, the story of a female uniformed sergeant, which will be filmed around Halifax.

Last Tango In Halifax begins at 9pm tonight on BBC1.

Bus driver to scriptwriter

Sally Wainwright says she became conscious of the desire to be a writer at the age of 11, and wrote an essay at school in which she said she wanted to write comedy, appear on This Is Your Life and drive a Bentley.

Apart from a period of 18 months when she drove a bus, she has earned a living from writing drama ever since leaving university.

By the age of 24 she was a scriptwriter on Radio 4’s The Archers, and at 29 was contributing regular episodes of Coronation Street.

Since then her solo writing credits have included Playing the Field, At Home With The Braithwaites, The Amazing Mrs Pritchard, Unforgiven (for which she won the Royal Television Society’s Writer of the Year award in 2009), and Scott and Bailey.