Freedom of Halifax for Gentleman Jack writer Sally Wainwright

Suranne Jones as Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack
Suranne Jones as Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack
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She had made the town famous again, but not always in the way it would have wanted.

The TV dramatist Sally Wainwright, newly empowered to walk her sheep along Broad Street, and thrilled at the prospect, had made the Yorkshire cobbles glisten with tears, sweat and not a little blood, yet always with love.

Happy Valley, Last Tango in Halifax and Gentleman Jack writer Sally Wainwright

Happy Valley, Last Tango in Halifax and Gentleman Jack writer Sally Wainwright

Her words had tugged at the heart of Halifax, and last night it returned the compliment.

The creator of Happy Valley, Gentleman Jack and Last Tango in Halifax was named as the next recipient of the Freedom of the borough of Calderdale, the highest honour the council can bestow.

It was, said its chief executive, the least it could do.

“It’s something we hand out only very rarely,” said Robin Tuddenham, who announced the news to a sold-out audience at the Todmorden Hippodrome, where Ms Wainwright was a guest of the town’s book festival.

Councillors will be asked to rubber-stamp the nomination the week after next.

It was the worldwide success of Gentleman Jack, a co-production between America’s HBO network and the BBC, that had sealed the deal, he said. That it had made a household name of a woman whose forbidden love had for centuries dared not speak its name, was an irony lost on neither him nor Ms Wainwright.

Anne Lister, the landowner and traveller who is the central character, had had to encode her volumes of diaries about her closeted life as the first modern lesbian, lest anyone find out.

With the secret out, tourists had flocked in unprecedented numbers to the 600-year-old hall in Shibden Park that had been her home. Many had been inspired by her life and had felt it unlocked a key to their own, Mr Tuddenham said.

But it was not Ms Wainwright’s only contribution to the district’s tourism economy.

“It’s amazing what people want to come and see. They’ve been into our tourist offices asking for directions to where someone in Sowerby Bridge was murdered,” said Mr Tuddenham.

The town was where Ms Wainwright went to school and where she set Happy Valley, a fictitious crime drama inspired by the depressingly real drugs problem there.

“The shows are incredibly different from each other, but what’s common between them is a deep sense of place and an identity with Calderdale,” Mr Tuddenham said.

Ms Wainwright told The Yorkshire Post that the resurrection of Miss Lister’s reputation in her home town had been her proudest achievement.

“It’s really exciting that a lot more people in Halifax now know exactly her name, and what an extraordinary, talented human being she was,” she said.

“It’s a privilege to be the person who was instrumental in making that happen, and then to be given an award by my home town in recognition makes me quite emotional.

“I’m really thrilled and honoured by it.”

She is working on new series of both Gentleman Jack and Last Tango in Halifax, her comedy-drama inspired by her mother’s second marriage.

“I know Happy Valley showed the borough quite darkly but I hope Last Tango presents in it a much more uplifting way as well,” she said.