Meet Sally Wainwright: The writer behind the TV dramas Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax

Television writer Sally Wainwright

by Arabella Horspool |
Published on

You may have heard of the formidable Catherine Cawood and the evil Tommy Lee Royce, but do you know who created these characters? Producer, writer and director Sally Wainwright, that's who!

She is best known for her TV dramas which are set in West Yorkshire, where she was born and raised. Her realistic female characters and gripping storylines have won her numerous accolades, but what new dramas is the writer working on next?

Sally Wainwright TV shows

Hot Flush

Hot Flush is Sally Wainwright's new drama, which will centre on a close-knit group of friends in Hebden Bridge, all navigating their middle years. United by their passion for punk-rock, they form a band and embark on a journey to compete in a talent contest. Through their trials and triumphs, the show delves into their relationships, marriages, and experiences with menopause.

Speaking to the BBC, Sally said, "I've been wanting to write a series like this for a long time. It's a celebration of women of a certain age, and all the life-stuff they suddenly find themselves negotiating/dealing with. The show is also my own personal homage to Rock Follies of '77, and the feisty Little Ladies who woke me up to what I wanted to do with my life when I was 13."

The casting of Hot Flush is yet to be announced, but with Sally's track record of amazing actors working on her shows, we're expecting some well-known faces to appear!

Happy Valley

Although she was already known for her work on shows such as Scott & Bailey, Happy Valley is the one that shot her writing to global acclaim.

Starring Sarah Lancashire and James Norton, the show has been praised for its strong writing, compelling characters, and gritty portrayal of both crime and the human condition.

This show is not one to miss and as we know that there will be no more series, now's the time to watch Happy Valley on BBC iPlayer if you haven't already!

Last Tango in Halifax

Sally Wainwright penned Last Tango in Halifax after being inspired by her own mother, who reconnected with a lost love on a website after becoming widowed and moving in with her daughter - just like Celia (Anne Reid) and Caroline (Sarah Lancashire) in the show.

In an interview with the BBC, Sally said: "Alan and Celia were very much based on my mum and (her late husband) Alec; their personalities and the relationship between them, although obviously I made things up! The family situations were completely different. I didn’t want to dramatize my family and I didn’t want to dramatize Alec’s family because I didn’t want to offend them in any way."

Last Tango in Halifax
Last Tango in Halifax ©BBC

First airing in 2012 and finishing in 2020, the comedy-drama became essential viewing for families up and down the country, as the portrayal of characters from four different generations appealed to viewers of all ages.

Viewers especially appreciated the way older characters and women were portrayed in the show - the realism of the characters - as if they could be people in their own family or people they knew.

Sally says, "Of course, when you invent characters, you’ve got to invent them, warts and all. They’re very flawed, all the characters, which is what makes people warm and human and funny really. So I wanted to be able to write as freely for them as I could without offending anyone."

Last Tango in Halifax saw Sarah Lancashire and Sally Wainwright work together for the first time, before the days of Happy Valley. The cast also includes Anne Reid and Derek Jacobi as Celia and Alan, as well as the brilliant Nicola Walker who plays Gillian (Alan's daughter).

Gentleman Jack

Sally's shift to period drama may have surprised some, but for her, it has been a story she's always wanted to write.

"It’s a beautifully rich, complicated, surprising love story. To bring Anne Lister to life on screen is the fulfilment of an ambition I’ve had for 20 years. Shibden Hall is a place I have known and loved since I was a child." (BBC Centre Media interview).

Set in 1830s Yorkshire, Gentleman Jack is based on the diaries of Anne Lister, an industrialist, who used a code to write about her lesbian relationships. The show delves into Anne's business ventures, her efforts to restore her family estate, and her unconventional approach to relationships, especially her romance with Ann Walker, a wealthy heiress.

The show is led by Suranne Jones who plays Lister and Sophie Rundle who portrays Walker.

©@sophiesophierundle, Instagram

Scott & Bailey

This police procedural was created for ITV and follows the work of detectives Janet Scott (Lesley Sharp) and Rachel Bailey (Suranne Jones). It was originally based on an idea by actors Suranne Jones and Sally Lindsay, as they wanted to see more women on telly "that weren't wife-of, sidekick-to, mother-of, mistress-to, etc." (Suranne, Cultbox interview).


2009 saw the release of ITV drama Unforgiven, which follows a woman who has recently been released from prison after murdering two police officers as a teenager. She goes on a journey to track down her sister who was adopted after she was locked up.

If the story sounds familiar, it's probably because you may've seen The Unforgivable, which was a remaking of the show for Netflix that starred Sandra Bullock. However, the original show stars Suranne Jones and Siobhan Finneran, who both later on went to act in other Sally Wainwright projects.


Has Sally Wainwright written any books?

Sally Wainwright mostly writes for television, but she has written a foreword for the book Gentleman Jack: The Real Anne Lister by Anne Choma, which is 'the official companion to the BBC series'.

Gentleman Jack: The Real Anne Lister by Anne Choma and Sally WainwrightAmazon
Price: $18.23

Arabella Horspool is a Commercial Content Writer for Yours at Bauer Media. She's a bookworm who is passionate about TV and film. She enjoys cooking and spending time with her many pets.

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