The new intake of first year students at the NFTS were given an inspiring masterclass on TV writing and directing by Sally Wainwright who is behind hugely popular television dramas such as Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax.

The session was hosted by NFTS’ new Head of Editing, Richard Cox, who frequently works with Sally and has just worked with her on To Walk Invisible, a television film about the Brontë family for the BBC. Richard introduced Sally as “one of the best, if not the best TV writers and directors around!” Sally has won BAFTA TV Awards for Best Writing and Best Drama Series for both Last Tango in Halifax and Happy Valley, and has been nominated for BAFTA TV Awards for Unforgiven; At Home with the Braithwaites; Canterbury Tales and Scott & Bailey.

Kicking off, Richard asked Sally when she first realised she had a talent for TV writing? “I watched TV obsessively as a child and had a compulsion to write since I was 6 or 7. I started writing dialogue at the age of 10 or 11 as there was something about what people said that appealed to me.” Sally credits 70s TV series, Rock Follies and its ‘compelling viewing’ for making her realise “this is what I want to do.”

When quizzed on what she rates on TV at the moment, Sally plumped for: “Nurse Jackie; Pulling; Raised by Wolves; Hunderby – mostly hard edged comedies written by women. There are some very clever women out there at the moment.” And as to whether Happy Valley 3 is on the cards? “Who knows?! I have good ideas for it but it’s not happening soon as I have a number of other things in the pipeline.”

Early on in her career after securing an agent who saw a script for a stage play she wrote at university, Sally took to driving buses in London, which was a “good life experience” and “it left me free to write. I also managed to read the full works for Ibsen and Chekhov during that time!”

Sally’s agent secured her writing jobs for The Archers and then Emmerdale and Coronation Street. “It was a fantastic apprenticeship as the speed the product has to be turned out is relentless. To get asked to write for Corrie was what everyone wanted and it was my first ambition; the writers are so good at inventing and spinning stories that work for that medium.”

The skills Sally built through writing for the soaps led to her first series, At Home with the Braithwaites, being greenlit, which is “very much about my own family although I took a few liberties and added some fantasy bits!”

Richard showcased the breadth of Sally’s writing skills by setting up a number of clips from Last Tango in Halifax, Happy Valley and To Walk Invisible. The clip from Last Tango, which Richard described as ‘a joy to edit’, illustrated how well Sally writes overlapping dialogue. For Sally, writing dialogue “is a talent that some people have an ear for. The way we speak is completely different to prose and it’s a skill to turn bitty stuff into something that means something. That’s the fun, the absolute delight in creating a world the audience believes.”

On whether directing was as much as an ambition as writing, Sally said: “I always wanted to direct as much as I wanted to write. I love to be on set and the discipline of working out the shot list; direction is an extension of writing. The biggest thing I learnt is the importance of teamwork and that you can rely on those that you’re working with.”

The renowned cellar scene from Happy Valley was the first episode that Sally directed and the next clip shown to the students. “The whole team was fantastic especially the editing, first AD and the DoP really came into his own.” The music was composed by NFTS alumnus, Ben Foster: “Sound was hugely important in that scene. It was only at the end that I realised how powerful the police emergency signal ‘beep’ was so we got special permission to have the sound turned down so the audience would hear that.”

Sally’s ability to seamlessly incorporate flashbacks and dark humour while cleverly setting up the second series of Happy Valley was evident in clip 3 where Catherine relates some strange goings on with sheep rustling to her sister: “I was determined to kick this series off with humour.”

Students were keen to know how Sally approaches the writing process. “Characters come first and fully formed. It’s the peripheral characters that are harder. For example, I could see Sarah Lancashire playing Catherine in Happy Valley. The story is where the hard work lies”. And on writer’s block, Sally said: “Writer’s block happens when you haven’t thought through what happens next and jumped to the fun bit without doing the hard work. You have to go backwards if you are stuck and find out what’s wrong in the preparation.”

After watching a clip of television film To Walk Invisible, students asked Sally if she would consider going into film rather than TV: “Film? No! Working in telly is more exciting than ever. Since the advent of Netflix, there’s lots of money in TV; there are lots of productions and possibilities of making things on an ambitious scale. Things happen quickly; I’d get bored with film; with TV, you get a greenlight and it’s on TV, which is so exciting.” Sally finished the session by reminding the students not to be swayed by what they think people want: “You can never second guess what the industry wants; it’s best to be true to yourself and come with real passion and they’ll realise that’s what they want!”

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