We are really excited to see the upcoming Kinofilm screening of Shelagh Delaney’s Salford, the profile of the playwright that the young Ken Russell made for the BBC arts series Monitor in 1960 before embarking on his film career. Shelagh Delaney was just twenty when she was profiled by the BBC’s flagship arts programme. The film catches her at a fascinating time in her life, still making sense of the extraordinary critical success that followed the West End run of her play Taste of Honey; success which had created opportunities to travel, to leave Salford and to see her home town anew through different eyes. At that point, Tony Richardson’s acclaimed film adaptation of the play was still a year or so from reaching the big screen. The documentary follows the writer as she walks the streets, visits the bustling Cross Lane market, introduces us to its vivid characters, and runs alongside her black Labrador across Salford’s edgelands down by the Ship Canal.
At home over a cup of tea Delaney reflects on her relationship to Salford and the injustice and waste of Britain’s two-tier education system. As a guide to the city she reveals herself to be wise well beyond her years but also captivating to watch. Tall and rangy, she towers over the people she chats to in the street and makes a wholly unselfconscious performer with an open, candid face and an arresting, measured, lyrical turn of phrase, as far from the drilled media savvy persona as one can imagine.
What stands out about Delaney’s account of Salford is its ambivalence. She describes the city as both vitally alive and dying; a source of nourishment for the writer but also like a drug: a place you might like to leave but can’t. A place that is curious and restless, and yet “secure, like a rock.” As she leads us round the city streets she says: “For a writer a place like Salford is worth its weight in gold. Its got everything a writer could ever want. The people who live here have a terrific vitality. The whole place is alive, there are people teeming into it all the time, buying and selling and haggling and quarreling. I think it’s a fabulous place, and the language is alive. It lives and it breathes and you know exactly where it is coming from, right out of the earth.” But then later she adds: “Salford isn’t only alive, it’s restless, with all the comings and goings on the docks. And at the same time somehow or other it seems to be dying…so much seems to be old and crumbling or neglected.” She talks about the restlessness of the young and “the chaos of middle-age, when it is too late to start again and it’s too early to give up.” “Young people in Salford are the most restless. Some people are not knowing where to go… People of my age want to go somewhere and they know what they want to do and they are all like tethered, like a horse on a tether, jerking about, waiting for somebody to cut the tether and let me off, let me go. This is the thing about the whole place, people are moving from it. They are tearing down.” Ken Russellwho worked at the BBC making short documentaries for Monitor from the late 50s to the mid-60s, beautifully captures the expressive faces of the people of Salford as they haggle in the market, and the rhythm and tempo of city’s teeming street life is cut to raw, raucous trad jazz.
Humility and restraint are not qualities generally associated with Ken Russell’s oeuvre as a filmmaker. And yet the great gift of Russell’s brilliant documentary lies in how little it seeks to mediate and speak for Delaney, how much it foregrounds her voice, allowing us to see the city through her eyes. Watching Delaney talk at length, uninterrupted, chain smoking at her dining room table, is a rare, mesmerising pleasure in an age of the big beast, celebrity arts interviewer clamouring for our attention.
Shelagh Delaney’s sensitive, subtle account of the relationship between her writing and the city she grew up in is a wonderfully fitting and, despite being made over half a century ago, a surprisingly contemporary and relevant addition to the first Secret Gardens Festival. The Kinofilm screening of Shelagh Delaney’s Salford in association with the BBC is part of the Secret Gardens Festival Showcase on June 23rd.