Playwright Shelagh Delaney, best known for her 1958 effort “A Taste of Honey,” died of cancer on Sunday night at her daughter’s home in eastern England, said agent Jane Villiers. Delaney was a few days short of her 72nd birthday.
The writer was just 19 when “A Taste of Honey” premiered. The downbeat tale of a young woman’s pregnancy following a one-night stand with a black sailor, and her supportive relationship with a gay artist, verged on scandalous at the time, but the play had successful runs in London and New York.
The play, and its subsequent film adaptation, are generally considered to be part of Britain’s “kitchen sink realism” movement of the late 1950s and 1960s, which portrayed the gritty reality of working-class life and also included works such as John Osborne’s “Look Back in Anger” and Alan Sillitoe’s “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.”
Delaney’s immediate inspiration was her dislike of Terence Rattigan’s play “Variations on a Theme.” Believing she could do better, she wrote “A Taste of Honey” in two weeks, reworking material from a novel she was writing.
Delaney and the film’s director, Tony Richardson, shared BAFTA and Writers Guild awards for best screenplay for the 1961 film adaptation, which starred Rita Tushingham.
She rebelled against the theater, which she saw as portraying “safe, sheltered, cultured lives in charming surroundings, not life as the majority of ordinary people know it.”
“No one in my play despairs,” Delaney added. “Like the majority of people, they take in their stride whatever happens to them and remain cheerful.”
Her second play, “The Lion in Love,” about a difficult marriage between a frustrated man and an aggressive woman, did not enjoy the same success when it opened in 1960. She didn’t write for the theater again until 1979, when she revised her BBC TV series “The House that Jack Built.”
In between, she wrote screenplays: “The White Bus,” 1966; “Charlie Bubbles,” 1968, for which she won a second Writers Guild Award; and “The Raging Moon,” 1970.
She also wrote the screenplay for the 1985 film “Dance with a Stranger,” based on the story of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be executed for a crime in Britain.
“A Taste of Honey” enjoyed a musical reincarnation in the work of prominent Manchester band the Smiths. The band’s songwriter, Morrissey, lifted many lines from Delaney’s play, including “I dreamt about you last night and I fell out of bed twice.”
The face of the young playwright features on the cover of the Smiths’ 1987 album, “Louder than Bombs.”
Delaney is survived by a daughter and three grandchildren.