Friday, 29 July 2011

The first performance of Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey A.D. 1958

By 1958, Britain had become a net importer of cotton cloth. This was obviously a moment of transition, a tipping of the scales, for the city once known as 'Cottonopolis'. Whether it was due to importing or exporting goods (and it seemed increasingly to be the former), this was also the golden era for the Manchester Liners and tonnage handled by the Manchester Ship Canal Ports reaches its peak around this time. Matt Busby's Manchester United team were also going from strength to strength. Having won their second FA Cup in 1948, they won the league in 1952, 1956 and 1957 (for the third, fourth and fifth time). The team that managed to retain the league title were nicknamed 'the Busby Babes' on account of their average age of 22. In 1956 they were the first English team to play in the European Cup, beating Anderlecht 10-0 on 26th September at Maine Road in front of a crowd of 43,600. The next home match was better attended, with 75,000 watching them beat Borussia Dortmund 3-2 in October. A 3-0 victory over Atletico Bilbao in February saw them reach the semi-finals, where they lost to Alfredo Di Stefano's Real Madrid, the holders and eventual winners, who consistently drew crowds of 100,000 - 120,000 at the Bernabeu.

The age of football as a mass spectator sport had truly arrived and the 'Busby Babes' were becoming household names. Football was not the only thing bringing Europe closer together: the European Coal and Steel Community (formed in 1945) became the European Economic Community in 1958 (both forerunners of the European Union). The Suez Crisis in 1956 had reduced Britain's influence as a global power, affecting its attitude towards its European neighbours and their increasing measures of economic co-operation. The period also saw the introduction of the cheap package holiday with charter flights to Spanish holiday resorts making overseas travel affordable for the first time, something which was to have a devastating impact on British seaside towns like Blackpool. By 1958, Manchester Airport was handling 500,000 passengers annually, a figure which was to rise significantly over the coming years, with Tenerife, Mallorca, Alicante, Malaga and Lanzarote all becoming popular destinations.

Tragedy hit the city when on 6th February 1958 it was reported that the Manchester United team plane had crashed on the runway in Munich when attempting to take off in freezing temperatures. The Busby Babes were returning home after a 3-3 away draw with Red Star Belgrade had seen them through to a second European Cup semi-final in as many years. Eight players died in what was to become known as the Munich Air Disaster, including a 21-year-old Duncan Edwards, widely regarded as one of the best players in the game and a future England captain. Widespread newspaper coverage of the event increased its significance and triggered an emotional public response, similar to that of the death of Princess Diana in 1997. The club founded 80 years earlier as the works team of a Newton Heath railway depot who had risen to become one of the top clubs in Europe would from now on be associated with the wreckage of an airplane in the snow of Munich. That the team were able to rebuild was a credit to people such as Matt Busby and Bobby Charlton, who both survived the crash, in what remains one of the most powerful stories in world sport.

The 1957-58 season wound to an understandably difficult close for Manchester United. On 3rd May they lost to Bolton Wanderers in the final of the FA Cup. On 8th May they beat A.C. Milan 2-1 at home in the first leg of the European Cup semi-finals but lost the return leg 4-0 at the San Siro on 14th May. On 27th May, A Taste of Honey opened at the Theatre Royal in Stratford, East London, before transferring to the West End on 10th February 1959 for a long run. Its writer, Shelagh Delaney, was representative of a group of dramatists who became known as the Angry Young Men. This was despite the fact that she was wasn't male, nor was she particularly angry. She was however incredibly young and this may have been a factor in her early success. Born in 1939, Delaney grew up in working class Salford, failed the 11-plus and left school at 15, without going to university. When she was 18, she saw a production of Terence Rattigan's Variation on a Theme. Thinking she could do better, she wrote the play which which was accepted by Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop Company which had its roots in Manchester in 1945 (one of its founders Ewan MacColl had decided to pursue his folk music interests instead). The Angry Young Men aimed to represent the lives working-class and lower middle-class ordinary people, for whom life was a struggle. It was a conscious rejection of contemporary theatre and the carefree, affluent lives of the characters it portrayed. The classic example of the new movement was John Osbourne's Look Back in Anger (1956), set in the Midlands. Set in Salford, A Taste of Honey is about single parent families, interracial relationships and teenage pregnancy. Despite being poor, its characters do not berate their luck or seek to blame anyone and for this reason it might have been called 'Don't Look Back in Anger'. Walter Greenwood's Love on the Dole (1933) was an angry novel. Whilst not being light-hearted by any stretch of the imagination, A Taste of Honey (1958) did deal with some serious issues but had more in common with what was to become Britain's longest running soap opera and a national institution.

Made by Granada Studios and set in Weatherfield, a fictional town based on Salford, the first episode of Tony Warren's Coronation Street was broadcast on 9th December 1960. A columnist for the Daily Mirror claimed that the series would only last three weeks. The show came to be defined by its setting, a row of red-brick terraced housing centred on the local pub (the Rovers Return); its theme music, a cornet piece accompanied by a brass band; and its dialogue, which was unrelentingly fast-paced and littered with dialect words and phrases that gradually came to be associated with the city and the soap. During its heyday in the 1960s-1980s, the show could regularly rely on viewing figures of over 20 million, making it one of the most popular programmes on TV and a huge commercial success for its broadcasters. Its most watched episode came on 25th December 1987 when Hilda Ogden left the Street. With an audience of 26,650,000 this remains one of the most watched television broadcasts in British history. Unlike its main rival Eastenders (which started in 1985, is set in East London and seen as being grittier), Coronation Street has always retained an air of camp fun. There has been a backlash recently and the soap is generally thought to have entered a long period of decline, perhaps as much a reflection on changing viewing habits as its increasingly over-the-top storylines and poor scriptwriting. In the context of the early '60s however there are few better representations of how Manchester saw itself and how it was seen by others. Here, Ena Sharples and Elsie Tanner argue about a letter.

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