Wally K. Daly: 1940-2020

WGGB Books Co-Chair Nick Yapp pays tribute to writer, campaigner and union activist Wally K. Daly
Wally K Daly

The writer and long-time active member of WGGB, Wally K. Daly sadly passed away on 30 April 2020. As a writer he was both prolific and inspiring in many genres, as a campaigner, he was for years a member of the Writers’ Guild Executive Council, who seldom failed to be present at the union’s Annual General Meeting.

Daly’s start in life was tough. Looking back many years later he recalled his childhood on Teesside: “I lived in the slums. All the streets had outside toilets.” He left school with no qualifications and worked as an electrician’s assistant. Not until his early 30s, did Daly quit this career, and head south for Swinging Sixties London. Here he began his professional career as an actor at the Mermaid Theatre, then run by Bernard Miles. Though the workload was heavy – two shows a night with a matinee on Saturday – he delighted in his theatre life. With typical modesty, Daly later claimed that he was “looking to go into the Guinness Book of Records for the worst acting career ever”. However, he was good enough to be given small parts on stage, and even on television, where in 1963 he appeared in an episode of TV’s Z-Cars.

But it was as a writer that Daly excelled. Between 1974 and 2005 he wrote 38 radio plays, the radio series Anything Legal, and The Telephone Box, an award-winning radio drama series. On television his writing credits included episodes of Juliet Bravo, Casualty and Byker Grove, and the TV play Butterflies Don’t Count. Added to which were such wonderful radio inventions as The Alternative DJ (in which Wally K. Daly as the DJ is locked in a Broadcasting House eighth-floor loo during a storm); a series of 10-minute radio dramas (in which he played ‘Archivorous’, a creature that contained the entire BBC Archive); and a two-hour show for Radio 2 in which Daly, having visited the Durham Miners’ Gala in 1996, created a programme in which he interviewed former miners on their lives following the Miners’ Strike of 1984 to 1985.

When Daly revisited his old school in Middlesbrough in 1995, The Northern Echo reported his address to the pupils: “You should find some way of believing in yourselves because humans are extraordinary creatures, and you should never say you cannot do something”. He also told them that he had been Chair of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain. On the same home-coming visit, Daly was awarded an honorary Master of Literature Degree by Teesside University at Middlesbrough Town Hall. He described it as “the icing on the cake” in a week that had also seen film, television and radio contracts signed.

Three years later he was again Chair of the WGGB, sharing the position with Alan Drury. As in almost every year, writers faced a threat to their careers. In celebrating the 75th anniversary of radio drama, Daly pointed out that the BBC had managed to price successful writers out of the market. In Daly’s words: “It would be irresponsible to say we do not have frustrations about our future as radio writers.” The BBC’s response was to announce that in the coming season they would be broadcasting every one of Shakespeare’s plays. Daly, and others, wanted to know “what’s the royalty payment on a Shakespeare play?”

On a personal note, I can remember a panel session organised by the Writers’ Guild some time in the mid-1990s. The evening discussion was on the theme of ‘How can writers market their wares?’. Wally was on the panel and he recounted the history of his own work Butterflies Don’t Count. It was originally written as a radio play, but was rejected by the BBC. Wally turned it into a book, which was published in 1978, and in the same year, he adapted the book as a TV drama, which was transmitted as Play for Today on BBC TV. In 1982 he re-wrote Butterflies Don’t Count as a stage play – he had already had success with two other stage plays, The Miracle Shirker and Vaughan Street. “So I thought,” he told the panel audience, ‘I’ll submit it again to BBC radio drama’. And, you know what? They rejected it again.”

Daly was a writer who brought hope and help to his fellow writers, enormous entertainment to his listeners and viewers and readers, and inspiration to generations of would-be writers. We shall miss him.

Photo: Simon Denton