All hail Happy Valley, the greatest drama on British TV
Even television has its monuments. As the last episode of the third and final series approaches, it is becoming clear that Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley has earned a place in the pantheon alongside Boys from the Blackstuff, Edge of Darkness, Blackadder Goes Forth, Our Friends in the North, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective and Prime Suspect. Thrillingly well observed, and often just plain thrilling, the drama is elevated into greatness by its two central adversaries: Sgt Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) and Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton).
When that pair have their hotly anticipated showdown on Sunday night, it will be like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty fighting on the Reichenbach Falls. Or Sigourney Weaver taking on the Alien. Good versus evil, middle-aged woman versus young psychopath and, in a most fundamental sense, cops versus rotters.
Do not be deceived. Happy Valley may look like just another police procedural, one of the crime shows that have proliferated on primetime with their slightly-too-quirky detectives and Instagram-perfect locations. But it towers above Broadchurch (addictive, yet slight) and even beats Line of Duty (so complicated you had to take notes). It is a Greek tragedy delivered in a West Yorkshire accent.
Our heroine, Catherine – “I’m the best copper that ever lived. I don’t take s---” – is obsessed with Tommy, the brute who raped and impregnated her 18-year-old daughter. Like a bomb going off, Becky’s subsequent suicide created a blast area around it, wiping out her parents’ marriage, giving her mother a breakdown and leaving behind a baby boy whom no one quite knew whether to love or hate. Has young Ryan perhaps inherited his dad’s diabolical nature? Even as she cares for him, that thought gnaws at the corner of Catherine’s brain.
We were introduced to Happy Valley’s magnificent heroine, always barking into her walkie-talkie (“9675 to Control”), in the very first scene of series one, broadcast in 2014. Brandishing a fire extinguisher cajoled from a corner-shop-keeper with characteristic blunt charm, Sgt Cawood is trying to persuade a young druggie who has poured petrol over himself not to use his lighter. “I’m Catherine, by the way. I’m 47, I’m divorced. I live with my sister who’s a recovering heroin addict. I’ve two grown-up children, one dead, one who doesn’t speak to me, and a grandson.”
Sarah Lancashire’s wonderfully sardonic delivery, the accent as dense and rich as parkin, may give the line a comic edge, but what Catherine says is born of immense, world-weary empathy. The Calder Valley is her patch, a landscape whose soaring beauty contains much ugliness, poverty and organised crime. When a new recruit recoils after seeing dog food served on a lounge floor, the sergeant rebukes her, saying, “Ninety-nine point nine per cent of the time people live in homes where you wipe your feet as you leave the house… better get used to it.”
Happy Valley’s catchy theme tune, Jake Bugg’s Trouble Town (“Troubles are found/ In this trouble town/ Words do get ’round”) has a hillbilly twang that conjures up visions of Americans living stunted, brutish lives in the Appalachians. Viewers in the south-east of England may have been startled to learn that similar blighted conditions are to be found in the north of their own country. In Wainwright’s Halifax, the local drug lords, people traffickers and would-be councillors are the Knezevics. “They’re untouchable,” sighs Catherine. “Every day, we have to deal with kids off their heads on whatever rubbish they can find to inject themselves with. And it never stops – just never stops.”
Like the supremely maternal figure she is, with a resigned shrug she accepts that her job is “mopping up the mess at the bottom end” of society. “I feel your pain” has become something of a hollow mantra, yet Cawood really does feel everyone’s pain, as if her own unassuageable sorrow had caused her heart to expand instead of contract. When, in the second series, she goes to warn two prostitutes that there’s a serial killer on the loose, she takes them sandwiches. She also sleeps in the freezing, lean-to conservatory at the back of the terraced house she shares with Ryan and her sister, Clare (Siobhan Finneran), because a victim of trafficking is hiding out in the house opposite and Catherine wants to be ready to leap into action if a gangmaster comes to claim her.
Humanity. That’s what Wainwright is revealing to us in Catherine over 18 intense episodes: humanity in all its messy, screwed-up, bloody-well-keep-the-show-on-the-road, redemptive glory. In series two, after farmer Alison Garrs (an extraordinary Susan Lynch) has shot her only son through the back of the head (because it turned out he was the serial killer) and taken an overdose herself, Catherine drags the poor woman outside, revives her and then reads her her rights with such quiet tenderness that she may as well be singing a lullaby or saying the Lord’s Prayer. Such scenes leave the viewer in a stunned silence – and Wainwright keeps them coming.
It’s impossible to pick the best. I know because I’ve tried. Like the highly skilled embroiderer that she is, Wainwright stitches each plot thread and character trait into a rich tapestry where motifs recur again and again: Catherine’s visits to Becky’s grave, the image of her daughter with a noose around her neck that looms up, suddenly, out of the place of nightmares. Catherine and Clare’s lovely chats in the backyard (it’s hard to recall a better, more affectionate portrayal of two sisters). Catherine, at a moment of high drama, pausing to correct Ryan’s grammar. (“It’s should have, not should of, for f---’s sake!”)
People trust Catherine to deliver the news they find impossible to deliver themselves. After being held hostage in the most degrading manner by Tommy Lee Royce, Ann Gallagher (Charlie Murphy) asks Catherine, her rescuer, to break it to her dad that she was raped. The scene in which the two women fight Royce for their lives in a cellar – so visceral, so bloody – is the most terrifying I have seen in 30 years writing about TV. Lancashire’s is a performance of immense courage and physicality; she fights like a man, punching and kicking. “You’re getting too bloody old for this, Catherine, love,” she rebukes herself, a look of wry amusement on that bruised and battered face.
Am I making her sound soft or sentimental? She’s definitely not that. Subordinates are trained with tough love (“I know you’re frightened, but now is not the time”), condescending superiors are taken down with spitting contempt (“Twat!”). She deplores crybabies and whingers. When a junior colleague makes a complaint of “bullying and racism” because Catherine and the team have had a bit of fun advertising for an Alien Life Form Liaison Officer and he applied, she refuses to back down. “Racist, on what planet?” She is incredulous when her boss compares her alleged racism to the ubiquitous sexual harassment of the past. At a girls’ night out, a cackling Catherine recalls that when she first joined the force, 30 years ago, the men got a baton and the women got a handbag.
But the show never bludgeons us with feminism. No need. Catherine, it is clear, is the best man they’ve got – and the best woman, too. All of this is embodied in Sarah Lancashire’s remarkable – well, frankly, one hesitates to call it a performance. She is Catherine and Catherine is her. They are unimaginable without each other.
Born in Oldham in 1964, Sarah-Jane Abigail Lancashire began her career four decades ago, across the Pennines from Sgt Cawood’s patch, in Manchester. Her mother, Hilda, was a secretary at Granada Television where her father, Geoff, wrote scripts for Coronation Street. Sarah has a twin and two other brothers who she says were all more intellectual than her, although she got into Hulme Grammar School for Girls. Young Sarah was “a bit dippy and sang la-la-la a lot”. She also hung around on the set at Corrie where she would one day create the iconic character of barmaid Raquel Watts.
Lacking confidence, Lancashire suffered from clinical depression in her late teens, but still managed to win a coveted place at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. Recalling her audition, the vocal coach Patsy Rodenburg said: “She has a very strong resilient sense in her of her talent and that’s not about being arrogant, it’s just about knowing what you know.”
Her first real break came in 1990 in Willy Russell’s stage musical Blood Brothers (Lancashire’s voice is so good, she could have been a professional singer). She married young and had two sons, combining motherhood with teaching drama at Salford University. She returned to the theatre in Educating Rita where she perfected the comedic timing that would make her Raquel so memorable.
Her television debut as the ditzy barmaid of the Rovers Return came in 1991. She was only supposed to be there for two episodes but made such a big impression that they brought her back. Sally Wainwright, who was working on Corrie as a scriptwriter at the time, recalled that Lancashire played her character in “an eccentric, slightly over-the-top way”. Some 20 million people tuned in to see Raquel’s wedding, but life on the soap treadmill took its toll. After four years in the role, in 1995 she separated from her real-life husband and announced she would leave Coronation Street the following year.
Playing Raquel gave Lancashire a national platform, but it may also have meant it took longer for her to be taken seriously as an actor. ITV swiftly signed her to a two-year golden-handcuffs deal reported to be worth £1.3 million. Lancashire went on to play some memorable parts – in Where the Heart Is, Clocking Off, The Paradise – but she took a big leap forward in 2012 when she first played Caroline, a successful career woman and soon-to-come-out closeted lesbian, in another glorious Wainwright series, Last Tango in Halifax.
Caroline, who emitted a high-pitched whine of perfectionism, could be both funny and tragic, repellent and relatable. In 2014, Lancashire deservedly won the Bafta for Best Supporting Actress. By then, she had gained a reputation for being exacting, no nonsense. She told the director of Last Tango, “You do realise if you’re going to direct it like that it won’t be funny.”
Uncomfortable with fame and stardom, Lancashire is a perfectionist herself, “the kind of person who will make herself ill to get things right”. Following the second series of Happy Valley, after winning another Bafta, she took time off. “I love her,” she said of Cawood. “But I need a break from her.”
After seven years, the third and final series returned on New Year’s Day, attracting ratings north of 8 million. Happy Valley has always been the most astonishingly real of dramas, and this gap allowed us to see how Ryan (Rhys Connah) had aged in real time, from bewildered, sweetly defiant small boy to pensive adolescent, with his Granny Catherine about to take a well-earned retirement.
Another service Happy Valley performed was to remind us of the long-lost pleasure of deferred gratification. The BBC chose not to release all episodes at once onto iPlayer, obliging viewers to wait for each new instalment every Sunday at 9pm. It was a masterstroke. After the initial, scratchy irritation of addicts accustomed to getting our fix (“Sorry, this is crazy, I want to see what happens next right now!”), we really enjoyed the sense of Can’t Wait (But Have To) anticipation.
Thus, a greater lesson for TV drama was revealed. Binge-watching has eliminated a brilliant and free marketing opportunity: word of mouth. A lot of very good shows are getting cancelled after just one series because, owing to the super-saturation of streaming content, even worthwhile things get lost in the mix. Happy Valley stands out not just because of its towering genius, but because it gives viewers the chance to engage in deeply enjoyable speculation about what might happen next week.
It is hard to overstate the sense of mounting anticipation as we count down the hours to the grand finale. The hashtag #HappyValleytheory is doing a brisk trade on Twitter. Fans are poring over the newly released trailer for clues – is it a siege? A fire? Why was farmer Alison Garrs brought back this series – might she play some key role in the denouement? Will Clare, who has enraged her big sister by taking Ryan to visit Tommy in prison, redeem herself in some uncharacteristic act of daring? (Clare who has ever been the daft, dozy kitten to Catherine’s tempestuous lioness.)
Will Ryan, last seen communicating with Tommy via computer game, really go off with his psycho dad to Marbella and break his granny’s heart? Will Catherine make that secret retirement party? Will she live to fulfil her dream and drive the beat-up old Land Rover to the Himalayas, or might she take hubby Richard (Derek Riddell) back? Does Ann (now a police officer herself) get her own back and kill Tommy while trying to protect Catherine, her saviour? Or is it Catherine who drives the stake through the sick bastard’s heart?
Revenge. In this West Yorkshire Greek tragedy, an obsession with revenge has been our heroine’s fatal flaw. Passionate hatred of Tommy can drive away the better angels of Catherine’s magnanimous nature, turning her momentarily into a snarling, wounded creature. Once, when Clare asked her sister if it would really make her feel better to kill the fiend responsible for her Becky’s death, this was Catherine’s bloodcurdling reply: “The upside is the exquisite satisfaction you’d get from grinding his severed scrotum into the mud with the underside of your s---tiest shoe. And then burying his worthless carcass in a shallow grave up on the moors, where it can rot undisturbed and unloved until the end of time – sure that’d make me feel better. Just a bit.”
Wow. Feel the fiery breath of that bitch’s blowtorch.
It’s amazing to think how rarely, over the three seasons, have Catherine and Tommy shared a scene. The arch-nemeses have taken root in each other’s imagination, festering there. James Norton is so convincing as the charmingly diabolical Royce that even a glimpse of him can make you jump out of your skin. His protean wickedness is the perfect foil for Lancashire’s sturdy decency.
When their final stand-off comes, we will see two of this country’s greatest actors at full pitch, and it will be horrifying as well as heartbreaking. Rumour has it they filmed six different endings, and no one in the cast knows which one will be shown. For what it’s worth, my theory is that all those years of Catherine’s love and care have succeeded in preserving her grandson from the dark side of his dad. Nurture not nature triumphs. Ryan turns undercover cop and brings Tommy to justice, just as Sgt Cawood would wish. And granny will correct him when he says “should of”, naturally.
When any great series ends, we feel a little bereft. Personally, I find it hard to accept that we’ll never meet Catherine Cawood again. In episode five of series two, there is a moment when Ann suddenly says something quite remarkable out of heartfelt admiration: “I think God is like a collective goodness that’s in all of us… And someone like you, you have so much of that goodness, that bigness. It’s like you embody what God is.”
It’s a rather overripe line, almost embarrassingly tell-not-show for a drama which has specialised in the opposite. But Sally Wainwright is too great a writer not to have put it there for a reason. Catherine, for all her faults, is an angel bringing kindness and good humour to this bad old Earth. “Man up, Princess, use your initiative!”
And so, for the one last time, “9675 to Control.” We’re going to miss you, love. The world felt a safer place for having Catherine Cawood in it.
The Happy Valley finale is on BBC One at 9pm on Sunday February 5