Sally Wainwright cannot put a foot wrong. Her magnum opus, the critically acclaimed Last Tango In Halifax, was a master class in how TV’s depiction of our older generation doesn’t always need to result in ageist caricatures and Scott & Bailey is still going strong albeit sans Wainwright. With Last Tango In Halifax’s third series in the pipeline, it seems the writer fancied something else altogether. The result is Happy Valley, BBC One’s new Tuesday night drama, and it really is quite excellent.
Catherine Cawood (Last Tango in Halifax alumnus Sarah Lancashire) doesn’t have a great life. “I’m Catherine, by the way,” she says breezily, to a man planning to set fire to himself. “I’m 47, I’m divorced, I live with my sister – who’s a recovering heroin addict – I have two grown-up children. One dead and one who doesn’t speak to me. And a grandson!” It’s just a sample of the dry humour that laced the first episode of Happy Valley. From Catherine apathetically purchasing a pair of sunglasses to avoid scorching her eyebrows (“Yes, thank you, we’re on top of it”) when a man is threatening to kill himself in a local kids’ park to her Laodicean attempt to turn down a dinner-date offer with her ex-husband to “I’m too old to be shagging in cars.”
From the marketing that preceded Happy Valley it appeared that it would focus squarely on Catherine but the story of unhappy accountant Kevin (Inside No. 9’s Steve Pemberton) runs parallel. Kevin’s seemingly unappreciative boss, Nevison (George Costigan), has turned down a request for a pay rise and poor old Kev now cannot put either of his girls through a high-achieving private school. But after discovering local caravan-park proprietor Ashley (The Village’s Joe Armstrong) is a part of Yorkshire’s notorious seedy criminal underworld he approaches him with a proposal: that he, Kevin and a couple of Ashley’s goons abduct Nevison’s daughter and split the ransom. Ashley agrees and they enact their plan. All the while, Kevin doesn’t realize that one of Ashley’s thugs, Tommy Lee Royce (played by a particularly repulsive James Norton), is the man that raped Catherine’s daughter, leading her to kill herself. Wainwright sets up everything nicely and it’s clear that as Happy Valley progresses the plot strands will slowly entwine.
Initially Catherine seems hard as nails, a difficult heroine to like but as her back-story unraveled I grew to love Lancashire’s brittle sergeant. Her breakdown in front of her grandson’s headmistress was grim to watch so there’s a lot of credit to be laid at her doorstep; Lancashire is the perfect actress to front Happy Valley. Her vendetta against Lee Royce is the warp and woof of the series and something that I hope will reach a satisfying culmination.
The hilly West Yorkshire setting is utilized well by director Euros Lyn – another previous collaborator with Wainwright – and the camera appears to adore shots set at sundown. Happy Valley could have easily been set in a nonspecific metropolis but Wainwright’s penchant for her native county means the show is aesthetically pleasing as well as beautifully acted.
Where Happy Valley will go from here I really do not know, there are plenty of routes it could take and Wainwright’s credentials suggest she’ll take the right one. Some questions that remain are: how will Kevin explain his hasty departure from the police station when Catherine finally catches up on him now that she’s noted down his car registration number? What will become of Anne Gallagher? Will Catherine finally come face to face with Tommy Lee Royce and will he receive his just punishment?
Happy Valley is a delicious concoction; it balances its dry humour with some heartfelt moments and there’s a strong lead in flinty Catherine. Pemberton and Lancashire chip in compelling performances and the pretty backdrop employed so well makes it a visual pleasure as well as superbly-crafted drama.
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