This review contains spoilers.
In the eighteen months since she put away Tommy Lee Royce, Sgt Cawood’s got a medal from the Queen and a new pair of shades. Thankfully that’s all that’s changed about her. She’s still hard-as-nails, talks a mile a minute and thinks at twice that speed, and is just the type of rare person who can be relied upon when a sheep’s skull needs staving in with an ornamental garden rock. Twice.
She’s also very funny, as this episode’s opening proved. Sally Wainwright’s writing in Happy Valley continues to leap nimbly from comic to grave. Add to that Sarah Lancashire’s deadpan delivery—slouched behind a pair of Aviators, fag in hand—and the result is absurdly entertaining. Only Cawood could tell the story of a pack of dead strays and a decomposed corpse with the matter-of-fact coolness of describing a trip to Morrisons.
(Incidentally, remember when ITV was up to its elbows in complaints from the canine-loving British public after a crossbow was trained at a single, live Labrador in Broadchurch? Lord knows what they’ll make of a street of dog corpses marinated in Pentobarbitone.)
It’s an eye-catching start to the series, cocky even, and deservedly so. Happy Valley is one of the best written, best acted UK dramas in years, it’s earned the right to a bit of swagger.
It’s a busy first episode, this, with satisfyingly little dead time. Each scene feels as though it provides something vital, either character or plot-wise. It’s as if that opening monologue was a giant run-up gathering the momentum to power the rest of the episode.
Multiple elements are brought into play here, but the story stays accessible. That’s where the character work put in last series and Wainwright’s skill with naturalistic dialogue really pay off. List the episode’s developments one after another (sheep are being rustled; a serial killer is on the loose; Catherine’s under suspicion; a CID officer is being blackmailed by his scorned mistress—respectively, Scott & Bailey’s Kevin Doyle and Amelia Bullmore—; Tommy Lee Royce’s unhinged admirer is doing his bidding; Clare’s got a new fella, one who shrinks visibly from the sight of a police uniform; Daniel’s been cheating on his wife; kidnap victim Ann Gallagher has become a PCSO; her mum’s died and her dad’s sacked a disgruntled worker—Matthew Lewis—who may or may not be our prostitute-killer…) and you’d call it an avalanche. Played out by this capable cast in dialogue that rings true, it doesn’t overwhelm, it tantalises.
The Alan Bennett of crime drama, Wainwright grounds lurid plots by folding in quotidian detail. The moment a junkie prostitute at risk from mutilation and murder complained about the modern vogue for pairing sweetcorn and tuna in factory-made sandwiches, Happy Valley series two had my heart. Wainwright brings real life into her scripts so effortlessly that it makes you wonder if other crime screenwriters even live in the same world as the rest of us.
Anchoring the whole thing though, is the character of Cawood, who is simply a tonic. Her tragic past might give her membership to the clichéd TV copper club, but the way she handles it keeps her firmly in the real world. You won’t catch her mournfully knocking back whisky in the wee hours while a jazz record skips on the turntable—with the tea to get ready, the school run to do and a bunch of sheep-stealing scrotes to kick into line, frankly, who has the time?
It doesn’t happen often for the TV planets to align in this way between a writer, a character and an actor, but in Sgt Cawood, they have. Sarah Lancashire delivers her steady patter of police initialisms and coarse language with the effortless glide of a world-class figure skater. Cawood might be tough and cynical but whatever routine and procedure (or as she has it, wank and toss) dictate, she’s on the side of good. Welcome back, our Catherine. You’ve been missed.