Tripwire continues its list of its Top 30 Crime and Police shows, selected by its editor-in-chief and senior editor. Counting down to its first choice at the end, here’s its 14th entry, BBC’s Happy Valley…
14. Happy Valley
Creator: Sally Wainwright
Stars: Sarah Lancashire, Siobhan Finneran, Steve Pemberton
Sally Wainwright’s gritty police drama is an anomaly as far as mainstream British television is concerned – an immensely assured series not set in a major city, with an actress as the lead, with little in the way of hi-tech procedurals and flashy, filmic direction. Furthermore, it is one of the best crime dramas on British television, but never seems to garner the praise or fandom it deserves.
The ironically named series (so-called due to the drugs problem besetting this rural town), based in the leafy Calder Valley of West Yorkshire, is in the tradition of shows such as Jimmy McGovern’s The Lakes, in which a seemingly placid Northern town is beset by an invasive element of urban social issues and organized crime. Indeed, the basic premise could only work in such a close-knit, hermetic place. Police Sergeant Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) is the focal character of the show, who we learn in series one is in mourning over the loss of her daughter, who committed suicide after being raped by psychotic villain Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton). There’s a remarkably dark twist here, however, that acts as one of the key narrative motors – she opts to bring up her grandson, conceived due to the rape, and Royce takes strong issue with this. Of course this factor underpins her domestic life, and leads to further tribulations with Royce.
The gruesome end of series one provided a distinct amount of closure – its strength lay in Catherine being tested to the brink, not just as a survivor and grandmother but also in terms of her identity as a police officer. The canard of unseen organized crime being behind events dovetails perfectly with the tortuousness of Cawood’s journey. In series 2 the story diffuses somewhat, with several sub-plots coming into play – Catherine’s sister Clare (Siobhan Finneran)’s returning alcoholism and new partner, Detective Sergeant John Wadsworth (Kevin Doyle)’s brinkmanship and troubles with a jealous, scheming girlfriend who threatens his marriage and career, and Frances Drummond (Shirley Henderson), an obsessive woman in thrall to Royce. Added to this mix is the inevitable arrival of a new serial killer, the murder of a significant character or two, and the presence of an organized gang of human traffickers, as if the poor town didn’t have enough problems already.
Despite all these conflicting elements, matters rarely stray onscreen, with everything once again successfully meshing. If at times the action does segue into the hyperreal, there are the performances to marvel at – Sarah Lancashire, who for some absurd reason missed out on a BAFTA for this series, is excellent – her performance consistently believable and consuming as she is shunted from one crisis to the next. Also deserving praise is Siobhan Finneran as her broken yet sympathetic sister – a study in flaky vulnerability that often gets overlooked (as she is often a dead weight for Catherine). And then there is Kevin Doyle’s turn as the deeply troubled DS Wadsworth, a man so index-linked with his own perceived doom that you genuinely feel his burden, not to mention Amelia Bullmore as his heartless nemesis – all of these veteran actors have had so much previous in dramas (and soaps) set in this region that their characters all instantly evoke their collective home town, regardless (as the title song says) their enforced desperation within it.
Happy Valley is a police drama that contains the usual nuts and bolts of forensic investigation, station politics, bureaucracy, and graphic crime scenes, but nothing here is overcooked, with everything seamlessly conflating with Catherine’s thankless, often traumatic journey – there is noir, black humour and warmth here, which makes it a rare combination of timelessness and throwback. It is Britain’s dowdy, reclusive, kitchen sink version of other crime series on this list. If there are any connections with major, far better known shows such as The Sopranos, they would be the fusing of familiarity with the alien, and the unwieldy parallels and overlaps between home and career. Needless to say, strongly recommended.
Happy Valley is on Britbox and Netflix UK now and on Netflix US and Amazon Prime in the US