Why Happy Valley is the best drama on TV

Siobhan Finneran and Sarah Lancashire in BBC1’s Happy Valley. Pics: BBC

BBC1’s excellent Happy Valley reaches episode 5 tonight (9pm), following last week’s cliffhanger in which Catherine stumbled in a bloody mess into the street after her fight with Tommy. The violence in that episode stirred some media controversy, but overall Happy Valley has been a great ratings success. Here we look at what makes it one of the year’s stand-out dramas…

Sarah Lancashire 

The Bafta-winning actress has put in some fine performances in recent years, from Corrie to Last Tango in Halifax, but it will be a long time before she gets a role to draw out the full emotional range of her talents as Sgt Catherine Cawood has. Audiences of up to eight million have warmed to this woman carrying the mental scars of her daughter’s rape and suicide, but who is physically and morally tough, and sometimes dryly humorous despite everything. Where The Killing‘s Sarah Lund was a dour enigma, Catherine shows her emotional side and is liked all the more for it. She is also not perfect, venting her frustrations out on little grandson Ryan, sleeping with her ex, and she can be horrible to her sister, Clare. Sarah Lancashire has put in a brilliant performance portraying this woman battling demons past and present and must give Olivia Colman a run for her money at forthcoming awards ceremonies. Writer Sally Wainwright is talking to the Beeb about doing a second series – but surely she couldn’t put her lead actress through so much again?

Great characters and cast

What a cast. Steve Pemberton as the self-serving cretin Kevin Weatherill who sets the kidnap nightmare

Joe Armstrong as Ashley Cowgill

in motion and then tries to blame everyone else (by the end you almost think he’s more vile than Tommy); George Costigan as the tormented dad of hostage Ann (Charlie Murphy); Joe Armstrong as the villain Ashley Cowgill; Siobhan Finneran as Catherine’s sister, Clare; and, of course, James Norton has been very creepy as the deluded sexual predator Tommy Lee Royce. All of the main characters have been distinctive, believable and well-developed, which no doubt helped to summon terrific performances from the actors.

Setting

Sophie Rundle as Kirsten

So many dramas seem to get commissioned simply because they have pretty settings – Oxford (Lewis), Cornwall (Doc Martin), Northumberland (Vera), Shetland (you know where). But Hebden Bridge informs and enriches the story in Happy Valley. The ironic title picks out the fact that this community has a problem – drugs, with all the attendant criminal and social chaos they bring. The place is woven into the plot so that it’s almost a character. Ashley Cowgill facilitates the kidnap, but he’s also the frontman for the drug kingpins, and the whole narcotics epidemic is what Catherine asks her ex-husband early on to investigate. There’s more to this place than pretty scenery.

Sarah Lancashire in make-up

Six of the best

Well done to the Beeb for giving it six episodes. So many series are crammed into two or three (Prey, Undeniable), which limits the space for writers to showcase the characters, to reveal their contradictions and hidden sides. Whereas the best – The Fall, Broadchurch and the top US shows – always play out over a longer run and are a far richer experience. Sally Wainwright filled these six episodes with twists and violence, as you’d expect, but also tears, emotion and warmth.

Writing that is engrossing

The final two episodes pack quite an emotional wallop, and by then most of the crime element of the story has been resolved, except the whereabouts of Tommy. Instead, writer Sally Wainwright takes the time to explore the fallout from the kidnap – for victim Ann, for Ashley Cowgill and particularly for Catherine, who is in complete turmoil having been traumatised by her confrontation with Tommy. In most series concerned with a crime, the impact of the violence is glossed over – the baddies are arrested or killed, and the cops walk off into the sunset unscathed. Sensitive, heartfelt writing brings Catherine and the story alive in these episodes. Catherine is bloody-minded, angry, unreasonable – but we know what she’s been through. And scenes such as the one in which she tells Nevison about Ann’s rape are just wonderfully written and very moving. It’s a very fine drama.

Check out…

BBC1 Happy Valley
Sally Wainwright on the Happy Valley controversy

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