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.


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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Happy Valley, BBC1, Sarah Lancashire, Steve Pemberton PREVIEW

Rating: ★★★★

BBC1: starts Tuesday, 29 April, 9pm

Story: When accountant Kevin Weatherill enlists a local dodgy businessman into a badly thought-out extortion plan, he sets off a sequence of disastrous events that will impact on a small Yorkshire town and its local police sergeant, Catherine Cawood.

OF THIS week’s four major new drama series, Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley is the most engrossing.

Vera and Hinterland conform to the whodunit procedural format. While they will delight many

viewers, they are the usual murder-investigation-solution plot we’ve seen a million times.

ITV’s Prey has the advantage of the very popular John Simm in the lead, and runs Happy Valley a close second in raising anticipation levels. But Prey, an adrenaline-pumping, action-packed thriller, is very different to the BBC1 six-parter.

Sarah Lancashire, seen recently in Wainwright’s other acclaimed hit Last Tango in Halifax, takes the lead here as a police sergeant in a beautiful West Yorkshire town blighted by drug crime.

Sarah Lancashire as Sgt Cawood

She plays Catherine Cawood, a good cop with a life that’s been through the storms. As she tells an addict head whose about to set light to himself in a playground, ‘I’m Catherine, by the way! 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!’

And that’s not the half of it. She is shaken by news that a convicted drug dealer, Tommy Lee Royce, is out of prison after eight years inside, and we can guess that this news is going to affect on her in a big way.

But already there is more going on here than you get in 10 series of Midsomer Murders.

In a second story string there is Steve Pemberton as Kevin Weatherill, an accountant in Nevison Gallagher’s firm. He wants to send his daughter to a posh school and asks for a raise. When Nevison (George Costigan) initially blows cold, Kevin, being greedy and stupid, decides to involve a local crook in a scheme to extort the money from Nevison.

Fine cast, fine setting, great plot

This plotline bears a staggering similarity to Fargo the movie, with Weatherill as the Jerry Lundegaard

character, who sets in train an appalling chain of events through his bungling and selfishness. And by the end of the episode, we realise this tragic twist is going to entangle Sgt Cawood too.

Sally Wainwright, who also helped to develop the very successful Scott & Bailey with Suranne Jones, has created characters who immediately pull you in to a rich, finely balanced story. All the cast are terrific, with Lancashire as believable as ever, Pemberton perfect as the man you want to punch, and Joe Armstrong menacing as the ‘businessman’ Weatherill involves in his scheme.

The setting – a lovely town with major problems – is interesting without having to be chocolate-box twee.

There will no doubt be tears for these characters before the end, but Happy Valley should have viewers committed to their journey by the conclusion of episode one.

Cast: Sarah Lancashire Catherine Cawood, Steve Pemberton Kevin Weatherill, James Norton Tommy Lee Royce, Adam Long Lewis Whippey, Joe Armstrong Ashley Cowgill, George Costigan Nevison Gallagher

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Whitechapel 4, ITV, with Rupert Penry-Jones, Phil Davis, Steve Pemberton PREVIEW

Phil Davis, Steve Pemberton and Rupert Penry-Jones. Whitechapel series 4 Pics ITV
The worst-lit police station in London – Whitechapel with Phil Davis, Steve Pemberton and Rupert Penry-Jones. Pics ITV

Rating: ★★★

ITV: day and time to be announced

Story: The team investigates a number of killings that seem to be of witches, leading them to suspect that some kind of modern-day Witchfinder General is at work.

TRYING TO EXPLAIN what the blazes is going on in Whitechapel these days is the devil’s own job. Perhaps we should ask him, as it is now revealed that the gates to Hell are actually located within the shadow of Christ Church, Spitalfields.

That’s according to Edward Buchan, the swivel-eyed loon they keep in the basement poring over ‘archives’ in this rather bonkers series.

‘Why do these things keep happening in Whitechapel?’ Buchan wonders – along with the rest of us. Hence, the gates of hell thesis.

Washington (William Beck) in Whitechapel 4 ITV
Washington (William Beck)

The Witchfinder General

Jack the Ripper, the Krays, the Thames Torso murders and others have all revisited the Whitechapel area of London in past series. This time it’s the Witchfinder General who’s popped back out of the pages of infamy to give the willies to Rupert Penry-Jones (DI Chandler), Phil Davis (DS Miles) and Steve Pemberton (Buchan).

Watching this instalment you do wonder if writers Caroline Ip and Ben Court have not been a bit dazed and confused by the success of what was a a good idea that is now stretched thinly. After all, they have moved onto other projects, such as BBC1’s Mayday, but still the viewing figures demand further Whitechapels. Hence, the more and more barmy the show has become.

 RUPERT PENRY-JONES as DI Joseph Chandler Whitechapel 4on ITV
Chandler (Rupert Penry-Jones)

The fourth outing has the odd trio of investigators looking into a couple of deaths – that of a Bulgarian spy and an old woman burned to death.

Grab bag of horror

In episode two we learn someone wearing a big brimmed hat that was last in style during the English Civil War seems to be tracking down contemporary witches. It can only be a re-imaging, reincarnation – whatever – of Matthew Hopkins, the witch-hunter who killed 300 suspected witches in a couple of years (1644-46). Natch.

The current day perpetrator in the big hat is an absolute rotter. Literally. His skin is rotting and he talks like the Elephant Man. It all amounts to a grab bag of horror genre routines and motifs. Trouble is, it’s not even that chilling because the characters are all a bit flat.

The story is garbled and silly, and Hammer Horror atmospherics are used in place of an intelligible drama. Creepy dark houses, a creepy dark police station, blind women, black cats, blood from faucets, drownings, flayings – scare tactics in search of a story.

STEVE PEMBERTON as Edward Buchan in Whitechapel series 4 ITV
Buchan (Steve Pemberton)

Buchan, Chandler and Miles are still the best things in Whitechapel

However, the three stars are still fun to watch. Buchan even seems to be about to find love (he could definitely do with a new hobby), Chandler takes his shirt off to expose his ripped abs, and Miles is having a crisis of confidence.

It’s a shame better use isn’t made of these guys – in series one their characters were far more interesting and affecting. They’re too good for this Chamber of Horrors.

Cast: Rupert Penry-Jones DI Joseph Chandler, Phil Davis DS Ray Miles, Steve Pemberton Edward Buchan, Sam Stockman DC Emerson Kent, Hannah Walters DC Megan Riley, Claire Rushbrook Dr Caroline Llewellyn

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New faces on Lewis and Silent Witness

• Fresh faces are joining two long-running crime series this month. The new series of Lewis, which starts today (ITV1, Monday, 7 January 9pm), kicks off with established sidekick Hathaway (Laurence Fox), but by episode 3 – The Ramblin’ Boy on 21 January – Hathaway will be away in Kosovo. Innocent will introduce Lewis to his new right-hand man, Alex Gray, played by Babou Ceesay, who may be familiar from Jo Brand’s Getting On. Gray is a young constable straight out of uniform and will be one of the few leading black characters in ITV’s stable of long-running crime series, which includes the likes of Inspector Morse and Midsomer Murders.

• Meanwhile, on Thursday (BBC1, 10 January, 9pm), the blood and guts drama Silent Witness returns with a new character – forensic scientist Jack Hodgson, played by David Caves (left, with Emilia Fox as Nikki), in his first TV role. He, Nikki and Leo (William Gaminara) are plunged into a case involving the death of a confectionary company owner – was it natural causes, or murder? Also, look out for another new cast member, Liz Carr as lab scientist Clarissa Mullery.

Rupert Penry-Jones, Steve Pemberton, Phil Davis

• Elsewhere on the mean streets, principal photography starts today on six new episodes of Whitechapel 4, written again by Caroline Ip and Ben Court, but with cast member Steve Pemberton chipping in on the scripts. He’ll also be featuring again alongside Rupert Penry-Jones and Phil Davis, as Chandler, Miles and the team delve into further bizarre and macabre killings. Historical crimes involving witchcraft, cold war espionage, ghoulish Victorian surgeons and horrors in hidden East End tunnels will all feature. Who would have thought the original premise of a Jack the Ripper rehash could be resurrected so many times?

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Whitechapel series 3 with Rupert Penry-Jones PREVIEW

Phil Davis, Rupert Penry-Jones and Steve Pemberton. Pics: ITV

Rating ★★★

ITV1, from Monday, 30 January, 9pm

Story: When four people are slaughtered at night at a fortified tailor’s workshop, the East End is gripped with fear and panic at this seemingly impossible and gruesome crime.

Gothic cop show Whitechapel is now haunted by the ghosts of series past, having already featured the most notorious East End killers of Jack the Ripper and the Krays in series one and two.

‘So what’s this one then?’ says the ghoulish amateur criminologist Edward Buchan. ‘Dr Crippen?’

No, not Crippen, who did not operate within the sound of Bow Bells. Instead, the series is overstretching its unlikely but previously popular premise by unearthing the little-known Ratcliffe Highway Murders, committed near Wapping 200 years ago.

Steve Pemberton as Buchan

Legendary bogeymen
Putting aside the daftness of detectives who only ever chase copycat killers recreating notorious historical crimes, Whitechapel now throws in everything from Charles Manson to flashes of a man apparently scrambling fly-like on a ceiling to inject some chills and mystery.

While Rupert Penry-Jones, Phil Davis and Steve Pemberton are back holding the fright-fest together, the show’s straining to evoke legendary bogeymen with ever more convoluted hysteria in this opening story, the first of three two-part mysteries.

Murder obsessive  Buchan – played with relish by Pemberton – is in horror heaven when DI Chandler (Penry-Jones) puts him in charge of the Met’s centuries old archive of past cases. The theme of these new stories is that Buchan, Chandler and DS Miles (Davis) can use the historical crimes to solve similar modern-day ones.

‘I saw the devil walking in Whitechapel’
So when four people are murdered in a fortress-like tailor’s premises, Buchan in the basement of the nick (actually Hornsey Town Hall) recalls the Ratcliffe Highway killings. He can also reel off the inadequacies of the Bow Street Runners and the suicide of suspect John Williams (buried on the junction of Commercial Road and Cannon Street Road with a stake through his heart), while working in theories about modern American killers Charles Manson and Richard Farley.

Rupert Penry-Jones as DI Chandler

Writers Caroline Ip and Ben Court still have fun with the horrid history – autopsies carried out in pubs et cetera – and also try to humanise lonely, fastidious Chandler and Miles, whose wife is ill, but the formula is really giving up the ghost this time.

A prisoner escaping from a sealed cell, the phantom on the ceiling, the instant East End hysteria and talk of devils walking the street. It’s too fanciful and confusing to be much more terrifying than a Halloween costume.

Thames Torso Mysteries
The next instalment invokes the Thames Torso Mysteries of 1887-89, and serial killers Mary Ann Cotton, Mary Wilson, the Lonely Hearts Killers, HH Holmes, and even the Marquis de Sade, while story three somehow references the Zodiac Killer, the 1940s US murderer known as The Phantom, Mutsuo Toi…

That’s quite enough. Too many crooks have spoiled the shock.

Cast: Rupert Penry-Jones DI Joseph Chandler, Phil Davis DS Ray Miles, Steve Pemberton Edward Buchan, Ben Bishop DC Finley Mansell, Sam Stockman DC Emerson Kent, Claire Rushbrook Dr Llewellyn, Hannah Walters DC Megan Riley

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Whitechapel ITV1 PREVIEW

Rating ★★★

ITV1, 9pm Monday 11th October

A man’s been pinned to a snooker table with a bayonet. Another’s had his buttocks slashed. The cops are on the take, and victims are afraid

(Pics: ©ITV)

to talk…

It’s just like the old days when the Krays cruised East London dishing out backhanders and beatings.

In Whitechapel 2, no sooner has a copycat Jack the Ripper been dispatched by Rupert Penry-Jones and Philip Davis, then – gawd help us – but a Kray twins novelty act turns up on the manor.

Whitechapel’s first outing, last year, was fresh and spiky enough to be an engrossing yarn about the East End’s notorious serial killer.

The announcement that ITV was going to attempt the formula again – this time regurgitating the Kray killings – suggested they were flogging a horse now floating lifeless in the Thames.

But while some of the gloss has inevitably gone from the premise, Whitechapel 2 still cherishes the folklore and ‘geezer aesthetic’ enough to make this an atmospheric jaunt into the past.

Chelsea smile
Writers Ben Court and Caroline Ip showed with their original an appreciation of East End history and atmosphere, and that comes out well in the detail of Whitechapel 2. Identifying a corpse by the ‘last’ (or the wooden mould) of his handmade shoe, or recounting the gang punishment known as a Chelsea smile (a cutlass is used to slice a victim’s mouth wide open) are throwbacks that give this drama its vintage, violent texture.

Once again the major part of Whitechapel’s good points are the characters. In the original, Penry-Jones as uptight DI Chandler struggled to prove himself worthy of fronting the Ripper investigation. This time, it is his sergeant, the streetwise and sour Miles (Phil Davis), who appears out of his depth and rattled as some strangely reminiscent slashings and a murder suggests the Krays stalk the East End once again.

Steve Pemberton returns as the oddball amateur sleuth Buchan, breathlessly reliving every juicy detail of every lengendary murder. It is he who predicts the next killing will echo that of Jack The Hat McVitie in 1969, much to Miles’s annoyance.

‘Rock stars of murder’
‘The Krays were the original British gangsters,’ Buchan says, almost salivating. ‘They invented the firm. They were the rock stars of murder.’

It’s all complete tosh, and not as good as the first series. But the three leads still spark off each other, and the whole production captures a strange duality between past and present, using period footage and sound eerily.

One scene has Miles taking Chandler to an East End pub. He asks his boss to look round and tell him what he sees. In the gloom sit old lags with busted noses and facial scars, looking like ghosts from forgotten gang fights.

And you can just imagine two stocky blokes in Italian suits marching into the pub and freezing every conversation.

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