by: J. Lynn Stapleton
What can I say about the BBC’s latest series, Happy Valley that hasn’t already been said, by critics and fans alike? I have to agree with much of it, which is to say its a cracking series penned by Sally Wainwright (Scott & Bailey, Last Tango in Halifax, At Home with the Braithwaites), and produced by Karen Lewis at Red Production Co. Though much darker than Scott & Bailey and Last Tango, Happy Valley is not without its humour or exploration of humanity; it’s not afraid to show its character’s flaws.
Despite the misnomer, Happy Valley is anything but a ‘feel good’ show; set up in the Calder Valley (West Yorkshire) area, the nickname of ‘Happy Valley’ comes from the drugs trade and usage. The series starts out on a relatively lighter tone – a police sergeant, Catherine Cawood, played by the very talented Sarah Lancashire (Last Tango in Halifax, Rose & Maloney) and her younger constable, PC McAskill (Sophie Rundle, The Bletchley Circle) out to see to a young man who’s likely drugged up as well as drunk and standing atop a children’s playground unit threatening to light himself on fire because his girlfriend dumped him for a mate. Whilst the call in has sent for a negotiator, it’s pretty much left down to Catherine – armed with a fire extinguisher to talk the lad down. Without much fanfare, Catherine’s attempt to ‘relate’ to the lad results in quite handily spelling out her own situation, but then quickly turns it back on him.
Sgt Cawood: I’m Catherine, by the way. I’m forty-seven, I’m divorced, I live with my sister who’s a recovering heroin addict. I’ve two grown up children; one dead, one who don’t speak to me and a grandson.
Lad: Why? Why didn’t he speak to ya?
Sgt Cawood: It’s complicated. Let’s talk about you.
Turns out Catherine’s daughter, Rebecca was raped and had a son, then unable to cope with the aftermath of the rape had committed suicide, leaving Catherine to pick up the pieces and raise her grandson. Neither her remarried ex-husband, Richard (Derek Riddell, Frankie, Five Days) or her son could cope with Rebecca’s rape or suicide, nor would they acknowledge the boy or help out.
The other part of this series involves a bumbling accountant, Kevin Weatherill (played by Steve Pemberton (Benidorm, Whitechapel), goes to his boss, Nevison Gallagher (George Costigan, Scott & Bailey, Homefront) asking for a raise so he can put his daughters through an Independent school. When it doesn’t go as planned, he drums up the ‘brilliant’ idea of kidnapping the boss’s daughter and using the ransom money to pay for the girls’ education. He mentions this to Ashley Cowgill (Joe Armstrong, The Village, Public Enemies), the fellow who runs the caravan park where he and his family rent caravans for vacation time, but quickly, after the fact, panics. Especially after his boss reconsiders and gives him more responsibilities with more money. Unfortunately, his plan rather quickly goes pear-shaped. Kevin tries to go to the police to confess the kidnap plot to Sgt Cawood but bottles it.
Catherine’s sister, Clare (Siobhan Finneran, Downton Abbey, Clocking Off) works at the local mission, and helps raise Ryan (the grandson), and she informs Catherine of Tommy Lee Royce’s (James Norton, Death Comes to Pemberly) release from prison, which brings up painful memories for Catherine, as he was the one who had raped her daughter.
Kevin’s kidnap plot goes from bad to worse as Royce and Lewis (Adam Long, Waterloo Road), two of Ashley’s employees kidnap the daughter but, Royce has some other ideas that don’t sit well with Lewis.
This series is not for the squeamish or light-hearted. It does get quite dark and occasionally brutal as the series progresses. I can’t actually find one weak performance in any of the actors; each has a story and the characters are vibrant, even the bad guys. Nothing comes off as superfluous.
Sarah Lancashire is brilliant here as Catherine Cawood. She’s been going from strength to strength with Seeing Red, Last Tango in Halifax, The Paradise, Happy Valley. After watching the fourth episode last night, I was quite literally shaking by the end of the edge of seat drama, that was well-paced, and fabulously-written. This episode was actually also directed by series writer, Sally Wainwright. With only two episodes left, I suspect my heart will remain up in my throat and my rear-end planted at the front of the seat, with comfy blanket and teddy bear well within reach.
I’ve been paying attention to the social media response on Twitter, primarily, to which last night’s episode was trending in the UK, and the twitter response has been overwhelmingly positive. And the accolades keep coming through. It reached an initial 5.8 million viewers (26% share) for the time slot, coming in as the most viewed show of the night (Source: DigitalSpy UK). The +1 day PVR and BBC iPlayer viewings are continuing to rise.
For anyone interested, the BBC Writer’s Room has posted the first four scripts of the series on their website.
BBC’s Happy Valley homepage