Happy Valley

Happy Valley was one of those TV shows that caught my attention because friends of mine raved about it. Most of those friends are those whose tastes in TV drama tend to be similar to mine, and I am a bit of a fan of Sally Wainwright’s writing. I was not in the UK when the first series aired on BBC1, and then when the second series aired I worked out it would be a good idea to see the first series first. I ended up having to wait for the DVDs to be released, fortunately not too long after the series ended.

The show is a police procedural set in the Yorkshire valleys. It centres on Sergeant Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire), once a detective who returned to uniform duties one assumes in the wake of the suicide of her daughter Becky. Although Becky’s suicide happened eight years before the story begins, its implications and ramifications permeate all through both series. Catherine is raising her grandson, Ryan (Rhys Connah), who Becky gave birth to some weeks before her death; Catherine believes Becky was raped by Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton) even though he was never convicted of that.

The first series is concerned with the plot to kidnap Ann Gallagher (Charlie Murphy), daughter of a local business owner, by the accountant of the firm, Kevin Weatherill (Steven Pemberton). Kevin is driven to the plot because he feels unfairly treated by Ann’s father, but through a series of misunderstandings and the wilfulness of those he approaches to put the plot into action the whole thing goes terribly wrong.

The second series picks up some 18 months after the end of the first. Ann has joined the police and is mentored by her friend, Catherine. Tommy Lee Royce is in prison again, but his influence over Catherine and her family continues against the backdrop of a series of murders linked, it seems, to human trafficking.

Both series have an edgy sense of humour; I thought mostly due to my reaction to the casting of Steven Pemberton from League of Gentlemen. I watched many of the interviews on the DVD sets and noted reference to that deliberate humour being integral to the set up. That humour is very much in line with the darker sort of humour many of those who work in criminal justice/emergency services have to cope with the unrelenting darkness of their worlds. It’s just unusual to see it in cop dramas.

Sally Wainwright – the creator, lead writer, director of several episodes – has woven together interesting criminal plots, intersecting with the all-too-believable personal stories and random chaos of everyday lives on the brink of poverty. Funnily enough, Joanne Harris on Twitter yesterday (21 May 2016) was highlighting the over-used tropes of many police/detective procedurals and as I was reading them, and agreeing with them, I thought of how Wainwright so skilfully takes these tropes and manages to twist them through the realities of each person in her stories having their own agency. For one simple example (that won’t spoil the plot of series 2!), Catherine tackles Shirley Henderson’s character once she’s been found out by revealing to her the list of other visitors to Tommy Lee Royce who all had fallen into his trap just as she had. It’s a small scene, totally unexpected in the way it was done, but absolutely believable. And one of numerous little touches that add up to a brilliant two series of television.

There was one thing that grated – the opening and closing theme song and tune. It just didn’t fit in terms of tone.