TV Review: Happy Valley

Violence against women is central to this popular quality crime series says Seb Cooke.

Happy Valley burst onto the scene a couple of years ago. At the time, British crime drama was caught napping, largely unaware of what was going on in other parts of the world. Without the series, the genre would probably be in a deep sleep by now, dreaming of the good old days of Morse and Frost, and waking occasionally to piss out another episode of Midsommer Murders. What Happy Valley did was run into the room, wake it up, shove some ecstasy down its throat and drag it to the party so it could feel young again. It made us realise what we’d been missing, and for this alone we should be grateful for the existence of Sally Wainwright’s excellent drama.

Something was different right from the start. For one, the lead character was a woman who didn’t need a composed male sidekick everywhere she went. It’s a bit crazy to think that portraying a strong independent woman on screen counts as ‘edgy’, but that’s the situation we are/were in. And despite the fact that The Killing and its female lead Sara Lund was kicking ass in knitted jumpers 9 years ago, the U.K has generally been stuck in a sexist time warp when it comes crime drama.

Happy Valley and its writer and creator Sally Wainwright, seemingly aware of this, created a piece of drama that unfolded at such a pace that acted like it was trying to catch up with where the genre was at in Scandinavia and elsewhere.

Underpinning the show throughout is the brilliantly drawn character of Police Sergeant Catherine Cawood, played with bristling perfection by Sarah Lancashire. Lancashire gives the role so much depth that her presence alone is enough to carry the show through. Add to this a very good script and an engrossing plot and it’s easy to see why Happy Valley is so popular (viewing figures for series 1 averaged at over 8 million per episode, not including iPlayer viewings, and indications are similar for series 2).

Catherine Cawood, played by Sarah Lancashire
Catherine Cawood, played by Sarah Lancashire

Happy Valley is set in an unnamed Yorkshire Valley town but the tone and pace is set early on with the theme tune by Jake Bugg informing us that we are entering a ‘troubled town where trouble is found’.

At the beginning of the first series Cawood learns that a dangerous individual who is responsible for her daughter’s death, Tommy Lee Royce, is on the loose. Played with compelling menace by James Norton, Royce is a butcher. We learn straight away that he is a rapist. This is highlighted early on in a particularly disturbing episode that drew a large amount of complaints for poor taste but was also praised for taking the eroticism out of sexual violence (something which is certainly a feature in a lot of crime drama).

Royce is very quickly shown to be beyond redemption. His supernatural and non-contextualised thirst for evil can feel a bit simplistic, especially when crime drama increasingly tries to muddy the waters in terms of good vs evil. But why should we try to understand Royce? If his character is a representation of the extraordinary amount of violence committed against women by abusive men then he needs to be stopped, not understood. It is Royce’s unhinged violence, and his hatred of women and particularly Cawood (a woman who refuses to be bullied by him), that provides the catalyst to drive the show forward.

Series 2 follows a similar path and even though Royce is in prison he’s still a major threat to Cawood and her family. Violence against women, told without gratuity, is again one the central themes. Dark clouds loom large over the Yorkshire valley once more.

In both series Cawood is the sheriff of Western folklore, upholding law and order in a town made up of Royce, typical crooks and those who look the other way. Without her, chaos would ensue. She is personally entangled in this unhappy valley, even with Tommy Lee Royce, who raped her daughter and caused her suicide.

She is a police officer and a grandmother, a bereaved mother, a sister, a friend and former lover. Embedded with the community but also responsible for its survival. Through Sarah Lancashire’s excellent performance, we are often invited to feel the pain of this great burden that she carries. This is never more apparent than in her responsibility to her grandson, Ryan. Ryan’s mother took her own life, his biological father (Royce) is in prison. Ryan knows his dad is a monster but as he says: ‘he’s still my dad’. From prison, Royce emotionally manipulates his son to try and create divisions at home. Again this is played out with brilliant acting and dialogue which makes it deeply moving, but it also skilfully represents another aspect of domestic abuse that is rarely highlighted.

With all of this it’s naturally impossible not to empathize with Cawood and gun for her wholeheartedly, even if she is a cop. Then again, crime dramas always make you feel some common cause with the police. Even in the greatest of them all, The Wire, this is true. They wouldn’t be much fun if they didn’t. But the best ones always have to acknowledge the rot by having their protagonists facing up to the corruption or worse in the police. They have to swim against the tide, and they also have to be seen doing the stuff we’re told the police are there to do: protect us. You don’t get a drama that asks you to root for the cop who tries to smear the relatives of a boy who has just been murdered by racists (as happened in the Stephen Lawrence case). They’re always fighting bad, in the police and outside.


Happy Valley is no different, and it’s fair to say that the show gives more than just a nod in this direction. with Cawood the only person capable of stopping Royce whilst at the same battling against the worst aspects of the police. Mid-way through the second series, there is a scene where Cawood is talking to two sex workers about an assault that’s just been committed against one of them. The detail contained in the dialogue both about the lives of sex workers and their appalling treatment at the hands of the police is really powerful. It looks like it was very well researched and based on evidence rather than anything else. A scene like this is rare on TV, and should obviously be welcomed. Similarly, there is a revealing bit where Cawood and other women officers are discussing the appalling sexism and harassment in the police, particularly when they start their careers. No doubt it will have resonated with women who have similar experiences at work.

This is Happy Valley at its best, insightful, truthful, engrossing and incredibly well put together. Unfortunately, there are parts of the show that don’t always match this brilliance. The obsessive woman who visits Royce in prison in season 2 and who agrees to act as his proxy for wrongdoing is the unwelcome antithesis of the more layered characterisation in the rest of the show. The same goes for a bitter ex-lover who tries to blackmail a married man and destroy his marriage (the ‘bunny boiler’ cliché lives on!).

Overall Happy Valley is excellent TV. And taken as a wider look at male violence against women and resistance to it, it’s groundbreaking.

Happy Valley series 2 ends this week but is available on iPlayer.


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