The last episode of the six-part television series Happy Valley was broadcast yesterday evening. I’ve sat, rapt, through every one of them. I know it has received many plaudits in the national press, including a two-page article in The Times last week (which I haven’t read as I didn’t want it to colour my own effort in this post), but I so enjoyed it and was so moved by it that I’d like to add my two-penn’orth.
It’s one of the best TV series I’ve seen for a long time and, for me, certainly the best crime programme since The Bridge, but it is about much more than crime. It is about a whole community and its ills (and successes) and also about the strengths and frailties of human nature and how some people manage to survive knock-backs and adversity in life, while others are completely corrupted or destroyed by them. On top of this, it is by turns funny, ironical and topical; the dialogue sparkles and the drama is set in my adopted county of Yorkshire (actually in the Hebden Bridge valley, original home of Ted Hughes and close by the place where Sylvia Plath is buried). What more could I want?
An early review I did read said that Sarah Lancashire, as Catherine Cawood, carries the whole thing ‘on her broad shoulders’. Lancashire is superb – I’ll come back to her later – but I don’t think that this is a fair assessment. James Norton gives a brilliantly disturbing performance as the psychopath Tommy Lee Royce – in last night’s closing scenes, especially, we saw the damaged and frightened character behind his dangerously unpredictable behaviour. Siobhan Fineran is always delightful to watch: as Claire, Catherine’s originally wayward, then much stronger, sister, she uses her fine and subtle acting talent to feel her way tentatively to support Catherine as the latter suffers temporary moral disintegration following her beating by Royce. Their roles are reversed, but not in too obvious a way – Catherine still comes back strongly sometimes, even when she appears to be at her weakest, and Claire’s new-found confidence is easily knocked.
Other memorable performances are given by Steve Pemberton, as Kevin Weatherill – he’s a descendant of Uriah Heep, sycophantic, toadying, pusillanimous and with a heart full of envy and hatred, made the more repugnant by his whining self-justification – and Rhys Connor, who is impressively consistent in his portrayal of Ryan Cawood, the vulnerable but not likeable product of the rape of Catherine’s deceased daughter, Becky, by Royce.
But I have to agree that, even though it is not the only good performance, Sarah Lancashire’s is the greatest. It must surely win an award. When I look back on two of her recent performances, as the outwardly perfect, inwardly troubled Caroline in Last Tango in Halifax and this one as Catherine Cawood, I wonder where she has been all my (albeit very selective) viewing life. She has enormous talent, as her creation of these two quite different roles proves. Catherine is much more of a rough diamond than Caroline, yet at times the small town police sergeant looks poised and beautiful, at times as washed out, dull and haggard as a drug addict. The moral dilemmas and dichotomies which lie at the heart of the story are almost all filtered through Catherine’s character in some way – her daughter’s rape and suicide, the birth of the unwanted Ryan, the murder of the young policewoman (Sophie Rundle), the kidnapping and rape of Ann Gallagher (Charlie Murphy), also by Royce, which echoes his assault on Becky, Catherine’s son’s alienation and the break-up of her marriage following Becky’s death.
Most of these dilemmas are presented in a straightforward way until the last episode, when it is suggested that Becky brought at least some of her misfortunes on herself; that Kevin Weatherill would never have suggested the kidnapping if his boss Nevinson Gallagher (George Costigan) had been more generous when he requested a pay-rise; and that Catherine’s distress at the death of her daughter and subsequent belief that she was obliged to care for Ryan actually caused her to destroy what was left of her own family. The viewer rejects some of these alternative scenarios (e.g., the Weatherill / Gallagher one) immediately; others leave a strong sense of the ambiguous nature of how best to love or to behave that cannot be resolved.
The author of Happy Valley is Sally Wainwright. She also wrote Last Tango in Halifax. She is to be congratulated on the subtlety, distinction and fine irony of her work and also for the golden author / actor relationship that she has established with Sarah Lancashire. I hope that more extraordinary dramas will result from this exceptional partnership.