TV Review: Happy Valley

“Why would he do something like that? We’ve got caravans, we’ve got a games room that caters for people in wheelchairs”

My favourite thing about Happy Valley is actually the association the title has for me and my family – it was the name of the Chinese takeaway opposite my Aunty Jean’s house where we’d often get our Saturday tea. It’s a lovely fond memory that sits rather at odds with the realities of this recent TV series which I finally caught up with and which reunites what looks like becoming one of the best creative partnerships we have in the country – writer Sally Wainwright and actor Sarah Lancashire. Baftas all around I shouldn’t wonder.

The location may be similar to the rather more bucolic Last Tango in Halifax – Happy Valley is set in nearby Hebden Bridge – but we’re in a much grittier world of suburban disillusionment as this police drama takes in kidnap, rape and murder, all underscored by the pervasive influence of a spiralling drugs problem throughout the town. Wainwright being a more sophisticated writer than most though, ensures that her drama takes in the full breadth of the experience, examining the aftermath of the crimes just as much as the deeds themselves.

Lancashire takes on Sergeant Catherine Cawood, a woman whose drive repels just as much as it inspires confidence. She is raising her grandson after the suicide of her daughter but the circumstances of her death are brought rushing back to the surface when the man she holds responsible for raping her and leaving her pregnant and depressed, is released from prison (on another charge). But that is just the beginning of the main plot in which a petty revenge ploy snowballed into something horrifically damaging with the kidnap of a local businessman’s daughter.

Wainwright never shirks away from the violence of this story and it is often brutally displayed as local criminals come up hard against the over-stretched rural police force and there’s a horrendously convincing inevitably to the way in which things spiral out of control, one wrong decision sending otherwise halfway decent people irretrievably down the wrong path. And this ambiguity extends to everyone – Catherine’s family was shattered by her daughter’s death and still hasn’t really recovered, the painstaking process of reconciliation stop-starting throughout.

These family relationships are genuinely fantastic: recovering addict sister Claire is brilliantly matter-of-factly played by Siobhan Finneran; the always strong Derek Riddell is sharply observed as the husband who divorced Catherine in her despair and won’t acknowledge his grandson, trying to feel his way back into what he really wants; and Rhys Connah is petulance personified as the wee kid Ryan who only know how to act out. Throw in a masterful scary/sexy performance from James Norton as the returned bad’un, Steve Pemberton’s hapless would-be revenger and Joe Armstrong’s nifty fixer, it’s all really very good. Highly recommended.

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