I’m not certain why it is that I started watching Happy Valley. I knew that it was written by Sally Wrainwright, who most recently had written two series of Last Tango in Halifax. Except that I’ve not watched that series (something I may be correcting fairly soon).
It starred Sarah Lancashire, an actress who I’ve come across, but not been especially excited about ever. Indeed, I thought, mistakenly, that she’d won her fame in Coronation Street. But that’s not true.
But a brief sitdown with Bill and company on the BBC Breakfast sofa persuaded me that I should watch and from the first scene in which Lancashire’s police sergeant Catherine Cawood has to deal with someone threatening to set fire to themselves in a kids’ playground, I was hooked.
Happy Valley is easily the best thing on television at the moment, and it airs its final episode tonight.
Saying that I “enjoy” the series is a bit misleading, because it’s grim up north. The West Yorkshire town it’s set in seems to have a pretty nasty drugs problem, and in general a lot of ne’er do wells. Cawood deals with them in her stride. But, initially at least, we also follow a few other characters and their stories.
There’s Kevin Wetherill (Steve Pemberton), an accountant in a local firm who believes his boss, Nevison Gallagher (George Costigan) is being unfair in not giving him a rise so that he can afford to send his kids to a nicer school than the local comprehensive. So, in a fit of pique as much as anything, he dreams up a plot to kidnap his boss’s daughter.
Then there’s Ashley Cowgill (Joe Armstrong), a local caravan park owner who’s really dealing in drugs. He employs some dodgy characters – notably Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), who’s just been released from prison. Cawood blames him for causing her daughter to commit suicide following what she suspects was a rape that left her daughter pregnant with the son she now brings up.
The broader cast are all really good. I believe a certain number have graduated from soaps, but there’s the right amount of experience and freshness that means everyone’s on the top of their game.
At first the plot was a little disparate, but as the episodes passed, the strands tied together, and you ended up with a very nasty little thriller that is just beautifully written, directed and performed.
It’s hard to say exactly why I think it’s worked so well. But I think the characterisation is simply superb. Everyone feels real, and have real conversations with one another. It’s not just about pushing the plot forward, but giving the characters time to breathe.
And despite lots of events happening, the obvious tropes aren’t followed through. Any character who has an affair with another character in most dramas tends to get found out. Here we have Cawood sleeping with her ex, even though he now has a new partner, and in the end they just both put it down to a mistake.
Cawood’s sister is an ex addict, and in far too many dramas, that would lead to some kind of scene in which she falls back into the old ways. Something would “push her over the edge.”
There is the much quoted Chekov:
“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
But too much television follows that rule religiously. We’ve seen too many productions. We know how it works now. Yet real life doesn’t work like that, and if you’re trying to produce true characterisations, we’re going to be given information that really is surplus to requirement and doesn’t drive the narrative forward.
And it’s that characterisation that I like about this programme. Another example. Cawood drives her car around a fair bit, and since she’s mostly on her own in the car, she has conversations over the police radio about the usual kind of office tittle tattle. It’s meaningless, but it’s an accurate reflection of what most workplaces are like. And the petty bureaucracy is revealed too.
Stories unfold rather than in big exposition dumps. You slowly learn about backstories. That said, that initial scene I mentioned above, does cleverly incorporate a great deal of exposition hidden inside a little speech from the forthright Cawood.
The other thing about the programme is that you’re never entirely sure what direction it’s headed in. Will the criminals’ plans work, or go awry?
Even the credit sequences and Jake Bugg sung theme add to it all.
Is it all believable? Probably not. When a certain event happens, it’s rare enough that I believe the whole of West Yorkshire would be knee deep in police dragged in from miles around. And I suspect that if a dangerous criminal is on the loose, the police would be forced to pair up at the very least.
But these are niggles really.
The obvious comparison would be Broadchurch, a series that got much more broadsheet coverage than this. Another small community; another ghastly crime. We know who the criminals are here, but we don’t know how it’ll be resolved. And because just about anything could happen, I’ll be glued to my sofa tonight to see…