It was 2014 when the first series of six episodes of a television show named Happy Valley made in England, arrived in Australia. Based on the title, we couldn’t really be blamed for expecting it to be something personable and pastoral emanating from that so-called green and pleasant land, the place where many of our own ancestors were born.
“Would to God that all the Lord’s people were Prophets”* How wrong could we be!
Happy Valley won the BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Awards) for the Best Drama Series, 2015. A dramatic tour de force written and created by award winning playwright Sally Wainwright, the series featured award-winning BAFTA nominated actor Sarah Lancashire as Policewoman Catherine Cawood, a formidable force to be reckoned with.
Her Happy Valley is a harsh world, one inhabited by people struggling to survive the many and varied vicissitudes of life, the dramatic performances of nature, and even more horrific, the appalling daily crimes committed by people we would certainly like to expel from the human race.
Please don’t read any more if you don’t want any spoilers.
Filmed on location in the Calder Valley, West Yorkshire, Happy Valley with its cheerless streets and veiled levels of pride and prejudice proved it’s definitely grim up north. Happy Valley is certainly as far away from what anyone’s idea of a Utopia would be; abductions, drug fuelled violence and horrendous, brutal, dehumanizing murderous acts.
We were introduced to Policewoman Catherine Cawood as she was trying to talk down a drug addicted young man in a playground, threatening to set himself on fire. My name is Catherine, she says – by the way, I am 47, I am divorced and I live with my sister who is a recovering heroin addict… I have two children, one dead, one I don’t speak to any more and a grandson… It’s complicated, so let’s talk about you instead.
Sarah Lancashire already had a huge following in the UK going into this from her appearances in popular British TV Series including Coronation Street, The Paradise and the bittersweet romance, Last Tango in Halifax.
It swelled even more after this, as she proved herself a character actor par excellence. She also has a stunning support cast, including BAFTA nominated actor James Norton (Grantchester), rumoured to be in the running to become the next James Bond. He’s no action hero here though.
He is the murderous villain Tommy Lee Royce, who having inflicted horrific trauma and suffering on others, found himself persistently hunted by the tough but empathetic Catherine, although in this instance, nearly at the expense of her own life.
The final three episodes of that first series were harrowing for everyone especially when he was holding Ryan hostage on his boat threatening to kill them both; it took weeks to recover afterwards.
But the show had the nation hooked and critics asking should they be?
When it ended, Catherine was left looking down over the valley she calls home, having ensured Tommy Lee Royce was behind bars and that Ryan was safe.
The much-anticipated awaited second series has a time line of being some eighteen months later, when Catherine has also had the time to come to terms with all that happened
The truly evil Tommy is wallowing away in prison, where Catherine can but only hope they will throw away the key to his cell. However, like most prisoners today, he is allowed privileges, guided by his allocated prison guards who are as polite as they can be, as they usher in his visitors from the outside.
As we soon find out, this includes at least one vulnerable woman Frances Drummond (Shirley Henderson). He is grooming her from behind bars, to carry forward his legacy of revenge by inflicting pain and death, in one form or another. You can feel the shiver running down your spine as you contemplate the consequences.
Tommy’s anger is especially aimed at Catherine, who brought him undone, and her family are the targets. This is despite Catherine’s grandchild Ryan being his son.
Ryan was born innocently into the world in the aftermath of Tommy raping her only child and daughter Rebecca, who committed suicide; such was the weight of her own suffering, six weeks after giving birth to a son.
In the second series of Happy Valley Ryan is now ten years old and living with his grandmother in the bosom of her loving family which includes her damaged sister Clare (Siobhan Finnernan), Clare’s new boyfriend Neil Ackroyd (Con O’Neill) and now including Catherine’s son Daniel (Karl Davies).
Ryan’s behaviour reveals he’s going through a difficult stage, with memories of the man who told him he was his dad, fading but still there. The series of six episodes opens with Catherine on a hunt for sheep-rustlers, when she stumbles upon a gruesome find.
The body of a woman, whose assault injuries are similar to others who have been found in the past few months, suggesting there is a new serial killer on the loose hunting prostitutes.
She’s suffered a death Catherine would certainly not want to inflict on anyone, even her enemies, which turns out to be the case when Catherine realises she knows the victim; it’s Tommy Lee Royce’s mother.
Warned off the investigation because she had told her to keep away from her grandson, she has to let her colleagues run with it because she’s now also a suspect, at least until her name can be cleared.
Ann Gallagher, the victim Catherine saved in Series One when Tommy kidnapped her, now joins the police force. Episode 1 opens on her first day on the job and based on past experiences, Catherine wants to keep a watchful eye on her progress. Tommy also violently killed the last young recruit she was mentoring, so she’s especially careful, because she wants to keep her safe.
These six episodes did not nearly seem as traumatic as the first six, but nonetheless, this highly anticipated second series reaches its own pinnacle of dramatic excellence.
The action builds slowly and surely and instead of following one main storyline like last time, this time we are given a central narrative to follow that has several interlocking stories, which includes one of the Detectives in Catherine’s own station, as a murderer, a serial killer on the loose and Ryan being stalked.
Catherine and Clare are jointly involved in raising Ryan, and despite their many difficulties, they seem to be doing a good job, until a birthday present they didn’t organise for him, is left on the doorstep and creates all sorts of trouble.
Sally Wainwright provides us with a great deal more character development in this series, so we get to know the strengths and frailties of the myriad of characters involved. This is a different Catherine too, it’s a case of older and wiser.
She went through a lot in the first series and has taken many lessons on board and while is still acting on her initiative, instead of charging in head first without waiting for back up, in some instances, now she takes the time to allow her colleagues to catch up, and for some, takes the lead.
The deviousness of Frances Drummond, who takes on the identity of her dead sister to become an assistant teacher at Ryan’s school so that she can psychologically influence him to think a lot more about Tommy as his father, is chilling to say the least.
My blood literally froze when Catherine passed her delusional nemesis in the entrance doorway to the school, as she goes to ask the Headmistress for her co-operation.
James Norton is once again chillingly credible in the role of Tommy Lee Royce, who thankfully is not coming out of prison any time soon. All the women we find out he has in the course of his recruiting behaviour, that he has also become engaged to, will thankfully be barred from seeing him again.
There is no doubt Catherine is hoping that in the case of Ryan, that she can prove that nurture will be stronger than nature after all.
We are left out here cheering in the bleachers, well I know I was, again, an amazing performance by Sarah Lancashire. We are left in the final frames with her watching a young Ryan skip up a grassy slope that overlooks Happy Valley in front of her, wondering herself if nurture will win out over nature after all.
Only time will tell.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016
“Would to God that all the Lords people were Prophets” – Numbers XI.ch 29.v
A quote written by William Black beneath his poem “And did those feet in ancient time” set to music as a quintessential English hymn and more commonly known today as the anthem ‘Jerusalem’ with music by Sir Hubert Parry 1916.