June 2014 – Review Of Happy Valley by Sally Wainwright

‘Happy Valley’ by Sally Wainwright on BBC1

This terrific drama series has just completed its run-on BBC1 and has won both plaudits and condemnation for its graphic portrayal of violence women and indeed it has been harrowing stuff. Many have compared it to last years ‘Broadchurch’ on ITV and what it shares in common is the setting of a relatively small community and the concentration on character.

‘Broadchurch’ followed the pattern of a ‘whodunit’ and did not reveal the killer until the final episode whereas Happy Valley was about the plan to commit a crime and its terrible aftermath and consequences. What they share in common is a much more sophisticated depiction of the psychology of the protagonists and their responses to their circumstances. I loved them both, if love is the right word because after each episode I felt like I’d been put through an an emotional mangle. However, I think ‘Happy Valley’ has raised questions on a wider level than ‘Broadchurch’.

Sally Wainwright has a proven track record in television and drama and the Royal Television Society awarded her writer of the year for ‘Unforgiven’. To call her a feminist writer may pigeon hole her but she has always written terrific parts for women and for interesting women. She started her career writing for the northern soaps and this is reflected in the casting of her serial dramas as they often feature ex soap actresses/actors. Most notably Suranne Jones in Scott and Bailey and Sarah Lancashire in ‘Last Tango in Halifax’ and now in ‘Happy Valley’. ‘Happy Valley’ is the darkest of her dramas to date and it does seem to be a progression from Scott and Bailey which contained very dark themes in its last series to date.

My personal test for the quality of a drama is if I begin wondering about the characters before the action and how they arrived at where they were. I have done this in spades with ‘Happy Valley’ and perhaps this is not surprising because the past haunts every character in ‘Happy Valley’. One thing can be said for sure is that ‘Happy Valley’, in reality Hebden Bridge, is not happy. In many ways the town is a metaphor for de-industrialised north in post Thatcher Britain. High unemployment, high levels of drug abuse and a sharp distinction between the haves and have nots. On the one hand there are nice coffee shops and cafés and the squalor of sink estates that are desensitised to drug abuse and casual violence.

How history haunts the characters is gradually introduced and the character of Sgt Cawood played by Sarah Lancashire launches this in the opening sequence which is both comical and grim. A young man is threatening to set fire to himself and Cawood tells him she is divorced, looks after her grandson, doesn’t speak to her son, her daughter killed herself and she lives with her recovering heroin addict sister. Obviously this sets the scene neatly but it also gives the key to the whole series. I am trying not to give away too much plot for those who haven’t seen it. The premise for Cawood is that her daughter was raped by a young man called Tommy Lee Royce who was never charged, but was imprisoned for another crime. Her daughter became pregnant and killed herself days after giving birth to the rapist’s child. She learns that he has now been released and is back in the community. Her grandson who she takes care of is the product of her daughter’s rape. The whole family is haunted by the rape and the grandson, Ryan for some in the family, is representative of this terrible event. Ryan being brought up by his grandmother has caused major rifts in the family including her divorce and an estrangement between her and her son. Ryan is portrayed as a troubled child and possibly leads the audience to believe that it is in his nature to be like his father.

The other historical event which leads to the setting in motion a terrible set of events is the belief by accountant Kevin Weatherill that his father was cheated out of the partnership in Nevison Gallagher’s firm. Weatherill is played by Steve Pemberton in a very creepy performance that echoes his roles in The League of Gentlemen. Weatherill is so eaten up with envy that it confirms Melanie Klein’s view of its murderous nature.

The rapist Tommy Lee Royce played by James Norton, Weatherill and Cawood are brought together for a shocking and terrifying string of events. This is drama and is almost Greek in its unfolding and although in performance it is gritty realism the plot is there to serve a greater point than realism. The acting in the series is exemplary and I’m sure there will be many nominations next year at the BAFTAs. However, I must single out Sarah Lancashire and James Norton who were mesmerising. The casting of Norton is daring because he is disturbingly sexy as well as terrifying. His history is slowly revealed and firstly by him visiting his alcohol and drug ridden mother who both hates and is terrified of him. There is an extraordinary scene in the final episode where we get a glimpse of why he has turned out the way he is. One feels something akin to compassion for him in this scene despite the terrible things he has done and controversially right in front of our eyes. I worked with several men in the NHS who had a history of violence and without exception they were all fragile and damaged. I am not making excuses for them or Tommy Lee Royce or that all violent men are damaged and should be pitied rather than blamed. It does, however, give weight to the psychoanalytic endeavour that the key to the present lies in the past. Tommy Lee Royce is the terrible bogey man of our worst possible nightmare but he was once a child who was terribly damaged. It is a strength of the series that I have been left wondering what happened to him as a child.

The series was full of instances of how a chance remark can lead to terrible consequences and most shockingly when Cawood’s son in a drunken outburst at her birthday party reminds her that she said to him after the suicide of her daughter, ‘it should have been you’. Until this point the dead daughter is presumed to have been a random victim. In the family she was the problem child and, is often the case, her sibling decided to be ‘good’ but got no recognition for it. Cawood has clearly forgotten she said this to her son and her later response is I’m so sorry but people say terrible things when they’re grieving. This in my experience is sadly true.

The violence towards women, and indeed men, in this series was truly horrible but I do not think it was gratuitous. It made a terrible point about how the ravages of a community in decline and sunk into nihilism becomes casual about violence and even jokes about it. It is a horrible perversion of desperate times need desperate measures. As with Greek tragedy we watch as the fates conspire to bring about the inevitable ending. One asks oneself, ‘How did they ever think they could get way with it?’ Sadly, this happens too often but thankfully in not such a terrible way. Perhaps, Tommy Lee Royce, who is actively suicidal by the end, has always been on a ‘suicide mission’.

This has been a wonderful series and restores the BBC’s reputation for producing challenging drama. It also moves Wainwright from her previously more cozy output into a serious force to be reckoned with. My only carp is that there is talk of a second series. I hope they don’t as this beautifully crafted piece of drama would inevitably turn into another ‘cop show’. Let it remain as it is; a tribute to the writing, acting and producing skills of our television industry at its best!

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