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Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Happy Valley: Why Sally Wainwright's crime series is one of 2014's best TV dramas

Last night I sat open-mouthed in shock as I watched the closing moments of Sally Wainwright's crime drama Happy Valley. The episode saw Sarah Lancashire's PC Catherine Cawood finally discover missing Ann Gallagher after four nights of worry for her parents. The thwarted rescue attempt saw the two women escape from the cellar in which Ann was being held only for a blood-stained Catherine to collapse in front of her police car.


Ann's kidnapping was promoted as the primary storyline of Happy Valley and has definitely be the plot that has driven the action along. Steve Pemberton's brilliantly snivelling accountant Kevin initially conceived the plan after being bullied by his boss Nevison (George Costigan) one too many times. Kevin enlisted the help of caravan park owner/local drugs kingpin Ashley (Joe Armstrong) to kidnap Nevison's daughter Ann and then split the money. The quick-witted Ashley soon became the mastermind of the plan and when Kevin wanted to back out it was already too late to do anything about it. Since then Kevin hasn't been able to keep the secret to himself and has informed his wheelchair-bound wife Jenny (Julia Ford) about the kidnapping plot. In one of the show's best twists,  Jenny convinces Kevin not to hand himself in but rather to remove all trace of himself from the plot so if anything goes wrong he's in the clear. However this is easier said than done primarily because Ashley gets Nevison to send Kevin to drop off the various ransom payments. In turn Ashley has insisted that Kevin take some money for himself, which would further implicate him in the plot. Once again Jenny's quick-thinking comes into play as she tells Kevin they should keep the money despite her knowing exactly where it's come from.


Even though the early trailers suggested to me that Happy Valley would all be about the kidnapping, Wainwright has made most of the series about Catherine herself. In particular Catherine's efforts are focused on tracking down Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), who has just got out of prison after seven years. The reason for this is that Catherine feels that Royce is responsible for the death of her daughter, who committed suicide after she was raped by Tommy and fell pregnant. Catherine's decision to raise baby Ryan ultimately ended her marriage to Richard (Derek Riddell) who felt that he couldn't stand to be around the youngster who reminded him of his daughter. The two plots become intertwined when Tommy is revealed to be one of the heavies hired employed by Ashley to watch over the now kidnapped Ann (Charlie Murphy). Tommy is instantly portrayed as a violent thug as he abuses a bound and gagged Ann much to the horror of his co-conspirators. Tommy's brutality was exposed in all its glory during the perfectly filmed opening sequence of episode three in which he murders Catherine's protégé  Kirsten (Sophie Rundle). The murder itself had nothing to do with the kidnapping but Kirsten was in the wrong place at the wrong time, pulling over the kidnappers' van which had a broken tail-light. Tommy's assault on Kirsten was unflinchingly brutal as he rammed her several times with his car before she dropped to the floor.

Although Catherine is unaware of Tommy's involvement in Kirsten's death, the fourth episode saw the two come face-to-face for the first time. This was primarily due to Catherine's visit to Tommy's mother Lynn (Caroline O'Neill) after she suspected he had something to do with the kidnapping. By introducing us to the drink and drug-addled Lynn, Wainwright at least explained to some extent why Tommy had turned out the way he had. In addition, Lynn revealed that she'd heard on the grapevine that Ryan was Tommy's son, a fact that she later passed on to her own son. The look on Tommy's face when he found out he had a son was the first bit of human emotion he'd displayed throughout the entire series. He looked similarly dejected when he discovered that Catherine's daughter had died and he couldn't understand why. For the first time, Wainwright really put some doubt into my head about whether Ryan did indeed rape Catherine's daughter as he appeared to believe that they were in a proper relationship. Obviously all these thoughts about Tommy turning over a new leaf quickly vanished after witnessing his physical assault to Catherine. Wainwright, who also directed the most recent episode, didn't hold back during this incredibly disturbing sequence.

As you can see the title Happy Valley really doesn't describe the tone of the story and instead refers to the high amount of drug abuse that occurs in the town where the action is set. Wainwright's exploration of the drug-related crimes in the Calder Valley started right in the opening scene as Catherine was forced to stop a drugged-up youngster from setting himself on fire. In these scenes, Wainwright really gives us a sense of the desperation that a lot of these youngsters suffer especially those who get addicted to drugs. On the other side she demonstrates how some profit from the drugs trade, most notably Ashley who has been able to set up a caravan park as a result of his ill-gotten gains. But it's not just the commoners who are hooked on drugs as Catherine soon discovers a packet of white powder in the car of  local councillor Marcus Gascoigne. Unfortunately for her, her supervisors make sure that the case doesn't go any further as Marcus has a lot of influence in the police force and soon there's insufficient evidence to charge him with possession. I have to say I'm really intrigued to see where this story will lead as it is almost playing out separately from the rest of the action.

Once again Sally Wainwright has assembled a magnificent cast for Happy Valley which is led by the wonderful Sarah Lancashire. Lancashire's performance as Catherine has been wonderfully moving from the first episode as she is able to demonstrate both the toughness and vulnerability of her character in equal measure. Lancashire really makes you sympathise with Catherine, especially in the quieter moments when she reflects on the death of her daughter and the way her family has been fractured as a result. In a llesser actress’s hands the moments in which Catherine sees her daughter's dead body could come off as a bit cheesy, but Lancashire more than makes it work. Best known for his comedy work, Steve Pemberton's casting as the weasel-like Kevin has been a revelation and I find he's totally believable as the downtrodden middle-management type. So his character never seems too over-the-top, Pemberton has been used sparingly but throughout the show I never felt like I was watching one third of the League of Gentlemen. As the detestable Tommy, James Norton has really done well at making his character as vicious as possible. I don't think there's one member of the audience who doesn't completely hate Tommy for his actions and that's a testament to Norton as much as it is Wainwright. If I had one criticism of the drama it's that we don't see enough of the superb Siobhan Finneran as Catherine's recovering drug addict sister. Whilst Finneran is always brilliant whenever she's on screen, I feel like she's more there as somebody Catherine can talk to rather than a character in her own right. I personally would like to see Claire's past addiction explored in more detail, but then again Wainwright can only tell so many stories at once.

Part of my shock at the way Happy Valley ended last night was due to the fact that I didn't think these scenes would air for at least another week. The fact that Catherine has already located Ann makes me wonder what the final two episodes will be about. Obviously it would be great if all of the show's villains would get their comeuppance and that Richard and Catherine would finally be reconciled. But Happy Valley doesn't seem like a series that's particularly bothered about giving its audience a happy ending and that's one of the reasons I like it. I'm just hoping that the conclusion is at least satisfying as if it weren't then it would spoil what is currently Wainwright's most accomplished TV drama to date.

Happy Valley Continues Tuesday's at 9.00pm on BBC ONE.

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