Happy Valley: How Sally Wainwright crafted the truly outstanding British drama.

by | Sep 22, 2022 | All, Opinions

Shockingly, I only watched Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley for the first time earlier this year. As incredibly late to the party I was, I’m glad I amended this, as the BBC crime drama encapsulates everything I love about television. As it returns to our screens later this year for its third and final series, after a more than six-year absence, I look at just what makes this show so special, and how it stands out from just about all other crime dramas around.

It’s important to start with the writer, and creator Sally Wainwright. Her debut drama series, At Home With the Braithwaites, focused on the Braithwaite family from Leeds whose life is turned up down when Alison (the family matriarch) wins big on the lottery.  Anyone who watched it now, nearly 22 years on, would be able to spot Sally’s writing. It begins as a family comedy. Alison (Amanda Redman) keeps the existence of the money secret from her family for the majority of the first series. Her husband David (Peter Davidson) is a hapless sap who is cheating on his wife with his secretary and bickers with his teenage daughters over the breakfast table. Virginia, (Sarah Smart) the eldest of the Braithwaite girls is opinionated, speaks her mind and comes out as a lesbian early on. Sally Wainwright would team with Smart again on her 2003 mini-series Sparkhouse which was a modern take on Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and in the short-lived ITV drama Jane Hall. Virginia is an important character in At Home with the Braithwaites, she goes through the most, but she’s also important because she feels like she has lived on outside of the series. There’s always a Virginia type in Wainwright’s work. In Happy Valley, there are shades of her in the rebellious Ann Gallagher (Charlie Murphy) who is a huge disappointment to her millionaire father (George Costigan) who feels like she’s wasted the money he spent on her education. There are parts of her in Sophie Rundle’s ambitious PC Kirsten McAskill. But it is entirely possible that Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) shares the most DNA with Virginia.

Sarah Lancashire shines in series one of Happy Valley which first aired in 2014.

In her job as a sergeant, Catherine is straight-talking and no-nonsense, to both the criminals and her colleagues, but in her personal life, she is still grieving her daughter Becky, who took her own life eight years previously. She is divorced and lives with her sister Clare (Siobhan Finneran), a recovering drug addict and alcoholic, and her grandson Ryan (Rhys Connah) We learn all this as she tells a man, high on drugs threatening to set fire to himself. We meet Catherine when she hurries into a corner shop asking to borrow a fire extinguisher. “He can kill himself but he’s not taking my eyebrows with him”. As the man’s behaviour becomes more erratic, she delivers a speech which is iconic and the perfect way to fill the audience in on the woman at the heart of the show.

I’m Katherine by the way, I’m 47, I’m divorced. I live with my sister, whose a recovering heroin addict. I’ve two grown-up children, one dead, one who doesn’t speak to me and a Grandson so..”

You don’t need to know anything more than that. Right before the opening bars of the theme song, Jake Bugg’s Troubled Town kicks in.  Of course, there’s more to Catherine’s complicated life. Ryan (her eight-year-old Grandson) was born after her daughter Becky was raped. Catherine knows who was responsible, Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton) but he was never convicted of the crime. Her decision to keep Ryan and raise him as her Grandson was one that tore a rift between her and husband Richard (Derek Riddell) and their son Daniel (Karl Davies) who never accepted Ryan as their flesh and blood.

The revelation that Royce has been released from prison, for a separate crime, is troubling for Catherine and sends her on a mission to find him and to get justice for her daughter.

Steve Pemberton’s hapless accountant Kevin sets a chain in motion that he can’t control.

This continuing plot surrounding Catherine and her family is the backbone of the show, but in each series, there is another case which drives the action, particularly the actions of Catherine in her role as a community officer, and also cleverly ties to her personal issues in some way.

Series 1 follows accountant Kevin Weatherill (Steve Pemberton) who, in a desperate attempt to raise funds for his daughter’s schooling, schemes with criminals to kidnap his boss’s daughter Ann and earn the cash from a ransom – one of those criminals being Tommy Lee Royce, fresh out of prison. Although Kevin backs out of the plan, his accomplices continue with it, and the situation quickly spirals out of control.

Steve Pemberton is perfectly cast as Kevin, the man who doesn’t want to do something so drastic but feels pushed into it as he feels hard done by his boss Nevison Gallagher (George Costigan). In the beginning, he’s quite confident that his idea to scare Nevison and get him to unwittingly hand over the money he needs, but he’s soon out of his depth when he hands the job of the kidnap over to Caravan Park owner Ashley (Joe Armstrong) and his errand boys Lewis Whippey (Adam Long) and the properly evil Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton)

James Norton gives a menacing performance as the despicable Tommy Lee-Royce.

Royce is a truly despicable person. Everyone else is framed in a way that you empathise with them. You can see the desperation Kevin feels, even if he goes about getting the money he’s owed in a stupid way. Even Lewis, who is unwittingly drawn in, knows what he’s doing is wrong and is deeply worried when Tommy’s actions go too far. But Tommy, he’s the true villain. He relishes having a defenceless girl in the cellar. He doesn’t need to rape her or get her hooked on drugs but he does it because he can. Nor does he need to brutally murder Catherine’s rookie colleague Kirsten but he does it because he enjoys it.

Happy Valley is a crime drama but it’s not a whodunnit and it’s not a procedural. It is, like all of Sally’s work, a story about people. It’s about what happens when one person makes a decision out of spite or selfishness that sets off a chain of events that they could never foresee or hope to rectify. It is beautifully crafted and constructed; each series has a number of equally compelling threads which often intersect, overlap and influence one another, with the interweaving stories always coming together to reach a thrilling conclusion.

Surrane Jones in 2009’s Unforgiven. This would be the first time the former Coronation Street star would work with Sally Wainwright. They’d work together again on her crime drama Scott & Bailey from 2011 – 2016 and Jones would star as Anne Lister in two series of Gentlemen Jack.

Sally Wainwright’s dramas have always had a tinge of darkness to them. 2009’s Unforgiven saw convicted killer Ruth Slater (Suranne Jones) return to society after being sent to prison at a young age. On the face of it, it was a drama about what it’s like to try and fit in in a world that has moved on without you, but there’s a lot in Unforgiven that feels as if Sally had already started working on the building blocks of what would become Happy Valley. For as much as Unforgiven was about Ruth Slater trying to build a new life, it was also about the people she’d wronged discovering her identity and plotting to have her suffer. In this scenario, Ruth wasn’t even remotely like Tommy, but the family of the men she had killed were still keen that she pay further for her crime. It was, as Happy Valley is, a story about the importance of family ties. The protection that Ruth felt for her younger sister is echoed in the way Catherine feels about Ryan.

ITV’s Scott and Bailey began life as an idea between Surrane Jones and Sally Lindsay. The pair would go on to play sisters in the series. Sally would step away from the series and has spoken about how she struggled with some of the dark subjects the show would cover. In an age obsessed with cops on TV, this was one of the very best.

Sally’s own crime drama Scott & Bailey was a masterpiece too. Balancing light and horrific darkness with humanity and warmth. But we perhaps have her gentlest piece, Last Tango in Halifax to thank for Happy Valley, or at least connecting Sally Wainwright with Sarah Lancashire.  In Last Tango, Lancashire played Caroline, the well-spoken Headteacher of a private school who is taken aback when her elderly mother finds love again online. Lancashire played the role perfectly and it’s a million miles away from the role she would play for Sally next. Again though, there are shades of Catherine in Gillian (Nicola Walker) the daughter of the man Caroline’s mother falls for. She’s gruff, no-nonsense, caring and hiding a dark secret of her own. The bond the two women share throughout the series, though polar opposites, is one of the many things that make Last Tango in Halifax so special.

As Catherine, Sarah Lancashire is simply phenomenal. She has the ability to present both fierce tenacity and immense vulnerability, often within the same episode, sometimes within the same scene, even. By her side is Siobhan Finneran, perhaps one of the most versatile actors in the country, known equally for her dramatic and comedic talent. Clare is often a sounding board for her sister during the series, but her relapse in series 2 is raw and distressing, and Finneran gives a powerhouse performance. Royce is also a heinous villain, yet he is written with care and texture, and James Norton plays him with surprising nuance – whilst viewers root against him and his hideous crimes, you perhaps even sympathise with him for a while after the death of his mum in series 2.

I’m worried I’m repeating myself, but this is truly Sally Wainwright’s masterpiece. It feels like the culmination of all that has come before. There’s the darkness of Scott & Bailey and Unforgiven, with the warmth, cynicism and laugh-out-loud humour of At Home With the Braithwaites and Last Tango in Halifax. 

The dialogue is warm and naturalistic which instantly makes the world of the Calder Valley and Halifax feel lived in. Wainwright also, crucially, always puts character and storytelling first, and never gets carried away with flashy set pieces that distract from this. While there are plenty of thrilling action scenes within the series, there are just as many quiet and poignant moments that are just as effective, with each heightening the impact of the other. The stakes are often as high as can be, yet the show remains grounded and always feels real, with the most difficult of personal and professional dilemmas debated during dinner or discussed with a brew in hand.

Kevin Doyle is incredible as a man on the verge of losing everything when he’s blackmailed by the woman he’s having an affair with.

After the massive success of Series 1, a second was inevitable. It was also perfectly plotted with one of Catherine’s colleagues Detective John Wadsworth (Kevin Doyle) who finds himself in a horrific situation when he attempts to cover up his role in a murder that is being investigated as part of a string of killings – one of which is the beloved mother of Royce. Ann’s promotion to Police Officer after being inspired by Catherine’s heroics in the first series is handled brilliantly as is the side plot with Shirley Henderson’s Frances Drummond who is besotted with Tommy and attempts to get closer to him by posing as TA in Ryan’s school. In many ways, series 2 is bigger. Further exploring the drug epidemic that has gripped the Calder Valley and there are so many strands and plates in the air that Sally Wainwright spins with ease.

Both series of Happy Valley received the BAFTA for Best Drama Series, in 2015 and 2017 respectively, with Wainwright scooping a writing award at the BAFTA Craft Awards on both occasions, and Lancashire earning Best Actress in 2017 – these plaudits speak to the strength of both the writing and the performances in the show.

When we leave the characters at the end of series 2, Royce is still in prison, his phone calls and visits stopped and communication with the outside world temporarily cut off, but he remains hopeful for his future after he receives a handwritten letter from his son, something mum Catherine is unaware of.

The long gap between series 2 and 3 will be reflected in the world of Happy Valley, with the most crucial change being that Ryan will be a teenager. As a child, Rhys Connah was a fantastic actor and I was blown away by his natural and convincing performance in the first two series, but his coming of age lends itself to a deeper and more complex exploration of the character’s relationship with his father. Ryan always showed an interest in getting to know his dad, much to the horror of Catherine, and the final beat of series 2 provided a chilling glimpse of how he may have inherited his father’s violent tendencies. But now aged 16, with more autonomy and the ability to make his own decisions, we will most likely see this dynamic escalate much further – something which has been confirmed by Wainwright, with the time jump a conscious decision on her part.

Catherine has often worried about how much of his father was part of the boy she was raising. His frequent violent outbursts at school could be put down to his struggles with reading, but Catherine knows they could also be the first signs of his father’s violent tendencies presenting themselves. Sally Wainwright has always said she wanted to wait for Ryan (and the actor) to age to tell the final chapter of the story.

We know little about the content of the third series, although the main cast are all set to return once more, and the official synopsis details that Catherine’s discovery of the “remains of a gangland murder victim in a drained reservoir… sparks a chain of events that unwittingly leads her straight back to Tommy Lee Royce”. With Wainwright busy with many other projects, you know that Happy Valley isn’t returning for the sake of it, but because there’s one last important and compelling story to be told. The long gap will have made viewers even more excited for its return, and it’ll have no doubt gained additional fans during its hiatus – including myself. So, we look forward to one final visit to West Yorkshire, for a final instalment of one of the greatest British dramas of its time.

Erin Zammitt

Erin Zammitt


Lover of all things telly, especially all things comedy. Will most likely be found watching Strictly, Corrie or Only Connect – or Stath Lets Flats for the millionth time.


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