Matt on the Box: Happy Valley, One Child, Life and Death Row and Cuckoo

by | Feb 19, 2016 | All, Reviews

Apologies for leaving you in the lurch guys but, aside from one big return, there was very little to talk about in terms of TV highlights. But thankfully this week has given me enough to talk about and we’ll start with that aforementioned big return.

Of course the returning show is the brilliant Happy Valley, the second series of which is in full swing having already aired its first two episodes. Just like all fans of the first series I was sceptical when this second run was announced primarily as it seemed like all of the storylines had been wrapped up. But I had faith that Sally Wainwright knew exactly what she wanted to do with the formidable Sergeant Catherine Cawood next and thankfully this faith wasn’t misplaced. In fact I was surprised how quick it took to become utterly transported back into Catherine’s world and I would attribute this mainly to Wainwright’s dialogue. She’s one of the only writers I know who can make a seemingly trivial story about sheep wrangling the impetus for the discovery of a decaying body and an investigation into a murder. It’s this investigation that sees Catherine (Sarah Lancashire) relive the horrors of the first series after its revealed the mutilated body belonged to Tommy Lee Royce’s mother Lynne Dewhurst. As Catherine had recently left Lynne several threatening text messages, she is viewed as a potential suspect in the murder and is asked to provide an alibi for the night in question. However it soon becomes evident that Lynne’s murder is part of a bigger investigation into a serial killer which itself plays into the bigger story about corruption in the Calder Valley which was one of the most intriguing elements of series one. This theme continues into the second episode as Catherine discovers several illegal immigrants and is able to get one rehoused with her elderly Eastern European neighbour. Soon enough the rescued girl is testifying about the so-called Halifax Mafia and this signifies to me that Wainwright’s aim is to make this series not just about Catherine’s life but the life of everyone living in the valley. 

One of Wainwright’s biggest strengths is the way in which she can keep multiple narratives playing opposite one another with none of them ever feeling less important. Additionally she’s able to introduce characters who may not initially have a big impact on the story but who you know will be important later on. A great example of this is Sean Balmforth (Matthew Lewis), one of Nevison Gallagher’s drivers who has a reputation for being uncouth and is fired as a result. Sean pops up a couple of times in the first couple of episodes and it’s clear that he’s involved in something but Wainwright ramps up the mystery by not giving us all the answers straight away. One new character’s motives who are clear from the get-go are those of mousy teaching assistant Frances Drummond (Shirley Henderson) who has been corresponding with the evil Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton) in prison. It appears as if Royce has been seeking revenge against Catherine since last time we saw them and the murder of his mother is even more motivation for him to strike back. His plan seems to involve implanting Frances in his son Ryan’s school and gradually garnering his trust before presumably trying to reunite him with his father. Whilst I’m willing to believe how easy it was for Tommy to manipulate Frances I do feel that the schools in the Calder Valley may need to conduct a more thorough CRB check before employing new members of staff. Another element of this new series that I’m enjoying is the fact that Catherine’s sister Claire (Siobhan Finneran) is being given more to do. One of my only issues with the last series was that Claire was more of a background player acting as her sister’s shoulder to cry on and little else. However it seems that Wainwright wants to rectify this by giving Claire a new romance with former classmate Neil (Con O’Neill) as well as seeing her potentially relapse into alcoholism. 

It seems very hard to criticise any element of the new series of Happy Valley but if there’s one thing that hasn’t caught me quite yet then it’s the Fatal Attraction-esque plot involving Detective John Wandsworth (Kevin Doyle) and his mistress Vicky (Amelia Bullmore). This is due to the fact that it’s the only one of the many plot threads that doesn’t particularly run true with both characters disconnected from the main plot. Although John is one of the investigating officers on the case, his problems with Vicky feel a bit over-the-top at times especially after she starts blackmailing him. That being said the conclusion of the second episode suggests that the story is going in a different direction and also there’s a chance that John’s problems with Vicky could actually connect him to Neil in some way. But John’s storyline is only a small part of what was on the whole a successful continuation of Happy Valley and I’m really glad that the drama is back on form. Aside from Wainwright’s fantastic script and character development there are several elements that make Happy Valley shine so brightly. First off there’s the superb cinematography which makes the area of the Calder Valley become a character in and of itself. Then there’s the performances by the ensemble cast all of whom are so good its hard to single just a few of them out. Obviously Sarah Lancashire is on form once again and she gives her absolute all into making the audience wholly sympathise with Catherine’s various dilemmas. Siobhan Finneran is similarly excellent especially when she gets to explore the darker side of Claire’s character towards the end of episode two. It’s also great to see James Norton back as the now vengeful Royce as he gives a simmering turn as the jailed psychopath who is eagerly plotting Catherine’s downfall. Wainwright herself deserves more praise for not only writing the episode but directing it as well which enforces the fact that she can do little wrong. Overall I’m overjoyed that Happy Valley has retained the quality of series one and hasn’t gone the same way as Broadchurch series two did. I’ve now got my fingers crossed that the payoff of this second series is as good as the one we got after the first run but after what I saw over these first two instalments I have faith in Wainwright to tell a believable and compelling story.

This week’s other new drama was One Child, I do use the world new lightly as Guy Hibbert’s three-parter has actually been ready to go since 2014. In fact the drama has already been available to stream on the American version of Netflix before finally get an airing as part of BBC Two’s China Season. The trailers for the China Season seem to reflect an image of a culturally diverse country however that’s not the image of the country we receive in One Child. Instead it is a world in which an innocent bystander can be sentenced to death for a murder committed by a youngster related both to a powerful businessman and the chief of police. One Child is told from the perspective of Mei (Katie Leung) a Chinese-born student who was adopted by an English father and American mother and raised in the UK. At the start of the drama Mei is informed that her birth mother wants to meet her and is also informed that her biological brother has indeed been arrested for a murder he didn’t commit. From there it’s not long before Mei arrives in China and is escorted around the local area by a journalist who is part of a group hoping to get justice for people in her brother’s position. I went into One Child really wanting to like partially as I’d been a big fan of Hibbert’s previous works Complicit and Blood and Oil. However I found myself not really getting invested in either Mei’s predicament or that of her brother’s and I think that’s because Hibbert never really lets us get to know his protagonist. In fact the first time we see Mei she’s receiving the message from the journalist which is the catalyst for what happens throughout the rest of the episode. I personally would’ve like to have seen a couple of scenes from Mei’s life prior to her receiving the message as I think a bit of background about the character would’ve made me care about her more. I was also disappointed by Hibbert’s script as the characters almost exclusively conversed in exposition and therefore most of them came across as one-dimensional. On the plus side I found the cinematography to be great with China becoming one of the most predominant characters in the drama. Furthermore I felt that Katie Leung did a good job with what she was given and I’d like to see her in a drama that better showcased her skills. Unfortunately One Child was not that drama and instead I found it to be a forgettable series with a weak script and characters that were very hard to care about.

This week’s biggest TV story has to be the fact that BBC Three has finally made the move from linear TV channel to online only broadcaster. The channel are adamant that they are going to keep offering the same quality of programme and initially have lived up to their word by recommissioning two of their biggest hits from the last few years. First up we had emotionally-charged documentary series Life and Death Row which charts the course of young adults who have been sentenced to execution. Rather unusually instead of protesting his sentence the subject of the first episode, Daniel Lee-Lopez, is hoping to hurry along the process so he can be given the lethal injection as soon as possible. Daniel had been charged with the murder of a police officer after running over an officer who was putting up some spikes on the road to slow him down whilst he was involved in a high speed chase. There was a lot of debate over whether Daniel intentionally swerved into the path of Officer Daniels or whether he just couldn’t see where he was going. However it was clear from the outset that Daniel did want to spend the rest of his life in prison and felt death was his punishment for the hurt he’d caused. The programme heard from many people along the way who were both sympathetic to Daniel’s decision and those who wanted to talk him out of it. There was his lawyer who was hoping to prove that he wasn’t in his right mind and the mother of one of his seven children who wanted him to be there to see his daughter grow up. On the other hand we heard from Daniel’s godmothers who’d reconciled themselves to his decision and were two of the most interesting characters in the programme. I found this episode of Life and Death Row to be particularly thought-provoking as it raised the question whether Daniel should actually have been found guilty in the first place and whether he had the right to want to be executed. Daniel was an eloquent young man who had seemingly come to peace with his decision even though everyone around him was trying to change his mind. However I found the most compelling character to be the dead Police Officer’s widow Vicky Alexander whose meeting with other widows in a similar position to hers was incredibly eye-opening. The final scenes, which showed the people we’d met leaving the execution, was utterly heartbreaking as was hearing Vicky’s accounts of the day. I personally felt this was one of the best TV documentaries I’ve seen in a while and am just hoping that BBC Three will still attract viewers to their new online home as Life and Death Row series two needs to be seen by as many people as possible.

On a slightly lighter note BBC Three have also brought back Cuckoo, a sitcom that is still named after a character who flew off into the sunset after the show’s first series. I personally thought that Robin French and Kieran Quirke’s comedy improved during its second run thanks to Twilight star Taylor Lautner whose Dale replaced Andy Samberg’s irritating title character. I was surprised how good Lautner was in his role of the straight man up against Greg Davies’ frantic lawyer Ken as the two formed a perfect odd couple relationship. Oddly the third series of Cuckoo links back to One Child as we see Dale living in Shanghai and having to defend himself after conducting an illicit relationship with his boss’s daughter. Forced to return to Lichfield, Dale seeks sanctuary in the home of Ken and his pregnant wife Lorna (Helen Baxendale) the latter of whom is expecting her baby any day now. As we’re now on the third series of Cuckoo I do feel the cast are comfortable in each other’s company and therefore the chemistry between the main players is superb. Davies and Baxendale are especially believable as the central down-to-Earth couple even if they both struggle with their West Midlands accents from time to time. Lautner is also great in the role of the rather simple Dale however I’m not quite sure how much of a stretch it is for him to play a good-looking simpleton. Whilst the cast are on form, the material is sadly lacking and there were very few moments during this first episode of series three that actually raised more than a titter from me. In fact the central storyline, in which Ken dreaded the fact that he would have to go on paternity leave, to be quite old-fashioned. In fact the central joke that it would be beneath Ken to look after his child whilst his wife deigned to go back to work felt like something from another decade and felt especially dated when you consider that this series is one of the first to debut on the BBC’s new online platform. The final set piece, which involves Ken getting stuck in the hospital while Lorna gives birth, feels like something out of Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em rather than a contemporary sitcom aimed at a young audience. So, whilst the cast deserve some praise for working with what they’ve been given, overall the third series of Cuckoo hasn’t exactly got off to the best of starts which begs the question why it got brought back at all in the first place.

That’s your lot for now but remember you can follow me on Twitter @mattstvbites and I’ll return next week with more of the same. 

Matt Donnelly

Matt Donnelly


Made in Staffordshire, Matt is the co-editor of the site and co-host of The Custard TV Podcast. Matt has been writing about TV for over fifteen years and has written for the site for almost a decade. He's just realised this makes him a lot older than he thought he was.


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