Tuesday sees the start of a fantastic new six-part drama on BBC ONE The series, entitled Happy Valley centres around policewoman Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire). Catherine is the sergeant on duty when flustered and nervous accountant Kevin Weatherill (Steve Pemberton) comes into her West Yorkshire police station to report a crime. He’s reticent about the details and Kevin loses his nerve. The crime he was trying to report was Kevin’s own brain-child, a plot to kidnap his boss’s daughter and keep enough of the ransom to put his kids through private school.
And now local drug king-pin Ashley Cowgill (Joe Armstrong) has put the plan into action, and Kevin’s fantasy has become a grim and dangerous reality. The botched kidnapping of Ann Gallagher (Charlie Murphy) and its fallout unfolds…
Writer Sally Wainwright, who recently won BAFTAs for her hugely successful BBC1 drama Last Tango In Halifax, is keen to stress that, although the main character is a policewoman it is not a crime drama. I spoke to Sally about where the series came from and her recent successes.
With your work on Last Tango in Halifax and Scott & Bailey, where did you find the time to write Happy Valley?
Well I’m not actually doing Scott & Bailey anymore. They had the read-through this week and I wasn’t there. I’m still an executive on the series but I’ve handed it over to other writers.
How does it feel having to hand over a successful show like Scott & Bailey to new writers?
One one level it feels very strange not to be as hands on, but on the other hand I’ve done three series and I think it’s good to know when to move on from things too.
How did Happy Valley come about?
The BBC asked me what I wanted to do next and they wanted me to do something police related following the success of Last Tango and Scott & Bailey. I really wanted to write something else for Sarah Lancashire too. I saw a documentary called Shed Your Tears and Walk Away which was about the problem of drugs in and around the Calder Valley and they had a big influence on me, so it was a mixture of things really.
Were you concerned that the title might give off the wrong message to the audience?
I hope it doesn’t. I’m starting to worry because people keep asking me that (laughs). I hope once they see it they’ll understand the irony. of it. The Calder Valley is a beautiful place to live in I grew up there. The police call it Happy Valley because of the drugs problem.
It’s not a traditional crime drama is it?
No. Sarah’s the lead but it’s very much an ensemble piece. It’s about Sarah’s character’s whole life really, and a tragic thing that has happened to her in the past which comes back into play due to events in the present. It’s not a cop show, it’s more of a psychological portrait of who this character is.
How similar are you to Catherine?
I think Catherine is an example of the kind of person I’d probably like to be. She’s very heroic, she’s very selfless and very generous. She’s a very decent human being.
You said you wrote this part for Sarah. Does that make it easier for you to write the character?
Yes. I often write with people in mind. It does make it easier because you can picture them saying the lines. Occasionally I will write a character without someone in mind but on the whole I like to have a clear image of who that person is. I’m very visual when I’m writing so it might just be someone I know in real life. So it certainly helps.
Did Sarah live up to expectations?
Absolutely. I’ve been absolutely blown away by her. She worked so hard. The performance she’s given is breathtaking, it’s so compelling to watch.
The dialogue is very naturalistic. Is that something you have to work at?
I think the ability to write dialogue is a bit like being able to draw, it’s just something that some people can do. We all speak but very few of us can actually reproduce it. I think it’s an ability you’re born with. For me writing naturalistic dialogue and creating characters comes very easily, but creating a story is often the most difficult part. The biggest thing for me is working on good solid structure and making sure there’s lots and lots of storyline and lots and lots of plot twists to keep the audience engaged.
How did Steve Pemberton come to be involved?
I was delighted when he signed on. I’ve wanted to work with Steve for ages. I’ve been a big fan of his since The League of Gentlemen. We did audition that part and saw a lot people but Steve just really stood out. Kevin is a hard character to get right and Steve did so well getting across the vulnerability and the humanity in the character. Kevin isn’t a bad man. His motivation for doing this terrible thing he does is selfless. It’s for his wife and children.
As far as the villain of piece, how hard was he to cast?
Well Tommy’s a difficult character to get right. We saw loads of people for the part but they tried too hard. They might as well have had psychopath tattooed on their forehead. James (actor James Norton) didn’t do that. He came in and was really quiet, calm and relaxed. He played it like a boy who had never really grown up. It was a really inspiring audition.
There’s a lot going on in the series. You’ve got Anne’s kidnap, Kevin’s panic and Catherine trying to deal with her grief. What is the most important storyline for you?
I think the whole series is about Catherine’s physiological journey. When we first meet the character she’s eight years on from the death of her daughter and she’s quite robust and appears to have got her life back together. It’s about her past coming back to haunt her when she finds out that Tommy’s been released from prison. Whatever’s happening it all revolves around Catherine.
It feels very similar in tone to your 2009 series Unforgiven.
It does. This has a real heart at the centre of it like Unforgiven had. Much like Unforgiven this is about good people dealing with the darker things in life. I think we have to dramatise the darker things in life sometimes to show how heroic and resilient people can be.
You actually got to direct one of the episodes. How did you find that?
I’ve wanted to direct for years and years and years. I wanted to direct Unforgiven but I had no experience. I got to the stage where I didn’t want to write anything else and have to hand it over to someone else to direct. I had to do that with the first block because writing and directing are very time consuming. I directed episode four and I’m very pleased with it. When you write you’re on your own. When you direct you’re with this big group of wonderfully talented people. It’s one of the most stimulating things I’ve ever done.
How do you feel about all the success you’ve had with Last Tango in Halifax?
It’s been a really positive experience. It’s a really happy show to work on with the most lovely cast and crew. I used to get really depressed writing Scott & Bailey just because of the nature of the show, but with Last Tango it was like walking into the sunshine. I’m really proud of it.
Do you get much time to actually watch TV?
To be honest I went off TV for a while because I felt there was nothing on that was aimed at me and my age group. Since I’ve got an Ipad I’ve started a lot more TV! (Laughs). I try and keep up with the big 9pm dramas.
I am freelance so I can work with anyone but I do tend to stick with Nicola. Partly because she’s based in the north, but largely because I think we have a very good relationship. I think we know each other very well. I think Nicola is incredibly clever and if you’ve got a script you’ve got to take it to a production company you know is going to do it justice.
Happy Valley starts Tuesday 29th April at 9.00pm on BBC ONE.