9 reasons you should be watching Happy Valley
Matthew Turner | On 10, Jul 2016
Season 3 premieres on 1st January 2023.
Wherever you were in May 2014, it’s a cast-iron certainty that at some point you heard a variation on the phrase, “Oh my goodness, did you see Happy Valley last night?” The first season of the BBC drama gripped the nation and became a huge hit with audiences and critics alike, with a second, equally well-received season following in February 2016.
Happily, if you missed it the first time around, Season 1 and 2 are now available to stream. Here are nine reasons you should be watching.
1. It’s a masterclass in writing, directing and acting
Written and created by Sally Wainwright (Last Tango in Halifax), with episodes directed by Wainwright, Euros Lyn and Tim Fywell, the show initially begins as a somewhat comic crime caper, as disgruntled employee Kevin Weatherill (The League of Gentlemen’s Steve Pemberton) ropes in local thug Ashley Cowgill (Joe Armstrong) to kidnap the daughter (Charlie Murphy) of his boss, Nevison Gallagher (George Costigan). However, things take a much darker turn when Cowgill ropes in his psychotic employee, Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), and the plot spirals out of control. The ensuing twists and turns exert a grip that gets progressively tighter, so that you’re practically gasping for breath by the time the final episode arrives.
2. Catherine Cawood is one of the all-time great TV characters
The show’s central character is Police Sergeant Catherine Cawood, played by Sarah Lancashire, who’s fast approaching national treasure status. In time-honoured fashion, Cawood has plenty to deal with outside of her police work: divorced from her husband, she lives with her recovering alcoholic-slash-heroin addict sister Clare (Siobhan Finneran) and is raising her grandson Ryan (Rhys Connah) after the tragic death of her daughter, Becky, who was involved with Tommy Lee Royce. Aside from her highly skilled police work, Cawood is a fascinating character, combining deep and touching compassion with steely reserves of toughness that would put Clint Eastwood to shame.
3. It’s so much more than a crime drama
Make no mistake, the crime drama element of Happy Valley is utterly compelling and beautifully orchestrated throughout. However, the skill of Wainwright’s writing is that it also manages to give equal emotional weight to the family drama aspect, subtly revealing deep and painful layers of guilt and grief within Catherine’s family. Similarly, Wainwright finds complex reserves of sympathy for Pemberton’s character, even though it’s his greed and anger that sets the horrific events in motion in the first place.
4. It passes the Bechdel Test with flying colours
One of the key pleasures of Happy Valley is the time it spends on the various female relationships on the show, particularly the bond between Catherine and Clare, who frequently spend time huddled together in the back garden, smoking fags, drinking tea (you could play a great drinking game with the amount of tea consumed on this show) and, well, talking like real people, rather than TV characters. The Bechdel Test adherence is further enforced by Catherine’s conversations with her female work colleagues, notably her protegee Kirsten McAskill (Sophie Rundell).
5. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, with a heart as big as all outdoors
Thankfully, Wainwright balances the unbearable levels of suspense with plentiful moments of warm-hearted humour that is rooted in character. Finneran and Lancashire’s every interaction is a delight to watch and Catherine has a wicked way with a one-liner. “He can send himself to paradise – that’s his choice,” she says, when dealing with someone threatening to set themselves on fire, “but he’s not taking my eyebrows with him.”
6. It also delivers powerful, heart-in-mouth suspense and genuine terror
To give away any actual details would be enormously unfair, but let’s just say there’s a reason Happy Valley became the sort of show everyone was talking about at work the next day. Also, James Norton’s Tommy Lee Royce is a truly monstrous piece of work – at a certain point, Wainwright reveals exactly what he’s capable of and once that happens you’ll be terrified at the thought of what he might do next.
7. The plot is full of surprises
Again, it would be churlish to reveal the details, but it’s fair to say that the show eschews the expected clichés of conventional crime drama and goes to some very dark, very unexpected places. Similarly, nothing is ever cut and dried – the villains (even Tommy Lee Royce) are damaged, rather than out-and-out evil and the heroes (even Catherine) are often flawed and make their fair share of mistakes. In other words, everyone on the show is recognisably human, for better or worse.
8. It does for Yorkshire what The Wire did for Baltimore
According to the internet, the name “Happy Valley” is what local police in West Yorkshire’s Calder Valley call the area because of its drug problem. To that end, the show makes a great virtue of its setting, with the stunning natural beauty of the surrounding landscape set against the warts-and-all portrayal of the community, from the prostitutes and drug addicts on the street corners right up through to the land-owners and businessmen like Nevison Gallagher (whose tight-fisted unwillingness to give Weatherill a raise sets the whole plot in motion). Similarly, just as The Wire indulged in Baltimore street-slang, Happy Valley revels in its authentic Yorkshire accents and dialect, as well as adding extra realism with genuine police terminology like “H-MIT” (Halifax Murder Investigation Team), and “hobby bobbies” (special constables).
9. It has a cracking theme tune
All the best TV shows have great theme tunes and Happy Valley is no exception. The song used for the credits is Trouble Town by Jake Bugg and it fits perfectly, to the point where you’ll find yourself singing along every week. Altogether now: “Stuck in speedbump city / where the only thing that’s pretty / is the thought of getting out”.