Small town justice: Sarah Lancashire as Catherine Cawood in Happy Valley
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Lancashire in Yorkshire: Happy Valley, BBC1

The territory Sally Wainwright has made her own isn’t rarefied, arty or self-consciously gritty and relevant. 

Happy Valley

In this job, I watch an awful lot of first episodes – shows I review, deem to be awful and then avoid for the rest of their run. But I can’t wait for the second part of Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley (Tuesdays, 9pm). Wainwright (Last Tango in Halifax, Scott & Bailey) is that rare thing: a writer who makes me believe in her characters and situations so completely that I’m willing to forgive her taste for melodrama, her occasional over-reliance on coincidence. The territory she has made her own isn’t rarefied, arty or self-consciously gritty and – dread word – relevant. These are simply people you might know, dealing with problems you certainly recognise, in places that are two train journeys from London. Her plots have a soapy inexorability that belies their moral complexity and her dialogue is never anything less than peculiarly intimate and true.

Happy Valley is set in Calderdale, West Yorkshire, where the terraces look as if they’re made of burnt toast. Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) is a police sergeant in one of the area’s smaller towns – the nearby Todmorden is referred to wistfully as a metropolis – where she lives with her grandson, whose mother killed herself after being raped by the boy’s father. She is having an affair with her ex-husband, a newspaper reporter who has unaccountably bagged himself a hot, young wife and who has just brought her the very bad news that her daughter’s attacker, Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), has been released from prison. Will he return to the scene of his crime? She predicts that he is already just a few feet away, “like a rat”.

On the other side of town, a podgy, frustrated accountant called Kevin (Steve Pemberton) is pitching up at the static caravan where he and his disabled wife and their daughters spend their weekends. The caravan park is run by Ashley (Joe Armstrong), a local drug baron, and Kevin makes him an offer: why doesn’t Ashley kidnap the daughter of Kevin’s miserly boss and they can split the proceeds fifty-fifty? Ashley agrees, at which point we discover that one of the lads working for him is the unreformed Tommy Lee Royce. Boom! The two stories collide.

Wainwright is dealing with big, queasy dilemmas here but the set-up is hardly outlandish. These are the kinds of painfully human stories that used to fill the pages of the Daily Telegraph. What happens when a person’s life feels too small? What foolhardy steps might they take to make it feel a little bigger? And what is justice to the bereaved? Is it a balm or merely a sop? Wainwright knows what it means to be thwarted and she grasps both what money can do and what it can’t. She never flails about when it comes to her characters’ motivation; there is a consistency here that provides a natural set of brakes when the action threatens to spiral into daftness and mayhem.

The distractions of Channel 4’s Fargo aside – I keep waiting for Marge to appear, don’t you? – this has been a pretty good week for British TV. Happy Valley blazes like a rogue marigold on an overgrown allotment but I also enjoyed Prey on ITV (Mondays, 9pm), which is like The Fugitive, only with John Simm instead of David Janssen (and he plays a cop rather than a doctor). Episode one was exciting and horribly plausible, though how the series will bear the inevitable comparisons with the BBC2’s Line of Duty, only time will tell.

Hinterland (Mondays, 9pm), which began life on the Welsh-language channel S4C as Y Gwyll, isn’t the edgy Cambrian noir we were promised; we might as well have been watching Shetland or Vera, so well worn was the first episode’s plot (the evil matron of a repressive children’s home is murdered, possibly by a former charge). But I adore the owlish Richard Harrington as the Aberystwyth copper Tom Mathias and wish that BBC4 had opted to show the Welsh version of the series rather than a “bilingual” one that is mostly in English. “Rydych yn ddwyn, yn dod yn dawel!”* Those baffling consonants. How I long to hear them tumbling from the DCI’s unsmiling mouth.

*I hope this means: “You’re nicked, come quietly!” But I have a bad feeling (let’s blame Google Translate) that it’s: “You steal, be quiet!”

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Islam issue

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The filmmaker forcing the British Board of Film Classification to watch Paint Drying for hours on end

The film does what it says on the tin.

Would you watch paint dry for several hours? If you work for the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), you might not have much choice in the matter. As a protest against problems he sees within the organisation, British filmmaker and journalist Charlie Lyne has launched a Kickstarter to send the BBFC a film he’s made called Paint Drying. It does what it says on the tin: the film is a single, unbroken shot lasting several hours (its length is determined by the amount of money raised) of white paint slowly drying on a brick wall. Once Lyne has paid the fee, the board are obliged to watch it.

“I’ve been fascinated by the BBFC – and censorship in general – for ages, but it was only when I went to a BBFC open day earlier this year that I felt properly frustrated by the whole thing,” Lyne told me. “There was a lot of discussion that day about individual decisions the board had made, and whether they were correct, but no discussions whatsoever about whether the BBFC should have the kind of power it has in the first place.”

The 2003 Licencing Act imposes the following rules on cinemas in the UK: cinemas need licenses to screen films, which are granted by local authorities to the cinemas in their area. These licences include a condition requiring the admission of children to any film to normally be restricted in accordance with BBFC age ratings. This means that in order to be shown easily in cinemas across the country, films need an age rating certificate from the BBFC. This is where, for Lyne, problems begin: a certificate costs around £1,000 for a feature film of average length, which, he says, “can prove prohibitively expensive” for many independent filmmakers.

It’s a tricky point, because even Lyne acknowledges on his blog that “this is actually a very reasonable fee for the services rendered”. The BBFC pointed out to me that its income is “derived solely from the fees it charges for its services”. So is the main issue the cost, or the role he feels the BBFC play in censorship? The Kickstarter page points out that the BBFC's origins are hardly liberal on that front:

The British Board of Film Classification (previously known as the British Board of Film Censors) was established in 1912 to ensure films remained free of 'indecorous dancing', 'references to controversial politics' and 'men and women in bed together', amongst other perceived indiscretions. 

Today, it continues to censor and in some cases ban films, while UK law ensures that, in effect, a film cannot be released in British cinemas without a BBFC certificate.

It might be true “in effect”, but this is not a legal fact. The 2003 Licensing Act states, “in particular circumstances, the local authority can place their own restrictions on a film. Film distributors can always ask a local authority for a certificate for a film banned by the BBFC, or a local category for a film that the BBFC has not classified.” The BBFC point out that “film makers wishing to show their films at cinemas in the UK without a BBFC certificate may do so with permission from the local authority for the area in which the cinema is located.” There you have it – the BBFC does not have the absolute final word on what can be shown at your local Odeon.

While the BBFC cannot officially stop cinemas from showing films, they can refuse to categorise them in any category: something Lyne says mostly happens with “quite extreme horror films and pornography, especially feminist pornography made by people like Petra Joy and Pandora Blake, but it could just as easily be your favourite movie, or mine.” This makes large-scale release particularly difficult, as each individiual local authority would have to take the time and resources to overrule the decision. This means that, to get screened easily in cinemas, a film essentially needs a BBFC-approved rating. Lyne adds, “I think films should also be allowed to be released unrated, as they are in the US, so that independent filmmakers with no money and producers of niche, extreme content aren’t at the mercy of such an expensive, censorial system.”

Does he think Paint Drying can make that a possibility? “I realise this one small project isn’t going to completely revolutionise British film censorship or anything, but I hope it at least gets people debating the issue. The BBFC has been going for a hundred years, so it’s got tradition on its side, but I think it's important to remember how outraged we’d all be if an organisation came along tomorrow and wanted to censor literature, or music. There's no reason film should be any different.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.