Small town justice: Sarah Lancashire as Catherine Cawood in Happy Valley
Show Hide image

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
BBC1

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

Iain Cameron
Show Hide image

Meet Scotland's 300-year-old snow patch, the Sphinx

Snow patch watchers expect it to melt away by the weekend. 

This weekend, Scotland's most resilient snow patch, dubbed Sphinx, is expected to melt away. The news has been met with a surprising outpouring of emotion and nationwide coverage. Even The Financial Times covered the story with the headline "The end is nigh for Britain's last snow". The story has also gone international, featuring in radio reports as far away as New Zealand.

So what is it about Sphinx that has captured the public’s imagination?  Some have suggested it could be symbolic. The Sphinx represents how we all feel, helpless and doomed to a fate determined by leaders like Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. 

Regular contributors to the Facebook page “Snow Patches in Scotland”  have their own, more prosaic theories. One tells me that the British are “generally a bit obsessed with weather and climate”, while another says snow-patches are "more interesting than anything Trump/May/Boris or Vladimir have to say”.

Those more interested in patches of snow than the existential consequences of international relations could be dismissed as having seriously skewed priorities, but there's more to the story of Sphinx than lies on the surface. 

For a start it's thought to be 300 years old, covering a small square of the Cairngorms for centuries with just six brief interruptions. Last time the Sphinx disappeared was 11 years ago. Though it may melt away this weekend, it is expected to be back by winter. 

Iain Cameron, the man who set up the Facebook page "Snow Patches in Scotland" and someone who has recorded and measured snow patches since he was a young boy, says that Sphinx has shrunk to the size of a large dinner table and he expects it will have melted entirely by this Saturday.

It came close to disappearing in 2011 as well, he adds. In October of that year, Sphinx at around its current size and only a heavy snowstorm revived it.

"They tend to keep the same shape and form every year," Cameron tells me. "It might sound weird to say, but it’s like seeing an elderly relative or an old friend. You’re slightly disappointed if it’s not in as good a condition."

But why has Sphinx survived for so long? The patch of land that Sphinx lies above faces towards the North East, meaning it is sheltered from the elements by large natural formations called Corries and avoids the bulk of what sunlight northern Scotland has to offer. 

It also sits on a bid of soil rather than boulder-fields, unlike the snow patches on Britain's highest mountain Ben Nevis. Boulder-fields allow air through them, but the soil does not, meaning the Sphinx melts only from the top.

Cameron is hesistant to attribute the increased rate of Sphinx's melting to climate change. He says meterologists can decide the causes based on the data which he and his fellow anoraks (as he calls them) collect. 

That data shows that over the past 11 years since Sphinx last melted it has changed size each year, not following any discernable pattern. “There is no rhyme or reason because of the vagaries of the Scottish climate," says Cameron.

One thing that has changed is Sphinx's title is no longer quite so secure. There is another snow patch in near Ben Nevis vying for the position of the last in Scotland. Cameron says that it is 50:50 as to which one will go first.