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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. 

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

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!”