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
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

MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES
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Why Prince wanted to make his listeners feel inadequate

Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals.

Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, by Ben Greenman
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £17.99

During his mid-Eighties imperial phase, stretching from the eruption of “When Doves Cry” to the corruption of “Alphabet St”, Prince was a global object of desire: hyper-talented, cool, funny and charming. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to have him or be him. Have him or be him, covetousness or envy – those two reactions are more than a little negative. And more than a little negative is how I felt about both Prince and Ben Greenman when I got to the end of Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, a book as cumbersome as its title. Published a year after his death, it didn’t make me hate Prince as much as Blake Bailey’s monumental takedown Cheever: a Life made me despise John Cheever, but it came close.

The Prince we meet in anecdotes and legal depositions from both before and after his imperial phase is cranky, petty-minded and grasping. This may be because Greenman, who contributes to the New Yorker and has assisted George Clinton and Brian Wilson with their memoirs, is a much more entertaining writer when ripping Prince to bits than when attempting to build a shrine from his mortal remains. Here Greenman is, in flat-footed praise mode yet inadvertently dissing his subject: “From Stevie Wonder, he took mastery. From David Bowie, he took mystery. All of these influences were ingested and digested until Prince, nourished, went about making something new.” Follow that metaphor through and Prince’s “something new” can only be faecal.

But here is Greenman criticising the fall-from-grace album Graffiti Bridge. “The only thing holding back these epics from unconditional greatness is their poor aerodynamics,” he writes. “They’re like ­giant whiteboards filled with flow charts and equations: diagrams of how to make a Prince song work at top speed without actually working at top speed.” That simile, of subsonic flying whiteboards, is ridiculous but accurate – and captures something of what Prince is like when he is his diagrammatic rather than his funky self.

There are great insights here. Some are offhand, such as, “What is Purple Rain, the movie, but an argument for collaboration?” Others are more laboured but worthwhile as mini-obituaries: “Prince was a flamboyant star with a penchant for intellectual ­exploration, but he was also a sly comedian, a critic of existing soul music stereotypes, and a massive egomaniac.”

Elsewhere, the prose is pretentious, bathetic and nonsensical in equal measure. Of Prince’s alter ego Camille, ­Greenman writes, “This pitch-shifted version of Prince hovered between male and female and, in the process, cracked open previously conventional issues of power, sexuality, ego and
id.” Clearly, Prince/Camille had no issue with the superego – or, at least, didn’t feel the need to hover and in the process crack it.

By the end, I felt that this book was a fitting monument to Prince: glib and unsatisfying. When I listen to his music, I feel that something is being taken from me rather than given. At best, I end a song such as “Kiss” feeling disburdened, floating, freer; at worst, I feel hungry, swizzed, abused. And I think this is deliberate. Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals. Making them feel inadequate was the whole point.

There is a clip of him performing Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” with three members of the band. Each time the chorus comes up and everyone in the room sings, “I-i am everyday people,” you can see Prince struggling to join in, because he’s thinking, “You may be, but I’m not.”

I don’t doubt that the latter-day Prince could be a magnificent performer. The fewer musicians he had with him, the better he got. Fans left his concerts feeling that they’d been at the greatest gig in their life, but Prince was the inventor of the after-show after-show. For super-fans, there was always another gig at a smaller, more obscure venue, starting at three or five o’clock in the morning. Just when it looked like he could give no more, it turned out – wearyingly – that he was inexhaustible. There was always more of the same. More 15-minute funk jams. More cheeky covers intended to prove that Prince was a more talented musician than the songs’ composers, because he could insert a half-diminished seventh chord where they’d strummed E minor. Worst of all, there were more and more muso excursions into 1970s fusion. It’s a fundamental question: if Prince was such a great musician, why did he play such God-awful jazz?

In the end, as a fan who had adored every­thing he did up to Lovesexy, I became angry with him and stopped listening. So did Greenman: “When I started working on this book, I promised myself that I would listen only to Prince’s music. I had enough to last me months. But about six weeks in, the Prince-only diet started to feel claustrophobic and maybe even a little ghoulish . . .” What Greenman found, I think, is that in Prince’s musical world the space gets perpetually smaller, because ultimately all the singer wants you to concentrate on is his self-aggrandisement. It’s fitting that Prince kept his unreleased recordings in “the vault” – a place for miserly hoarding of surplus value.

The ghoulishness of the Prince diet is that it gives no proper nourishment. It’s there in the lyrics to one of his offhand masterpieces: “Starfish and coffee/Maple syrup and jam/Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine/And a side order of ham”. This isn’t soul food. You’ll be hungry an hour later.

Greenman’s most revealing footnote – about himself and about his subject – concerns another creepy, slave-driving manufacturer of confectionery. “The movie side of Warner Bros had [in the early 1990s] just acquired the rights to remake Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory . . . Prince, I thought, would be perfect for the part . . . I wrote a long letter to Warner making the case but was too shy to send it.”

In this book, that long letter is finally delivered. Prince was a perfect Wonka. 

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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