British television, whose tsars seem not to care much for planning ahead, has a pretty bad track record when it comes to the recommissioning of hits. So it was with slightly sweaty palms and a mild sense of doom that I sat down to watch the first part of the second series of Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley (Tuesdays, 9pm, BBC1). I knew it would be OK: Wainwright, at her zenith as a writer, couldn’t turn out dross if she tried. But, still. Could it ever match the sombre brilliance of its first outing? How would the series maintain its astonishing sense of jeopardy with Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton) safely behind bars?
As it turns out, Wainwright has given Royce the rapist a proxy in the form of Frances Drummond (Shirley Henderson), a creepy woman who visits him in prison and appears to be in love with him. Perhaps he is going to move her around his old stamping grounds from afar, or perhaps she, off her own bat, is going to exact “revenge” on his behalf on Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire), the police officer who finally caught him. Either way, it’s not going to be pretty.
Even without this connection to what went before, the new series would still be a triumph. Happy Valley’s intricate plots and subplots aren’t the only reason for its success. Wainwright’s tendency to melodrama – as well as the sinister Frances, the new series comes with a crazed perfume saleswoman called Vicky (Amelia Bullmore), who is blackmailing an ex-lover who just happens to be a detective in Catherine’s nick – is always tempered by the unity of her vision, by the way she somehow tethers everything, no matter how wild or extreme, to humdrum reality. Happy Valley comes with an exceptionally vivid sense of place; unnervingly naturalistic dialogue; humour that’s coal black; and an almost 19th-century sense of the endless filigree connections that exist between people who grew up together in a small town. Lots of TV shows do some of these things some of the time. But very few do them all, all of the time.
Among the many human frailties Wainwright seems instinctively to understand is the often pitiful nature of our longing for love. How feeble it makes us, and how stupid. The first episode of the new series was fat with revelation: Catherine discovered a decaying body; DC John Wadsworth (Kevin Doyle, in wonderfully shifty form) discovered that Vicky had compromising pictures of him; Royce discovered, courtesy of a terrified chaplain, that his mother had died.
But however much heat these scenes gave off, they weren’t half so quietly powerful as the moment when Catherine’s sister, Clare (Siobhan Finneran), a recovering junkie, bumped into Neil Ackroyd (Con O’Neill), a boy she’d known at school. She was pleased to see him, and he was, apparently, pleased to see her, but even as she glowed, having asked him round for tea, you felt uneasy. The invitation was too easily given, and too easily accepted, and she talked of him too enthusiastically afterwards, as if she was a teenager again. Clare’s vulnerability and her girlish selfishness are inseparable, and they make her silly sometimes – and yet Wainwright knows better than to spell this out. She never tells. She only ever shows. My hunch is that some of her characters come with backstories she knows she’ll never reveal to us, the viewers. But she makes them up all the same, chasing authenticity.
The casting is peerless. These are supremely talented actors and, thanks to Wainwright, no one has to work to make a dud line sound convincing. But Lancashire still stands out, blazing over the cobbles in her high-vis jacket and bulky stab vest, folding herself into a plastic chair for a fag and a shaggy-dog story. Her performance is so committed, so generous, so utterly lacking in vanity. When she wandered down a hilly backstreet to tell a couple of junkie prostitutes to look after themselves – there’s a weirdo on the loose – I couldn’t get over the low-key tenderness she put into her voice. In her hand was a bag of sandwiches, which she duly handed out. Impossible to believe, I thought, that this had come courtesy of props: that she hadn’t just dashed, on the spur of the moment, into Tesco herself.
This article appears in the 10 Feb 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle