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3 January 2023

Happy Valley is back – and still richer and deeper than any other police procedural

Sarah Lancashire’s performance is marvellous in Sally Wainwright’s small town saga.

By Rachel Cooke

Some shows are highly anticipated, others passionately longed for. The return of Sally Wainwright’s magnificent Happy Valley, seven years after the last series screened, is an event I thought would never happen. Didn’t Sarah Lancashire say her role as Sergeant Catherine Cawood had taken too high a toll on her? But still I pined for it. Lancashire’s marvellous performance aside, its excitements are so much richer and deeper than those of its nearest rivals – it is a family/small town saga as much as it is a police procedural – and I adore its sense of place. The singular topography of the part of West Yorkshire in which it is set is as important to the way it works as its closely drawn characters. The houses in Happy Valley, built of local sandstone, induce in me an ache that is close to homesickness. The terrace I grew up in looked just like them, smoke and the decades having turned its exterior, too, to the colour of burned toast.

Seven years is a long time, and part of me wishes I’d watched the first two series again before this one began. But while Cawood is now only months from retirement – she has bought an old Land Rover in which she plans to drive to the Himalayas – her life for the moment remains recognisably the same, each day bringing with it that unrelenting combination of warmth and grind that accounts for her unnatural stoicism, the sense we have of her invincibility. Those around her are doing OK. Her grandson, Ryan (Rhys Connah), is 16 and, though a terrible goalie, seems to be happy. Her sister, Clare (Siobhan Finneran), is still sober, and still seeing Neil (Con O’Neill). And Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), the man she blames for the death of her daughter, Becky, and who is Ryan’s biological father, is still safely in prison.

Nor has her job changed. Her superiors are still “twats”, and she still attends call-outs alone (the one thing about Happy Valley that has always struck me as unconvincing). In the mill towns of the Calder Valley, life for many is still a struggle: in this series, prescription drugs have replaced heroin as the escape hatch of choice, pills whose distribution is controlled by gangs and those dodgy pharmacists they’re able to blackmail and bully. Not that it’s any wonder people are in the market for diazepam. Quotidian miseries lurk behind every door, even those on the nice executive estates, where gleaming hatchbacks are parked on steep drives. Cawood suspects Ryan’s PE teacher is coercively controlling his wife, and not only because he calls the police when he finds her stash of blister packs. Her upper arms are all thumb prints; her fridge has a lock on it, installed by her husband who wants his “girls” – they have two daughters – to learn about food. (This last detail, at once workaday and horrifying, is textbook Wainwright.)

I’m wary of spoilers. Suffice to say that Tommy, now sporting a man-bun and a line of yellow-green stitches across a wound on his forehead, may be on manoeuvres; a photo of Ryan, who has always longed for the forbidden fruit that is his father, sits in his cell at HMP Sheffield, a city not so very far away from Sowerby Bridge. Norton is great as Royce. It’s tempting to overact if you’re playing a psychopath, and he never does. If Royce is repellent, he also has a deadly, laconic charm. That creeping, self-satisfied smile of his; it disconcerts even the weariest and most cynical of coppers.

But even Norton is no match for Lancashire, who inhabits her character as if this is the role of her life (perhaps it is). At the beginning of this series, Cawood is called to a reservoir where a body has been found, a scene that in Lancashire’s hands is an acting masterclass. She moves slowly, feet squelching in mud, ever unperturbed, and into a canister she casually shines her torch, as if she’s looking for a stray cat not the severed legs of a human being. Her stillness is incredible, a drama in itself. And then the men arrive, all overconfidence and banter. Screwing up all of her  frustration and wit like a ball, she saves it for the moment when Detective Superintendent Andy Shepherd (Vincent Franklin) openly patronises her, as he inevitably will, and she can chuck back it in his face. She knows more than him, but she also knows that timing is everything. Hold, hold. Wait until he’s in full flight before you go ahead and embarrass the sexist fool.

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This article appears in the 04 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Sunak Under Siege