I’m not in the business of denying that the sky is blue, so before I say anything else, let me be clear: I think Happy Valley is a supremely well-acted, well-paced and compelling show. Like 7.5 million other Brits, I tuned into the crime drama’s season finale in early February from the edge of my seat. In the days after the credits rolled, I missed the authentic characters and the true-to-life, mug-clutching chats they had in their cluttered kitchen. I crammed all three series of the show into my eyeballs in little more than a week – I get it. It’s good telly.
But I’m not in the business of denying the sky is blue! I also think that Happy Valley is some of the most conservative television I’ve watched in recent years – both small and big “c”. It’s a show that reassures you: don’t worry, the accountant who orchestrated the kidnapping of a young woman is now being raped in prison! It’s a show with an antiquated, hard-line stance on any and all drug use. And, above all, it is abject copaganda.
Am I being reductive? “Copaganda” refers to excessively positive, unnuanced portrayals of the police as good guys with guns – it is the simplistic, one-dimensional stuff we see in shows like Law & Order. Meanwhile, Happy Valley’s hardy northern protagonist, Catherine Cawood, is an extremely flawed, psychologically scarred woman (woman!) working with often incompetent, corrupt and even murderous colleagues. The police system as a whole does not emerge from the show looking stellar.
But Cawood is our One Good Apple and the show is her hagiography. In the show’s final four minutes – on Cawood’s very last day, the final four minutes of her career! – she solves the murder of a local woman, passing on the final piece of evidence in a cool, offhand monologue and leaving her colleague gasping in “she’s done it again!” disbelief. While Cawood is portrayed as a deeply flawed grandmother, mother and sister, she is all too often a superhero cop, capable of sniffing out the significance of every coincidence and successfully identifying half a skeleton based on one glance at its decomposing teeth. Bar her gender, Cawood is the same stereotypically tough, troubled but ultimately effective officer we’ve seen on telly for the past 50 years – and crucially, like all of her predecessors, she is always ready to break the rules when necessary.
And this is where it all falls apart – when the show celebrates Cawood’s rough justice approach to the people she calls “scrotes”. Take the time when she crushed the genitals of a member of the public who sang at her mockingly, warning him there were no CCTV cameras watching. Or the time when she marched a teen skunk dealer out of school, shoved him roughly by the head into her police car and berated him with her nose in his face. Or the time she was accused of racist bullying, scoffed about it not being on a par with sexual harassment and called the bullied officer a “f***ing idiot” for making a complaint.
Now, you might say, I’ve disproven my own thesis – look, see, she is a flawed copper who takes things too far! She isn’t a saint who we are supposed to adore! To which I say: I wish I had your faith in the British public.
“We need a Catherine Cawood in every town,” said Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, a week after the Happy Valley finale, in a speech in which she promised Labour would fund thousands of new neighbourhood police officers like Cawood. Though the character may be fictional, she said, the “police officers like Catherine who know their communities, who pick up the things that everyone else misses to solve crimes and keep people safe, are very real. And we need more of them.”
Google “Happy Valley review” and the first thing you’ll see, under five bright yellow stars, is the opinion of a bloke named William: “There must be some secret place in the BBC that wokes haven’t been able to penetrate. This series is woke‑free and is one of the best TV shows in a long, long time.” On Twitter, over 5,000 people have liked a post that begins, “Dear Catherine Cawood, thank you for beating up scrotes.”
Perhaps it’s unfair to judge the show on how it was received – instead we should look at how it was intended. Sally Wainwright, its writer, told Variety that she had made “heroes of the police” in her ITV police procedural Scott & Bailey and the first two seasons of Happy Valley. The third season was broadcast this year after a seven-year hiatus, and Wainwright said that the well-publicised police crimes against Sarah Everard, Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry made her question her approach.
“It does makes me question my decision to make heroes of the police,” she said, “but not police women, because my experience of police women is that they are often very different.”
Are our memories so short? It hasn’t yet been two years since Cressida Dick, the head of the Metropolitan Police, refused to resign when her officers breached the human rights of protesters by breaking up a vigil for Everard. Less than a year ago she was forced to resign, in part it has now been revealed because of Met errors around the serial rapist officer David Carrick. And I am deeply insulted by the idea that anyone can be immune to the powerfully corrupting influence of a uniform and an institution simply because they have a vagina. Google “female police officer charged” and you’ll find stories of domestic violence, drink driving and a sexual assault on a young boy.
Perhaps Wainwright did tone down her praise of the police in season three and, yes, perhaps Happy Valley is not PR for the institution as a whole. But I don’t think it needs to be to be thoroughly effective copaganda. In recent years even the most authority-loving among us have had their eyes opened to police abuses of power – the One Good Apple narrative is the only way pro-police messaging can survive today in a country where Everard’s name is known in every household.
That makes Happy Valley’s copaganda more sophisticated, but no less insidious than the copaganda of the past. I’m wary of it precisely because I think it’s so effective. In a tense season one scene in which Cawood rescued a rape victim from a basement, I found myself wishing she had a gun, wishing she would shoot Tommy Lee Royce, the rapist, to smithereens. Needless to say this is not how I feel about real policing. In the coming year Happy Valley may yet win more awards and acclaim, but we should not celebrate our police force alongside it. We should question a show that leaves politicians and the public longing for our streets to be populated by rough and ready officers, chasing down “scrotes and druggies and nutters”.