Happy Valley

February 26, 2016


Sarah Lancashire is so phenomenal as Sgt Catherine Cawood in Happy Valley that you manage to get almost the whole way through the first season before you realise that it’s her performance- and not the storytelling, which makes it such an absorbing watch.

For there’s nothing new to see here, really.

A female Bobby lives with a recovering drug addict sister, a grandson born of rape and the ghost of his mother- her daughter, who hung herself six weeks after his birth.

The charred embers of her marriage are prone to reignite, but her husband has remarried a younger woman, and their son doesn’t talk to her much, anymore.

Death and decay rot the fabric of the picturesque northern village that is her beat. From the corruption in her department-where higher ups cover for even further ups, to the drug cartels that supply the junkies wigging out on the local playgrounds, there’s a circular sense of futility to the work she and her squad are left to do.

The local newspaper has closed, parents search for an out for their kids, and twinned families mirror the fate of the town as they frame the first season’s narrative. The matriarchs are succumbing to cancer and MS, and the fathers are twisted by envy and self-preservation.

The return of her daughter’s rapist kick starts a kidnap plot featuring Irish actress Charlie Murphy who sobs, snivels and snots her way through captivity, as her father is duped by his accountant, who is, himself, being strong-armed by the heavies he hired to carry out the abduction.

For reasons poorly drawn, the police aren’t told till the midway point that the kidnap has even taken place. And nothing that happens in relation to this area of the plot will refresh a genre that has been entered more times than an offie on Paddy’s Day.

But the complexities of how her daughter’s actions have upended Catherine’s world are much more intriguing. The questions that scream out from the distressed silence make you wish writer Sally Wainwright delved more into to that and let the weaker perpetrators and victims remain a mystery. Cawood, herself, is a fascinating enough character to hold our attention, and Lancashire’s performance elevates her to being one of the best characters on TV right now.

Regardless, the violence is credible, it’s ably directed and almost journalistic in its ability to shock. Happy Valley is a microcosm for a dog eat dog world, and the battering Cawood gets trying to buck it’s self-serving twirl, results in the horrifying bruises that lie above and beneath her skin. Its etched on her face, and worn into her voice. A chaotic maelstrom of guilt and guts, just watching Lancashire eat is more memorable than watching the rest of the cast pitch up in emotional hysterics.

Few of the them, beyond Siobhan Finneran as Catherine’s sister Claire, compensate for how unconvincing and uninteresting the central crime is. What little is in the script for the actors to work with is overlooked for a more general type of acting, where parts are played as types rather than as nuanced human beings. *

Season Two started on BBC One last Tuesday, and many of last season’s characters are poorly woven into this season’s mystery. After a fascinating, and surreal prologue, about how the attempted murder of a sheep results in the death of a load of mutts, a body is discovered in a garage, kick starting a hunt for a serial killer with a taste for local sex workers.

There are subplots involving a bunny boiling extortionist and a twisted devotee of the returning villain Tommy Lee Royce. But everything that occurs away from Lancashire is tired, predictable and uninteresting.

It’s the exceptional lead performance that makes Happy Valley such appointment viewing and it more than compensates for the shows many, many flaws.

*It must be noted that Kevin Doyle, as a detective being bribed by his recently dumped mistress, is encumbered with a dreadful storyline but gives a phenomenally subtle turn.Watch him in the mortuary scene in episode 3.

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