No-one does grief and resentment like Sarah Lancashire. (See Last Tango in Halifax, BBC One 2012, series 3, episodes 3 & 4). After Happy Valley this sterling actor can add loathing, despair and massive disappointment to her CV. Indeed, no-one in Happy Valley experiences much of anything else. The West Yorkshire grit, damp, poverty, addiction, disease, treachery and crime with which they all live is made palpable and visceral in this most excellent 3 series show. The only person to escape the poverty bit at least, is the one rich man in the village (see The Vicar of Dibley) – but that’s all he escapes. He is, unfortunately for him, offhand with his business accountant (Steve Pemberton**) who is boiling with inner rage. And the happy little valley implodes.
Police sergeant Catherine Cawood (Lancashire) lives with her hapless sister Clare (Siobhan Finneran) and her grandson Ryan (played both as a child and a teen by Rhys Connah – series 1 being released in 2014, series 2 in 2016 and series 3 a cool 7 years later). Her relationship with Ryan is the pivot of the whole series and it is admirably difficult. Aspects of Ryan’s parentage which would be glossed over and sweetened in a lesser series are exposed here, riddling Catherine’s softer feelings for him like a cancer. At times, she says, she “can’t even bear to look at him”.
Cawood detests, hates and abominates the local psychopath Tommy-Lee Royce, (James Norton) for good reason. Norton is excellent. OK he’s not up there with Ben Mendelssohn as Pope in Animal Kingdom (Australia, 2010) (the most terrifying movie psychopath of all time)*** but he’s doing his best. Royce is sadistic, self-pitying, and utterly without conscience, compassion or morals. There can be no sympathy for or empathy with Royce, but it’s not difficult to imagine how he got to be as he is (the argument about nature and nurture is an important aspect of Happy Valley). Many of the miserable sods who grew up in the benighted place jump off bridges, self-immolate, overdose or hang themselves. It’s just quicker than waiting around for further abduction, captivity, incest, treachery ,corpse mutilation, crushing, shooting, beating, stabbing, throat slitting and stalking.
Happy Valley is hypnotising and unmissable – because of the misery, not in spite of it. There are flaws – Royce becomes one of those unstoppable, astoundingly resourceful super villains who are ultimately less frightening. His obsession with Sgt. Cawood is not quite believable. A psychopath is, surely, more like to tire of a difficult target and move onto lower hanging fruit. There are a few unlikely coincidences. A massive betrayal which goes undetected for years is hard to believe. Some of the dialogue is hard to hear.**** But life is like that sometimes Reflect on that and watch Happy Valley if you are feeling sorry for yourself.